Soliciting input for an RBC re-design

The RBC is looking to take on a long-overdue redesign, which will address some technical, functional, and aesthetic issues. Since our discussions here are so critical to the value or of content, it’s important that our commenters have some feedback here. What changes would you like to see the RBC take on? What do you want to stay the same? Treat this thread as a discussion space, and I’ll work to incorporate your feedback into our design process.

Author: Steve Davenport

UCLA alum Class of 2009. Tech admin for RBC.

52 thoughts on “Soliciting input for an RBC re-design”

  1. this is a small, technical thing but i would find it useful to be able to either preview a comment before submitting it or being able to edit a comment after submission. there are times when i find that i have inadvertently misspelled a word, written the wrong word, left out a word, or made some other error. if the site were to allow editing of one’s post the post should automatically note the date of the edit.

    1. I too agree with both Dave Schutz and navarro. I like the look of the site very much. It’s clean and it looks good on all platforms and on my ipad and iphone, too. I would very much like the ability to edit and clean up comments, especially now that I am using my ipad and iphone more and they are both unbelievably to use for commenting, sometimes to the point where I simply have to choose between submitting a comment “as is” (with spelling errors and typos) or submitting nothing at all. It would be helpful to be able to be able to edit my comments once I’m back home on my desktop computers.

      Also, I agree that the recent comments might well help to keep some worthwhile discussions going even if the topic gets shuffled off to a back page.

  2. I actually like the look of the site just fine. One feature which some sites use is a ‘recent comments’ area. This keeps older posts alive, and under current format it’s kind of random – if one of the principals has put up a nice and interesting post and then has the bad luck that Mark Kleiman comes up with five zippy posts in a row, the first gets buried.

    1. I also like the idea of the “recent comments” area. Some of these discussions die off just as they’re starting to get interesting.

    2. This is a great idea, and I think it’ll be one of the most useful benefits of the re-design. The RBC produces so much content these days, and its of such quality, that a lot of posts don’t get the oxygen they deserve. To let good content live longer, in addition to a recent comments widget, we’re thinking of adding: a navigation-by-topic function dividing our content into 5 or 6 subject areas; a “top content” sidebar widget; a site-wide membership so you can quickly view responses to your comments; and abilities to browse by author.

    3. My $.02:

      One of my complaints regarding the frustration I feel when hoping for a full, comprehensive airing of topical subjects is the obvious requirement to be fast, and early, when commenting. I completely agree with others who have commented here on their feelings of chagrin when having just submitted a thoughtful, and time consuming response only to be left dangling out there, unread, and unappreciated, when another author strikes up a new thread on basically the same topic.

      My suggestion to the authors here:

      When you have something of interest you wish to share with the group, it isn’t axiomatic that it requires a brand new thread. You can certainly make your point on an existing, similar thread, and, if it is indeed of great interest, people can respond, and comment, without breaking the continuity of an existing thread.

      Not too coherent, I know, but I hope you get my drift.

  3. I’d appreciate better line-wrapping. If I increase the text size, the lines run off of the screen. This is a particular problem when I’m reading on a tablet.

      1. What browser are you using when you get these difficulties? Safari? (I haven’t been able to reproduce it)

  4. I like the look, that it’s simple, legible (on my devices), and loads quickly. Edit or preview would be nice (especially as I tend to be sloppy and submit precipitously), and recent comments would be nice.

    I rather like the feature Disqus has where it emails you when someone replies to your comment – but I don’t much like anything else about Disqus (it loads really slowly, it works poorly with some browsers/devices, and you have to refresh your login to Disqus far too often and with far too little automation)

  5. agree with all above that the current layout is quite good, and that an edit function is needed for comments. besides, i only found this a little while ago and it is much too soon for any redesign.

  6. Unthreaded comments would be nice. It’s hard to follow the discussion if new comments appear in the middle of the page.

    1. but the capacity to reply to a particular point is handy, rather than having a post at the end saying ‘back about 10 posts ago, Don said something like this, and here’s my take on it …

    2. A feature that tracks your browser’s last visit to each article page and highlights comments posted since your last visit would allow both Don and John G to have it their way, making it easier to keep up with interesting conversations while leaving the threads intact for quick reference to the conversations being responded to in the new posts. I would find such a feature very useful.

      1. I’m not very techhie, but I’ve wondered if something like this might not be nice. Maybe put the newer ones in a different color somehow? So I can just scroll down and see what’s new? I have of course no idea how to do that.

        As for this issue of the number of threads: fwiw, I do read all the comments. (Maybe I skim some, but I at least glance.) Even if I don’t respond to most of them. So people should know that their comments are being read, even if not replied to. I assume most of you do this too?

  7. You need to put up a CO2 widget.
    Every web site that is concerned should display one.
    That nearly all progressive web sites lack one (up top, in a sidebar) is embarrassing.
    So this site has a opportunity to lead..

