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So, we have just had an 'April Fools' jape that

  • activated on 31st March for many people
  • wan't capable of being disabled site-wide (although this has been fixed)
  • isn't capable of being disabled network-wide (or even better account-wide)
  • presented a design (colours, moving marquee, random sparkles) that for many people renders the site physically unusable (admittedly this is based on a small sample within my own household but for those I've asked who are on the autistic spectrum (including myself, my sister, and two nephews) it is like nails down a blackboard -- unbearable
  • caused problems for people with slower PCs, as slower machines may not run the feature fast enough and the site may lock up
  • guaranteed that anybody encountering Stack Exchange for the first time while it is active would never ever return

The bug has now been fixed -- hooray. However, will next year's prank be:

  1. tested for accessibility issues,
  2. assessed for its impact on non-insiders that we would want to retain, and
  3. just plain better tested?

For clarity, I'm not trying to be a spoilsport -- April Fools, Christmas Hats and the like are fixtures around here and can range from 'ROFL' to 'shrug and move on'. I am not arguing that they should be abandoned, just that they should be tested to a reasonable level (so they don't break the site and people can opt out simply via button that works), and crucially assessed for accessibility at the same level that other theme changes are assessed.

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    Glad you asked it here! I forgot to mention in my comment on your 'original' post that I thought it might be worth it's own post, so I'm glad you turned this into a question. – Tinkeringbell Mar 31 at 11:13
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    One test: publish it, wait for bug report. – Shadow The Curly Braced Wizard Mar 31 at 11:15
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    @ShadowWizard Ah yes, the MS approach :) Of which from many years in IT (40 and counting) I am not enamoured. – ColeValleyGirl Mar 31 at 11:16
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    activated on 31st March for many people - that's not a bug. It's by design. It's more confusing when only some people see it than when everyone sees it a bit outside their time zone. It's April 1st somewhere on the planet, so the joke is active everywhere. – Catija Mar 31 at 11:18
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    @Catija Then it's a bad design without some indication that it's an April Fool's day jape. – ColeValleyGirl Mar 31 at 11:21
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    @Catija That may make it a design bug rather than a code bug, but it's still a bug! – topo morto Mar 31 at 11:24
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    @ColeValleyGirl: Veteran users will know that date-based effects on SE always run on an "is it this date anywhere on earth?" basis. It's the same thing with the hat circus every Christmas. Non-veteran users are left wondering, yes, but there's usually copious meta threads to clear it up for them. – Henning Makholm Mar 31 at 11:25
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    @HenningMakholm How many 'non-veteran' or first-time users know about meta? I participate on both technical sites and have never seen any of the occasional users on non-technical sites participate in their own sites meta, let alone meta.stackexchange. And how are first-time users supposed to find their way to explicatory nirvana? – ColeValleyGirl Mar 31 at 11:30
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    Doesn't really matter if you are a first time user. It's still funny. And definitely not a bug - even the tooltip popped up to show me how to turn it off. Sometimes, lightening up is a good thing. People on the internet can get far too serious. – Rory Alsop Mar 31 at 11:33
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    @RoryAlsop Only funny if you have some context and can still use the site. – ColeValleyGirl Mar 31 at 11:34
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    @RoryAlsop FWIW I had it appearing on some pages but not others, and couldn't turn it off, and I couldn't use the site on mobile. That plus the fact that it's not even April 1 here yet. It is funny, but perhaps more in the "Flaming bag of dog poop on the doorstep" way than was intended... – topo morto Mar 31 at 11:38
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    I agree with this - I honestly considered taking a break from the site until they fixed it, because I couldn't use the site. I get that there's the easter egg side of this, but in my opinion, this year's prank was far too intrusive to be near good – Olivia Mar 31 at 11:40
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    @RoryAlsop Given that the internet has conditioned me to close "tooltips" ASAP, (lest the screen be covered in them,) I closed that tooltip after a quick read, and without realizing it was pointing to an icon. It then took me a few minutes to figure out how to shut it off. In particular, the "you'll find the option here." text on the tooltip initially made me think it was like an easter egg hunt, and I had to hunt for the option - so I closed the tooltip and did so, frustratingly. – Willem Renzema Mar 31 at 12:25
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    @numbermaniac But I did read it, and it was unclear and there was no way to restore the tooltip (until I opened another site) to re-read it. If it had said something like "Click this icon to remove this April Fool's day theme." then it wouldn't have been a problem. Instead, it said the words "find the option", which I did, on the left sidebar. This is a basic UX fail by making me think. As an experienced user, this was mildly annoying. For a new user, I could see this being a complete turn off. – Willem Renzema Mar 31 at 13:32
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    Doesn't really matter if you are a first time user. It's still funny sorry @RoryAlsop but I couldn’t disagree more. It wasn’t funny in the slightest in my opinion, and quickly became annoying when I couldn’t properly disable it. St least opting out of the winter hat thing worked. – Rob Moir Mar 31 at 17:56
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We began brainstorming ideas for April 1 early in February. (The first version of the brainstorming document was written on February 20, but we had informal discussions when we started March planning.) The initial specification was written on March 5 and finalized on March 18. The first commit for the project was done on March 20. The basic design was approved on March 22 with the following comment:

