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Stack Overflow

What’s in the Works at Stack Overflow: Improving Feedback for All Users

mrisdal profile image Megan Risdal Originally published at stackoverflow.blog Updated on ・4 min read

Hi, I'm the product manager leading the development of Stack Overflow's flagship product, public Q&A. Last week, I shared an update on our blog about what we're working on and why.

Building Stack Overflow in a way that better meets the needs of more and more developers is important to me and my team. I'm cross-posting an abbreviated version here because I want to hear your feedback for us.

Where we're at today

Last year, we kicked off an initiative to make Stack Overflow more welcoming. After launching a new Code of Conduct, an improved question asking experience, and several other changes, we spoke to many Stack Overflow users to hear more about their personal experiences using the site. Through these conversations, we heard that the limitations of the Q&A system continue to create the very environment we set out to discourage. People who need help with coding problems feel attacked when their questions are closed or downvoted, while those curating site content feel blamed for doing what the system has asked them to do.

Illustration showing people with speech bubbles with smiley faces in them

It’s simply not enough for us to ask people to be nice or change their behavior when the software that underlies everyone’s interactions doesn’t facilitate this. That’s why we’re looking at ways to revitalize the way the core Q&A system works.

What we're working on now

Today, my team's focus is on these initiatives:

  1. How feedback is delivered by the system
  2. Addressing issues with our commenting system
  3. Making a single question asking experience work for everyone

Improving feedback

As Sara, our Director of Public Q&A, noted in her recent blog post, it’s hard not to take feedback personally when it’s piled on, no matter how constructive it is. Unfortunately, this overwhelming pile-on is exactly what users who ask an imperfect question are confronted with.

The first way we're improving the feedback loop among our users is through a redesign of post notices. If you’ve come across a duplicate question or closed question, you’ve probably seen a post notice. These are the pale yellow informational banners that sometimes appear on questions. For people who ask questions today, if your question is closed, feedback that is directed toward you privately is shared publicly with anyone who views your question.

Here’s what our holistic redesign of all post notices will prioritize:

  • Delivering improved, private feedback to post authors
  • Not putting users who curate content on the spot
  • Giving actionable, understandable information for the vast majority of public viewers

While working on building our refresh of post notices, we’re also doing discovery on ways to make our question close workflows and review queues better facilitate feedback and content curation for seasoned moderators, technology experts, and new question-askers alike.

“They told me not to read the comments…”

It probably comes as a surprise to no one that the comments section on Stack Overflow doesn’t always serve its original purpose (facilitating clarifying questions to improve question quality). Comments can be distracting, outright harmful, pure spam, and everything in between.

We encourage people to flag content that doesn’t belong, and our moderators do incredible work to review everything. But there’s a lot of opportunity to reduce the burden for moderators and users who flag inappropriate content in ways that make using Stack Overflow more pleasant for everyone.

For example, some of the things we’re exploring right now:

  • Better distinguishing the “Answer” and “Comment” actions (due to a high volume of helpful “Not an answer” flags indicating problems with the interface).
  • Ways to reduce the number of unhelpful comments that are likely to get removed in the first place.

Improved question-asking guidance for everyone

Several months ago, we launched the Ask Question Wizard on Stack Overflow. The new experience defaults users with low reputation to use a guided mode to formulate their questions. So far, we’re pleased with how it’s helping users ask better questions and as a result have a better experience on the site. In fact, we’re so pleased that our next iteration is focused on incorporating aspects of the guided mode into the question-asking form for everyone.

A graph showing that the Ask Question Wizard is associated with fewer overall comments and fewer unfriendly comments

We’re still in early stages, but some of the changes we’re working on so far include:

  • Upfront guidance for first-time question-askers
  • Setting expectations for what happens after asking a question
  • Improved “how-to-ask” guidance while drafting a question
  • Making it easier to improve question quality by consolidating many dozens of validation messages into a single “review” interface

We’re excited to begin working on these changes because it gives us an opportunity to create a better user experience for everyone. More and more, we hope to look for ways to simplify our platform to seamlessly and intuitively meet the needs of all users who come to Stack Overflow to find and share knowledge.

What do you think?

Millions and millions of users come to Stack Overflow each month and rely on and contribute to the site and community in so many unique ways. Stack Overflow wouldn’t be what it is without contributions from developers like you.

What do you think of this direction? What would make it easier for you to use and participate on Stack Overflow? What are your biggest frustrations today?

Discussion (3)

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Ben Halpern

This all seems like a move in the right direction. I've always thought that "feedback through the system" in Stack Overflow can make the user feel bad for their own intuitive behavior.

For example, I just saw this on a post

I've always felt like the way I find out I can't do things on Stack Overflow has caught me offguard, and can be offputting when I first find out about it. I feel like the underlying rules could be enforced and nudged in ways that come off more like friendly hints.

I understand why "thanks!" can be considered unhelpful, but on the other hand it's still sort of jarring, especially to have that phrase lumped in with spam. Just little things, but it's surprisingly easy for the site's design to subtly make one feel bad IMO.

Anyway, it's great that y'all are working to better these things.

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Scott Simontis

This is a lot of great work and most definitely a step in the right direction, but I feel like there's a small percentage of SO users who are straight-up toxic and will need to be dealt with. In all honesty, it would probably be best to just boot them off the network and let them take their elitism somewhere else, but doing something like that in a democratic and fair process is going to be difficult. But deep down I really do feel like some users harm the site far more than they help, or that the time they spend arguing pedantics could have led to real answers and community discussion taking place instead of derailing everything.

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Scott Simontis

An example I just came across five minutes ago:

Editor overpowers question