The inbox hasn't been very nice to me.

Often I will see a red number at the top left of the page, indicating that I have some new alerts in my inbox. It is a useful feature and I would definitely make an "Eeeek!" post if it were gone, but there are quite a few things about it that confuse me.

Here is an example of one that I had today:

The number 2 on the alert indicates should indicate that I have 2 new alerts. The highlighted alerts should indicate which ones are new. Instead, it highlight new ones and old ones.

The first thing that confuses me is that the number 2 indicates that there are two new items in my inbox--but three items are highlighted. This annoys me because I automatically start at the bottom higlighted item and work my way up, in chronological order of the alerts, much like I do with my e-mail. The problem is that the bottom highlighted items are not new, and it leads me to something I have already seen. That often makes me look through a few extra alerts and is very annoying.

So my first feature request is, please make the highlighted items correspond to the new items. As an aside, what does it currently even mean when an item is highlighted? I haven't been able to figure that out yet.

The second thing that confuses me is the meaning of the red number. In the screenshot above, the only item in the inbox that was actually new was the "2 comments on Confusion in Verbs". From that, I assume that the red number means the total number of new comments, and not the number of new items in the inbox.

However, if I see the red number 2, I instinctively assume that the top two items in my inbox are new. The way it is now is not very intuitive. It seems like it would make more sense to make the red number correspond to the number of new items in the inbox instead of the number of new comments.

Another thing that confusing thing: earlier today, I saw the red number 4, and the new item in the inbox was "5 comments on Suggest the next feature". I looked at the comment thread, and there were only four comments that I had not seen before. Why does it say 5 comments when there are only four new comments?

At first, I assumed it meant that there were 5 total comments. But there were 13 comments. It would make much more sense to make the comment number on the alert correspond to the number of new comments. As it is now, I am still puzzled as to what it even means by "5 comments".

Last item: as I said earlier, I treat my inbox much like my e-mail inbox, and think of the highlighted items as "unread", and the others as "read". However, when I go to read one of the new items, everything gets marked as read. That makes some of the new items that I haven't seen yet marked as read, and I have to think for a little bit to figure out which ones are new and which ones aren't. So my last request is to not mark anything as read until I have read it.

It is surprising that such a commonly used feature as the global inbox has such confusing behaviors that have been around for so long. To me, all of these seem to be common sense in consideration of the usability principle, don't make me think.

If you disagree, and think the the behavior as it is now is acceptable, please tell me why. I am very curious about the reasoning behind the current behavior.

  • I'd also hazard a guess and say the 2 only concerns the two replies of the first notification, too. Just a guess... Apr 14, 2011 at 16:49
  • Reading up to your 1st request: surely a dupe of inconsistent inbox count. Now, seeing some more questions in a single post, I wonder if I should vote to close or not, or continue reading... Okay, without really reading: I assume the 4th is a dupe of Can we get an option to stop the global inbox from marking everything as read? So: maybe this answers all your queries? Let us know! ;-)
    – Arjan
    Apr 14, 2011 at 21:37
  • @Arjan I was using a library computer with IE6. >:K The first request might be a dupe, but that question doesn't seem like it's really resolved, either. Apr 14, 2011 at 22:41
  • You don't think the 4th is a dupe too? And if the 1st is a dupe, then why not take it out of your above feature-request, err, bug report? The other bug report is only a few weeks old. Too many things in one post, if you'd ask me! And what's up with tagging both feature request and bug?
    – Arjan
    Apr 14, 2011 at 23:20
  • @Arjan, no. He wants it as an additional preference. I think it should be the default behaviour. If you think one of the tags is not appropriate, feel free to remove it. Apr 16, 2011 at 3:57

1 Answer 1


Highlighting was based on last view time, everything new since you last looked at your inbox would be highlighted.

While strictly less correct, simply highlighting the N most recent (where N = the little read number) is more understandable; this change in behavior has been deployed. Note that highlighting choices occur before comments and answers are grouped, so you may have fewer highlighted rows displayed if multiple new items are on the same post.

Of course, the natural race condition of "an item came in between the # being rendered (at page load) and the inbox being shown (ajax'd in)" remains, and is effectively unsolvable.

Alot of what you're complaining about deals with grouping comments and answers based on the post they're on.

The logic goes something like this:

  1. Take all items in the inbox
  2. Group all answers by the question they're on
  3. Group all comments by the post they're on
  4. If any item in any group is new, mark the whole group as new for display
  5. When displaying, if any group has count > 1 show the count and only show the summary of the newest item in the group

We did try the inbox without this grouping logic, and its much harder to use. You tend to get one question with loads of comments making it impossible to see activity on other posts.

So my last request is to not mark anything as read until I have read it.

No, this is a terrible idea.

The inbox gives you a shortcut to recent activity you may care about. Plenty of times you don't, especially if you've worked up a big backlog of posts.

By forcing users (with an OCD baiting red number) to actively look at everything that comes into the inbox, we'd be wasting tons of peoples' time.

  • Good point about "So my last request is to not mark anything as read until I have read it." Still it would be possible to implement this by making it an optional choice in the "prefs" tab of the user profile. EDIT: However, I see that Jeff doesn't like preferences ... Apr 17, 2011 at 12:06
  • I don't know, I think you could use the exact same argument for email: it just shows me a bunch of items I may care about. In fact, I don't really care about 80% of my e-mail and don't even bother reading it. When I don't read anything, I get a big bold Inbox: 23 unread. That said, I think it would be a huge mistake if every time you opened an email, it marked everything as read, wouldn't you? I think as long as there is an easy way to disregard messages, a la Delete or Mark as Read, then there is no problem. Perhaps you can explain again to me if you disagree. Apr 17, 2011 at 16:30
  • please? I just want to be a little more clear why. Apr 20, 2011 at 20:38

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