All this CSS really sucks.

On March 27 we noticed the globe gif was 13.4Mb, so we replaced it with a smaller gif. The Architecture team approved the pull request on March 28:

I see a few things to tidy here but no blockers . . . nice work making the site hideous!

This is a very short turnaround for a feature that changes so much on the page. Because we start timed events like this at midnight +14 UTC, our developers were awake an an unreasonable time to handle any bugs that might occur. (I should have been awake too, but I slept trough the calendar notification.) Since the launch, I count 4 commits fixing a variety of bugs, including the one you mentioned.

We've been testing things on our development environment for the past week. Some people tested disabling the feature. I'm afraid we assumed that since it worked on the Y2K question it was working everywhere in dev. (But it might be there are relevant differences between dev and prod when it comes to cookies.)


That's the basic story of testing for this year. To address the bigger question of what testing should be done, it's important to recall:

  1. A prank like this is intended to be disposable, but not disrupt the function of the site.
  2. This particular prank is intended to look like a monstrosity from the late 90s built by someone with just enough knowledge of DHTML to be dangerous.

Our safety value was the ability to turn the feature off with a button click. Not only does that mitigate the performance and usability concerns, it also give April Fools grouches an option to avoid the whole thing. Since the cookie was broken, there was a period of time when the safety value failed. While it would be nice if that hadn't happened, it was fixed fairly quickly. (Most people saw the fix before April 1 began for them. ;-)

I think this was a reasonable amount of testing and I don't really feel too bad that it wasn't perfect out of the gate. I think this level of testing is appropriate next year. (But maybe we ought to reuse the code to toggle the setting rather than rolling a new version.)


Finally I want to address the concern that this prank will cause permanent harm. The model I have in mind for how people start participating on the sites is they find the site via a Google search. Most of the time, they get the content they were looking for (or not) and move on to other searches or search results. Once in a while people discover the content was built by an active community and get intrigued:

  1. Maybe it's because they keep landing on the a page from the site.
  2. Maybe it's because they connect the site with another one they are familiar with on the network.
  3. Maybe they just start poking around at other questions.

If that model is reasonably accurate, events like April Fools can really help the process of people discovering the community behind the site. Yes, there will be some people who land on an outdated monstrosity and don't get that it's supposed to be a joke. If so, they won't likely discover the community via the third route. But that doesn't mean they will never come back. In the days to come, the most likely candidates to join the site will find it again in future search results. I've talked with many people (including a theology professor just on Friday) who vaguely know about Stack Exchange because of search results. So some people will land on a site, notice the joke and discover there is something more to the site than a collection of great answers.

