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.

The Elements

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.

Identity

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.

The Date

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.

The Comment

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.

Other possibilities

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.

Published June 15, 2006 · Updated June 15, 2006
Categorized as Design
Short URL: https://snook.ca/s/615

Conversation

14 Comments · RSS feed
Geof Harries said on June 16, 2006

I second your note about seperating trackbacks and comments. You don't have to wade through the geeky trackbacks to get to the people actually doing the talking.

I first noticed this idea on techcrunch.com and thought it was excellent. An even better display would be for comments to come first and then trackbacks, but maybe Mike A. has his reason$.

Miles Johnson said on June 16, 2006

I agree completely with what you are saying. Comments should be formed well and its a great way to get your name out their and remembered.

Also these are great tips for morons who post random comments and no constructive criticism, etc pertaining to the topic.

Btw dates do help :)

Emil said on June 16, 2006

I belive another important thing about comments are their position. Are they placed alongside of the content, below, hidden one click away? There's lot's of different options and each one tells the visitor something. That said I like your fixed comment box, very innovative to put it hidden under the header :)

Steve Tucker said on June 16, 2006

Comments and the way they are presented are perhaps one of the most important aspects of popular community blogging. Their design is often not given as much attention as it deserves. One of the best examples ive seen of quality comment design is on Jon Hicks' journal (http://hicksdesign.co.uk/journal/)

M.e. said on June 16, 2006

Lest we forget the comment preview before posting. I'm particularly a fan of the live preview, myself.

Christian Watson said on June 16, 2006

I'd suggest that a way to reference other comments is an essential aspect of comment design to consider.

This can either be via a comment URL (ideal solution) so that it can be linked to or by giving the comment a number so that it can be referenced in other comments (you've done both as do many people).

By the way, if you're looking for comment design 'inspiration', you might want to check out my comment design showcase.

potato said on June 16, 2006

i like to use the date as a separator between the comment and the author

Jody Daub said on June 16, 2006

This is a very interesting post, and I believe attention to these kinds of details are mandatory when considering good design.

Though I'm not convinced a familiarity with the user, and certainly knowledge of gender, is required or even preferred to better understand the user's comment. These kinds of extraneous attributes may do more harm than good.

Can you guess my gender?

Jonathan Snook said on June 16, 2006

Jody: Familiarity with who is writing is very much a part of the community and how we identify and connect with each other. Imagine reading the comments with no names or identity attached and the words would feel cold. We each have a voice in the world that is unique and is shaped by our experiences (this includes gender). But online, the reader gains context through various cues including writing style, gender, and even their name. It's extremely subtle and while there's no way to pigeon-hole someone on one particular facet, it all adds up to a greater understanding.

And likewise, not all information is relevant all the time. Again, since you mentioned gender, I'll use it. Can I guess your gender? No, but in relation to the topic at hand, maybe it's not relevant. But what if the discussion was about the design for a new lingerie store and you commented on how much you liked or disliked the design. Knowing your gender would be much more relevant. If you were a girl, I'd add a little more weight to your opinion.

It's all relative but not always relevant. I mention it merely for completeness. :)

Jody Daub said on June 18, 2006

Thanks, Jonathan. Of course! Staring me in the face was the importance of the user's comment in establishing and maintaining online community connections. Thanks for clarifying the other points, as well.

Ilija Studen said on June 18, 2006

One important feature related to comments is email notification. I comment rarely on foreign blogs because of my poor English and when I do its because I have to say something that’s more important than “Great post dude!” and to join good discussion. When I post comment it means that I’m really interested in what’s being discussed and usually want to be informed about future comments.

People don’t visit single blog posts regularly like forums. There need to be some kind of notification system so they can be informed how discussion is developing. Comments feed is far from good solution because its kind of temporally and a lot of subscriptions means clutter in feed reader.

I find email to be perfect for the job. You get notification only when something is really changed. If you get tons of email that you don’t want any more just unsubscribe. Simple as that.

I agree with you at all points, especially about identity. It is really important to know who you are talking to. As you said, if you don’t than its “cold” discussion.

Btw, it was a nice surprise to see email notification here :)

Mike Bryan said on June 18, 2006

One thing I think needs mentioning is when the comment list should be closed. I usually don't read more than a dozen or so posting.

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gruzoperevozki said on February 10, 2011

Интересно написано, но мне кажеться я уже это где то видел...)))

Sorry, comments are closed for this post. If you have any further questions or comments, feel free to send them to me directly.

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