    We are at 391 ppm.
    The run-up thru and past 399 will be a huge world social moment. It will be a momentous.
    I suspect between then and now, if we do not see world wide hunger strikes, after hitting 400, we surely will. Perhaps one led by the Dali Lama.

    Which is to suggest: I do not think the mass of humanity will suffer the lack of action, and in the US, outright obstruction for much longer.
    The Koch-led Republican vision of do-nothing-ism will be under relentless assault.
    Buckminster Fuller used to say that humanity wasn’t put here to fail.
    We are fast approaching the moment of truth for that axiom.

    Putting up a widget will help concentrate the passion that will carry the day.
    Especially if other progressive sites take the hint…

  8. I don’t ever comment, but I agree with most here that say it’s got a good aesthetic already. Also agree with Don’s idea that”Unthreaded comments would be nice. It’s hard to follow the discussion if new comments appear in the middle of the page.”

    One thing I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing is, when someone posts a long thought out/researched post that is mostly original, I’d rather see it not get the ‘view more’ treatment… if you take that much time to write the post, give it the full front page of the blog treatment. Let you freak flag fly!

    Also, please don’t screw it up the way Josh Marshal did, this format reminds me very much of the old TPM (but with comments)… I can’t visit that site now without groaning about how hideous its has become, aesthetically and content-wise.

  9. Edit or preview on comments would be good; recent posts & box might be nice but would rather see site stay as it is–plain, legible, accessible and one that plays well with Safari and IE alike.

  10. I agree that a major redesign isn’t needed. I like it very much as is, and I despise unnecessary “updates.” An edit function is fine.

    I am unclear though on what people here mean exactly by “new thread.” Do they mean that people should use the reply button more often, if their comment is similar to one that’s already made?

    Would it be then useful to have some sort of a (I hate to say it but …) “like” function? Except, maybe one off to the side, where you could put in a comment, like a little sort of — okay, it’s late, I’ve forgotten what it’s called — wait, now I remember — a signing statement? As in, I agree with this comment, except for _____ …? Some way to show how many of us agree? That might be fun, if it were unobtrusive, and if you could tailor them somehow. Without them taking over.

    What’s most important to me, and what I worry could get lost, is the ability to have real exchanges among commenters. I have seen this disappear on sites before, like when Slate got rid of the Fray. It’s just not the same after that, and I suppose it could be partly a function of there being too many users? Getting too large is bad, I’m afraid.

    1. On second thought, I think the signing statement thing would get too complicated. Maybe we should stick with the way it is now, and just accept that there are sometimes too many threads.

  11. As a designer myself, I would agree that the basic structure is great. It errs on the side of simplicity, which is far better than most sites. Please don’t over-complicate the structure of the forums. However, I do think basic design issues/styles could be refreshed. The site feels a bit dated aesthetically.

    What I like:

    RBC is the most conversational of the political sites I visit. It’s great because many intelligent commentators substantively weigh in on issues. It’s not only, or even mainly, about the four or five primary contributors. It’s about the conversation their posts provoke.

    Part of this is because the comments aren’t hidden behind a click-through–they’re right there at the end of the post–unlike other sites which hide the comments and force you to find them by clicking through. The comments on other sites feel secondary, unnecessary. At RBC, they seem crucial to the whole enterprise.

    Most blog forums are built for pithy, Twitterized replies. But one of the nice things about RBC is that it allows for “long-form,” substantive comments.

    Please don’t unthread the comments, the way some have mentioned above. It’s great to reply to a specific person and/or comment. Unthreaded comments feel like a free-for-all of random, splatterpaint replies.

    What doesn’t work:

    I agree with many of the above that you often have to search back through tons of posts to find an interesting conversation. Many great conversations die because they get lost beyond the “older posts” button.

    Clicking on a link in the original post or comments section should open up a new tab, rather than advancing the current tab. (I’ve lost mid-edit comments this way.)

    A “like” button could be interesting. Currently, though, it’s great that you show love for a comment by actually commenting on it.

    While I love all of the content posted by your bloggers, some is more topical, some less. It might be nice to be able to filter blog posts by subject or even by poster. Searching by topic could be great too.

    Preview and edit! So long as it doesn’t allow a poster to change the nature of their comment to make it look like later replies are idiotic–I’ve seen this happen on other sites. Some allow you to edit until the comment is specifically replied to, after which it’s locked-in.

    1. I like your comment. I don’t usually show my approval by commenting, unless i have something to add, but you seem to expect it?, so here I am. I approve of many more things than I reply to. Maybe a checkmark feature would be good. I think we need more input on this issue — people, what do you all do?

      I also like your point about opening new tabs. That bugs me too a little, and I’d forgotten.