I could be wrong, of course. But if so it should be possible to look at it in the data later in the week. It's a pretty great opportunity to learn something about how people find the site. And we have many years worth of data to dig through with differing prominence of the prank.

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    Could you address the accessibility issue, Jon? – ColeValleyGirl Apr 1 at 5:59
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    -1 for "I think this level of testing is appropriate next year" because it appears to mean that next year's won't be tested sufficiently either. :( – Kyralessa Apr 1 at 6:27
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    @ColeValleyGirl: I'm not sure what there is to say. The joke/prank is that the state-of-the-art in 1998 was pretty awful accessibility-wise. We assume people will turn off the theme if it's causing them trouble or preventing them from doing what they want to do on the site. I know it was frustrating that we had a bug that required the toggle to be switched with each new answer, but we fixed it as soon as it was discovered. – Jon Ericson Apr 1 at 6:34
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    @Kyralessa: Out of curiosity, what level of testing would you consider sufficient for an April Fools stunt? – Jon Ericson Apr 1 at 6:35
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    Jon, re testing, the minimum should be that the 'safety valve' actually worked -- if you had done that, probably none of the concern this has generated would have surfaced at least at same level. I am disappointed that SE thinks accessibility doesn't matter even for a prank -- even if things were much worse in 1998, that's no excuse. Would you have 'gone back to the 50s' and declared in a huge banner: this is a site about technical things so women aren't allowed? And felt good about it? – ColeValleyGirl Apr 1 at 6:39
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    @JonEricson, does SE actually have a full suite of (in some fashion) automated tests that are run against the site, or is testing just "click around and see if anything appears to break"? If the former, did this April Fools (alleged) joke actually pass those tests? If so, then do those tests actually cover accessibility issues? If not, then there's some benefit to this (purported) joke, in that a testing shortfall was discovered and can now be remedied. – Kyralessa Apr 1 at 8:14
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    Was the "clickable" switch also keyboard accessible? If it's quickly accessible via keyboard-alone, that helps a lot with accessibility. – April Apr 1 at 13:56
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    Wow, there's a lot of negativity around here. I think the prank was fantastic, very fun, and not damaging at all. People like to find things to be upset about. – forresthopkinsa Apr 1 at 18:27
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    @forresthopkinsa Is it safe to assume that you weren't around when it was initially deployed and turned itself back on for every single question? – Kyralessa Apr 1 at 18:37
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    @Kyralessa and yet that was fixed quickly so not really a reason to be upset at this point – forresthopkinsa Apr 1 at 18:59
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    @Nij wow! glaring banners? destroying bandwidth? Incredible! I think we're seeing two completely different sites! Especially since mine has a disable button! Grow a sense of humor, maybe, instead of being a tick? – forresthopkinsa Apr 1 at 19:00
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    Hey folks! Let's take a break from the comments for a bit. It doesn't seem very productive to comment at each other when I'm right here. ;-) Thank you! – Jon Ericson Apr 1 at 19:02
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    I'd say only having one somewhat-major bug in a project you spent two months crunching on is a success. People still seem to think that CS involves some kinda magic and is infallible. For those people, I present this. – DCOPTimDowd Apr 1 at 21:42
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    @DCOPTimDowd Nobody thinks that coding doesn't involve bugs. That's what testing is for. Especially basic testing like: does this on/off feature work as designed? – ColeValleyGirl Apr 2 at 5:26
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    @DCOPTimDowd Yes -- after 40 years in various roles in IT, including development, testing and QA -- I have a fairly good idea of what it's feasible to achieve with testing. However by Jon's own admission, they tested the 'no thanks' button on a single question and didn't (it appears) verify that it then applied site-wide. Basic testing fail. Which happens -- we've all been there -- assumptions are a killer. Which is why I'm asking what will be done differently in future -- not exhaustive testing, but reasonable testing at least of the key elements. – ColeValleyGirl Apr 2 at 16:11

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