Comments about online commenting

3 Jan 2013

Do you write comments online? Commenting is available all over the Web. It’s a great feature, but there are some things that can hold people back from using it.

In usability studies, I’ve seen people hesitate about writing comments for many reasons. (Even so, I hope you comment about your experiences, below.)

Example of a commenting UI

Example of the commenting UI in this blog

Social factors affecting posting & comments

People are concerned about what others will think of them. Unless you’re really sure of your point, questioning someone online, especially an expert, can seem scary. I’ve heard participants say that in usability studies.

In his book Design to Thrive: Creating Social Networks and Online Communities, Tharon W. Howard writes:

Because people don’t want to damage their reputation or their professional status in the community, they won’t post unless they’re fairly sure that their contribution will be received as a contribution and will not open them up to critique.

He suggests demonstrating “how [members] can ask questions productively” and in general, creating a safe and comfortable environment.

Anonymity and rude comments

Anonymity can make people more comfortable about posting comments, but if my local newspaper’s site is any indication, it encourages some people to be rude. A recent usability participant talked about that:

Online, people everywhere are willing to insult people’s mothers at the drop of the hat. Anonymity leads to people saying a lot of things.

On the NPR program, Science Friday, Dominique Brossard, lead author of a paper in the journal Science (“Science, New Media and the Public”) said that negative comments even affect how others interpret the main discussion:

So basically just being exposed to rude comments, even if the content of the comments themselves was the same, made people react differently to the content of the story. So the question is therefore: What do we do to encourage better understanding? … And then we should discuss what does it mean to have a civil discussion online.

Systems like Facebook and LinkedIn certainly allow people to comment on their own lives and other people’s posts, and they’re obviously popular. It may feel safer in those systems because you only sign up if you want to do it, and you have a controlled audience (depending on how well you understand and use your privacy settings).

UI issues in commenting

The commenting UI itself sometimes gets in the way, as I saw in a usability study awhile ago. The commenting form might appear at the top or bottom of the article. It’s not useful at the top, because you haven’t read anything yet. You might not get to the bottom to see the form there if you don’t read the whole article. And if you print the article to read, there’s no easy way to post a comment. Having a link float on the page so it’s always visible might be helpful but requires careful testing to see how people react to something that keeps moving.

In a system with a lot of topics (whether they’re courses, articles or products), many items may have few or no comments at all. That may make them look unpopular. Seeding a discussion, by having a staff member or the author post the first comment or question might help it look less like a vacant lot and more like a conversation.

Creating a sense of community

I belong to a professional email list that is for members only. That restriction is useful; it’s one of the things that the moderators do to make people comfortable. Even though most of us will never meet, we have a definite sense of community from having helped each other on topics of mutual interest.

In one recent study, a man indicated that he writes comments in an online course’s discussion area. When I asked for details, it turned out that he hadn’t written anything at all. He was really talking about what he might do, not what he actually does. (That’s why it’s important to not simply accept what people say in customer research and usability studies.) He prefers to talk with friends who also take the class; it seemed that he was just more comfortable with people he knows.

Your turn…

…In what situations do you post comments, if any? What makes you nervous or comfortable about doing it? Should we moderate comments, or let anyone say anything? Is it different if it’s social or professional? And don’t worry – I moderate the comments here and won’t let anyone be rude.


User reactions to self-service features: Is it “Hey, I already have a job, I don’t need to do yours, too”?

7 Sep 2012

Companies obviously want to cut down on calls to customer care centers to save money. One way is to allow (force?) users to do more things themselves. We’ve been recovering passwords ourselves for a long time, and many products include other self-service tasks. Even libraries allow patrons to check out their own books.

In a recent design project, I was afraid that customers would dislike the self-service tools we were adding. I thought they might have the same reaction that I have to self-checkout lanes in stores: “Hey, I already have a job. I don’t want to check out and bag my own stuff here!”

Self-service checkout in a supermarket

But that wasn’t the case. Our users liked the new self-service tools.

We talked with a lot of users in usability studies and customer visits.  They mostly had gotten good results when they called for assistance, but it seemed easier to do things themselves.

Calling customer care may seem like more of an interruption, while doing something yourself may seem more like an extension of what you’re already doing. Making the call requires a lot of work:

  • Deciding that the problem is big enough to bother someone about
  • Wondering if there’s enough time for the call
  • Finding out if customer care is available
  • Looking for the phone number & making the call
  • Going through the voice menu
  • Waiting on hold
  • Explaining the problem, discussing it and maybe being transferred.
  • … and then finally getting a solution

The early results for this product are good. It seems that customers are doing more tasks themselves, and the company is getting fewer phone calls.

Have you noticed that you’re doing more things yourself on the Web? What do you think about it? Are companies forcing you to do their work, or is it a time saver?

Web sites with attitude

11 Jan 2011

I’ve seen a couple of sites lately with mascots that have something to say and say it with an attitude. I guess whether you think their comments are clever depends on your point of view. Or your age. Or what you expect from a business Web site. Or your mood. Or something.

Here are some examples.


MailChimp is an email marketing service. Their mascot is a chimp, and he’s got a lot to say. Sometimes it’s clever, sometimes it’s, well, odd.

MailChimp saying "Monkey see, monkey do. I'm only wearing a mail bag, how about you?"

MailChimp saying "Hal, I'm just a poor boy from a poor family."

MailChimp saying "Hi Gail. New shirt? Very nice."

Notice that the middle one has a link. It goes to a YouTube video: “The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody”. They link to many clever things around the Web.


You’ve probably heard about Groupon: an online service that offers coupons for businesses in your area. Each day’s coupon comes via email, with a picture of Groupon the cat and the saying of the day. They’re funny, silly or just a little strange. Here are some examples:

Groupon cat and the statement of the day

Groupon says "Which dried fruits are specifically processed for the socially rejected?"

Groupon says "I named my son after my husband and my husband after my boat."

If you click on the arrow in the email they send, you go to a Web page describing the offer, and more detail about the saying. See what you get by clicking on the one about children and matches.

This one doesn’t have a mascot, but…

This one doesn’t have a mascot. But the business name and the domain name are a bit unusual:

Logo for Shit Creek Consulting

Note the the logo: they have the paddle.

And they have the right attitude for the name. Here’s part of the description: Smug? You bet your ass we’re smug. We won’t waste your time and all we ask is that you don’t waste ours with your indecision. Call us if and when you are serious.

So what?

Well, that’s a good question. Does having an attitude like this matter? Does it reflect a big change on the Web or in business? Or is it just a few companies pushing the boundaries?

I observed a usability study where some people were put off by an attitude like these examples. And I have to say that some of these comments surprised me. I have to guess, though, that they know what they’re doing. Maybe they don’t want customers who offend easily, or who expect a pin-stripe-suit attitude. Or maybe times have just changed.

You’d certainly want to know your users before doing this. And you’d want to carefully develop good personas for your development team to clarify the boundaries.

What do you think?

What have you seen? What do you think when you see a site with an attitude like this? Send me a note or write a comment below. If you have other examples, include a link.