      1. I agree very strongly that following links to other sites should take one to a new tab. That is (I believe) a feature very readily added, and it would save a lot of backspaces when one follows a link to another link to another link …. Much preferable just to be able to return to the RBC tab when one’s curiosity has been sated.

    2. I think a “like” button would be useful, but would avoid “upvotes” and “downvotes” which can turn into ballot-stuffing contests. Besides, if you agree with a comment a “like” is enough, but if you disagree then it seems to me you have some obligation to give reasons, rather than just issuing a thumbs-down.

  12. I recently read something about how people will only wait a fourth of a second for websites to load before getting annoyed and perhaps going elsewhere. I plead guilty; yet I often find myself at RBC precisely because sites like Andrew Sullivan’s take substantially more than that to load, and seem to be glitchy as they do load.

    I like the simplicity of the site and the quickness of loading; I second the many commentators who hope the redesign doesn’t get too fancy, if only because I often read it on my smartphone on the go and a more complicated site would take too long to load.

    1. Kevin, there is no need to “plead guilty”. Well-designed user interfaces (it’s irrelevant whether we’re talking about the web or desktop applications) should have fast response times. Slow loading times are disruptive to human thought processes. What Jakob Nielsen wrote in 1997 still holds today: “Considering these fundamental facts in both human factors and computer networking, there is only one conclusion: webpages have to be designed with speed in mind. In fact, speed must be the overriding design criterion.” Responsiveness matters, as he wrote in his 2010 update.

      This is why we’re seeing a lot more Javascript usage for interaction these days (to avoid long page reloads) and why Google has been so focused on making search ever more instant (not just Google Instant, but also deploying their own brower so that they can use better protocols and even fiddling with the TCP protocol).

      In short, pages that load fast are simply good design.

  13. Would any commenters like the option to upload images? I feel a bit guilty when I use my blogger privileges to do this. We’d need a size limit – I try to stick to 200k or so in posts to keep loading fast.
    Noy sure if this is technically feasible, though.
    I’ve made the suggestion to Steve that posts be numbered, as at Crooked Timber, which often has single-ply threads of over 100 substantive comments. To avoid confusion, the very rare comments deleted as uncivil have to remain as ghosts.

    1. I do not see the need for this. If I wanted to refer to an image, I could always put it on a public image hosting site such as and link that. Conversely, having the comment section cluttered with images does not seem to be that great an idea.

      More important would be being able to ensure that such links are indeed correct — i.e. the much-requested preview/edit functionality.

    2. Can someone please explain the definition of a thread? Is a thread what we have here in boxes, where someone comments and people respond, and that all stays in a box together? B/c if so, I *like* that and think it makes perfect sense and have no idea why someone would want to un-thread that, or what it would look like if we did.

      1. In the days of newsgroups (usenet) threading became a means of keeping like discussions clustered together by the news readers. As the topic shifted (the discussion would fork) people would change the subject line (being text based it was the only way). This practice is still done with mailing lists. Technically, any discussion on the main topic of the article is one overarching thread. All the comments on comments are also threads forked from the main topic.

    3. Oooh — you know what I’d like? Rich text!!!! Italics, how do I love thee…?

      I know there’s a way to do it here, but I never remember stuff like that.

      Also, instead of deleting wholesale why not just strike out the rude parts??? What do people think about that? I do a good bit of swearing here myself. Trying to cut down!!

  14. I’d like to respond to Don’s 7:41 PM, a comment against threaded comments, by making the point that this very comment-in-reply would have been much simpler to follow had I made it in the form of a threaded comment.

    In less snarky form: I enthusiastically endorse threaded comments. The comment numbers mentioned by James Wimberley might help if comments weren’t threaded, but would be difficult to reconcile with threading. Also, when implemented comment numbers tend to have a problem if comments are led in a moderation queue (for tripping a possible-sp@m-filter, say) and then later inserted, and numbered, according to chronological number. This can get very confusing, and I’m fairly sure I’ve seen it at Crooked Timber.

    Regarding Wimberley’s other suggestion, of images: I don’t know that I’d use it, and I worry it would be hard to implement and would affect loading speed. If I feel the need, I can always hyperlink without embedding.

    One feature I’ve seen at Daily Kos but perhaps nowhere else (therefore suggesting there may be technical barriers) is a brightly colored flag paced on comments newly posted since your last visit.

    1. From a usability perspective, Usenet-style threading has both its up- and its downsides. The main downside is that deeply nested discussions are often difficult to follow, too, and may lose focus.

      Ideally, this type of threading accomplishes two goals: It makes it easy to find the comment another comment refers to (via indentations) and it keeps related comments clustered. However, there are alternative ways to accomplish the first goal (such as an easy facility to quote another post) and often it’s actually desirable to separate a new comment from the discussion that spawned it.

