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This is partially a request for opinion, and partially a request for statistics.

For a very long time, Meta Stack Exchange has suffered from a problem where a lot of users ask blatantly off-topic questions here, such as programming questions. One of the reasons for posting off-topic questions here, as pointed out in my answer and Tim Post's answer, is that users follow a link here, not realize they've been directed to a different site, and then ask their (off-topic) question here.

Both answers were posted during a time when each site had unique design elements. Even then, users would go to another site, not realize they've been cross-linked, and ask an (off-topic) question. Now that many more site design elements have been standardized, it's possible that this could become a far more common occurrence (not just for Meta Stack Exchange, but for all sites). Even as a seasoned SE user, I've occasionally missed that I'm on a different site when I've navigated between sites where the new design has rolled out.

To be honest, this is my only gripe towards unifying site design elements; otherwise, I'm all for doing this if it means that the code base is more maintainable.

Is my analysis of this issue correct? Would having unified design elements result in more off-topic questions from lost users? Has this actually happened? Finally, if so, what can be done to reduce the incidence of lost users?

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    I have a hard time telling the sites apart now so I can definitely see this happening. – Charlie Brumbaugh Sep 23 '18 at 1:22
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    Since the majority of sites are still in an opt-in beta, it's unlikely to be measurable at the moment. For future reference (if I decide to pursue this question) the easiest event to look at is question migrations. In addition, I would expect no difference for beta sites which already have identical themes. (And in the long run, this problem will be mitigated by any increase in site customization in the future, which is a long-term goal for the project.) – Jon Ericson Sep 23 '18 at 6:05
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On the other hand, the new unified design theme could also result in fewer off-topic questions being asked, because it will replace the generic mobile web design that makes every single main site look the same (all the meta sites, including this one, look the same as main sites, except they're black/gray instead of blue). With this generic design, if you're not looking at the URL/header text every single time you go to another page (and also every time you return to the tab after some time), it's very easy to find yourself suddenly on a completely different site (with different rules) without knowing how you got there.

This problem was reported in 2015 here.

(Anecdote: There was one time I answered a question thinking I was on English Language and Usage, but I was actually on English Language Learners. Luckily for me, it didn't matter, but it would for someone who was asking a question. However, I think this happened on the app, not the mobile site.)

  • I once posted a similar observation on EL&U meta, years ago. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '18 at 6:01
  • @Mari-LouA Yeah I linked to it in the second to last paragraph ;) – Laurel Oct 23 '18 at 6:05
  • Missed it totally! – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '18 at 6:05
  • On the mobile front, I find the SO banner has a distinctive orange logo but for newcomers, I guess that doesn't mean much. I'm convinced it's the word "meta" that confuses non-native speakers. In Italian, meta can also mean "destination", so it's like saying "You've found the promised land"! – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '18 at 6:29

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