Design Analysis: Comments
If there’s ever been a great way to design something, it’s through iteration from experience. In other words, the more you use something, the more you discover ways to improve upon them.
In this, the first (and hopefully not only) instalment of Design Analysis, I wanted to cover the elements of a blog comment and what (in my opinion) makes a good one.
Whenever I do design, I always begin with what the individual elements are. Just pop them in. No concern for what is or isn’t important, just simply document what you need to include in the design. For a blog comment, I think the elements are fairly straightforward.
- Who authored the comment – the Author. This could include the author’s name, email address, and/or web site address.
- When was the comment posted – the Date. We’ll touch on how the date could be presented further on.
- The comment itself.
When a person leaves a comment on a site, they leave a piece of themselves on the site. I’ve mentioned the concept of personal branding before and a blog comment is yet another opportunity to reinforce that brand. People usually do that with just their name since that’s all they are really offered. Chances are, you’ll just “know” who a person is on their name alone. If you see Mike D., chances are it’s Mike Davidson.
Another way to help users to establish their personal brand is via an icon or logo. A quick and easy was to do this is via Gravatars. Humans are visual creatures and the ability to associate an icon with our online persona can be an effective way to instantly recognize who is leaving a post.
Understanding the Voice
Why is it even important that users be easily identifiable? Quite simply because it allows us to frame the response more accurately. Everybody has a tone and demeanour in which they speak. While it’s not always easy to tell online, having a previous interaction (both online and off) with how a commenter presents him or herself can impact how you perceive the comment being read. The comments can come across with greater emphasis because of your familiarity with the poster. Even something like perception of gender can influence how you interpret things.
It’s for this reason that I’d advocate that the person’s name appear before the comment itself. It helps us as readers to frame and prepare for the comment to follow.
Thanks to experimentation, I’ve seen a variety of ways that the date can be presented for a blog comment. There are essentially three different ways to present it:
- A static date reference. E.g., May 9, 2006.
- Relative to now. E.g., Last week
- Relative to the post. E.g., A week later
The question is, why is the comment date important? I’m still unsure of this. On older posts, I use the dates to determine the relevance of comments. The newer the feedback, the more relevant it is. For example, I recently came across a discussion from a few years ago talking of using floats instead of absolute positioning for layout and most of the discussion was now out of date. On something that is only a couple days old, dates aren't terribly necessary but sometimes it's interesting to see that the discussion bounced back and forth rapidly, possibly indicating a hot topic.
Dates are probably one of those things where it's useful to have but everybody takes something a little different from it.
Lest we forget, we have the actual comment. The raison d'être of everything discussed so far. The comment itself is commonly seen with two distinct stylings:
- The regular comment (usually with a different style on every second comment)
- The author comment
Some have gone as far as extending the styling to emphasize or de-emphasize the following:
- With or without a web site URL. Those without a URL are normally de-emphasized. (Mezzoblue's previous design had this feature.)
- Trackbacks or pinkbacks. I personally find these distracting when in the same flow as the rest of the comments. Separate them out at the very least and shorten them to just the title, if you can. The quoted snippet is usually darn near useless.
- Friends. You don't see it very often, usually because of the extra configuration required to maintain a friends list. Andy Clarke's current design highlights fellow Brit packers.
There are still lots of possibilities. One contemplation was to include a history of previous comments posted on the site for each commenter. We often see this in forum software and I think would be a nice addition to a blog.
Comments can be a hit and miss proposition and we're seeing more and more bloggers actually remove the ability to comment from their sites (or never offer the feature to begin with). We'll continue to see a wide range of implementations when it comes to how blog comments should be presented.