      It’s not an either-or choice, though. There are models that lie between full threading and having no threading at all. (Unfortunately, only very few are supported by standard blogging software.)

      I generally like how Stackoverflow handles this (with the exception of the upvote/downvote part, which makes sense for a technical site where correctness can be objectively evaluated, but not for a discussion site where things are often more subjective). It’s essentially nesting one level deep, with the thread-starter being visually more prominent than the responses.

    2. One feature I’ve seen at Daily Kos but perhaps nowhere else (therefore suggesting there may be technical barriers) is a brightly colored flag paced on comments newly posted since your last visit.

      There’s not much at all in the way of technical barriers. The server can easily track the browser’s last visit with a cookie and use that information to highlight new posts upon re-visit. The site’s cookies currently track username and email and use that to conveniently pre-load the text input boxes in the comment form for you. New-comment highlighting would be a great feature I would find very useful.

  15. I am grateful to everyone for these comments. Our goal is not just about the look of the site, but because our infrastructure is old and clunky, causing both the blogging team and many commenters to have the experience of waiting forever for something to post, or, having it not come through at all.

    1. I had noticed that sometimes it takes a long time to comment. Other times not.

      So, in terms of security: I hope you have a lot!! I say a lot of things on here that I would not want attached to my real name by just anybody. I know it’s probably too late for that, but, it would be nice to feel safe. I suppose I am doomed already.

  16. I like the following: (i) The ability to edit one’s comments before posting; (ii) the ability to add HTML, including links tied to a word or phrase in the comment; and (iii) assuming that they’re not too large,the ability to post images, YouTube videos (again, assuming that they don’t get burdensome or too numerous).

  17. I have been a daily reader since “comments” meant sending Mark an email, who responded a couple of times and used one or two in a comment of his. More recently he has slapped back at me a couple of times here, which is much appreciated. A preview/post-submission edit function would be nice. Lately the site has been slow with comments seemingly stuck in a loop before they appear (iMac/Mountain Lion/Firefox), so a technical fix for that would be useful. But, in the world of the interwebs, the RBC is a classic and needs few format changes. Most websites (even the serious ones, alas) now look like something Donald Trump thought up while getting his combover prepared for the day. We don’t need that here. And keep up the good work. Professor Kahn, too.


    1. +1. Comment usability on iPhone is particularly bad here, mostly because the textarea is many screens wide. Moving the cursor around becomes almost impossible.

      Agreed that a Recent Comments widget (and ideally page) would keep threads alive, and there’s nothing wrong with simply bumping up the posts-per-page when posting frequency rises.

  18. I agree with Terra that it would be good to receive an email when someone replies to your comment. Otherwise you have to go searching through dozens of comments just in case someone replied to you.

  19. On my two suggestions.
    1. There´s no support for commenters adding images, so let´s drop it.
    2. Opinion is divided on numbers versus nested subthreads. I´m out of my depth here, but surely it´s possible to combine them in a decimal system, which should not be confusing if we limit the number of layers?

    I don´t think spam is a problem here. It gets blocked by an automatic filter before if ever reaches the thread. The CT problem is with comments deleted for incivility or trolling – some of the bloggere there are pretty fierce. If you have numbering, it´s essential (as I wrote) to keep the zombie or ghost comment with an annotation ¨deleted by moderator¨.

    HTML codes: it should be easy enough to supply a list of allowed tags, as many sites do. I don´t know if its feasible to provide editing buttons for them. I found it simplest to learn the most important three (replacing angle brackets ¨¨ with braces ¨{}¨ so as not to confuse the blogging software here):
    italics: {i}…{/i}
    bold: {strong}…{/strong}
    link: {a href=¨http//……¨}…{/a}
    If this is too much hassle, you can download a free blog editor like Blogdesk, and copy and paste from the HTML view. Remember though that different sites allow different small subsets of the tags, so KISS.

  20. Don’t require us to create an account or pass a stupid captcha test for posting comments. That’s the main things that matter to me.

  21. Esteban! You still here?

    So, I was thinking. Another nice thing … that you might not want … would be the ability for commenters to ask questions or raise topics for the posters.

    For example, just now I see a piece on Slate about some ghastly new federal surveillance program. I don’t, actually, have any insightful questions about it to ask, but, *if* I did, I’d have to do in comments on another topic.

    There are a lot of smart people who come here. They might have good ideas for topics that need investigating. It is not as if there is a shortage of smart people around, but, there IS a shortage of reliable, knowledgeable posters who hit that middle spot between academia and USA Today. (I don’t always want to read someone’s entire dissertation. Not because it’s not fascinating. Just the time issue. ; > )

    I am not saying that these would be assignments for the posters. Instead, my guess is they know a lot of random grad students or otherwise capable people who might have the time or the interest. You never know, right? And i don’t want to just track down someone’s email, that feels stalker-y.

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