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Jun 28, 2006 11:53 PM

Technical interface considerations (long)

(was First long thread without trees -- Help!)

Dear Chowhound Team,

I'm not sure how many posts you have received about this, but I just finished having a very emotional experience over on my home (Los Angeles Area) board.

I am still reeling from it.

First, my experience:

I guess since I have been hanging out at Site Talk -- and participating in the community effort to help you guys build a better Chowhound -- I had lost touch with a common element of the day-to-day Chowhound experience;

The Long Thread.

Well, I just encountered my first long thread since the launch of Chowhound 2.0 last Friday. And I have got to say that all I could do was back out and run straight over here (Site Talk) to post this concerning it. I mean to say I could not even BEGIN to follow who was responding to who (let alone begin to digest the substance of their responses). All I saw was a static list of responses to the OP. It was like a big blur. No relationships -- only responses. Page after page of lifeless, soulless data. All text and no context. And that is not right.

With the old (hierarchial tree) interface, navigating long threads was a breeze. All I had to do was find the position of the first (unopened) response to the original post (OP), drill down each response (and sub-response) to that response, and then move on to the next (OP or otherwise) response where I would happily (and without effort) repeat the process. No matter how complex the thread, the software gave me the tools to chew (no pun intended) through each response in an elegant (and efficient) manner in which the context of each post was visually preserved.

But speed and efficiency were not the main issue. Although I personally developed a facility with the interface which enabled me to become quick and efficient at processing several large threads in a short amount of time, let me be clear:

The *real* issue was that the DEPTH of the thread was able to be digested. THIS is where the old interface really shined. Yes, the new system may be quicker at processing the raw information contained in each evolving thread, but it comes with a price:

The context is lost! The relationships are fragmented.

It is a question of breadth vs. depth. And I submit to you that to achieve greater efficiency at processing breadth at the sacrifice of depth is a bad direction. Both are important. And a balance must be struck. For this, the old interface wins. The hierarchial tree based system of displaying threads and posts was an elegant solution to a complex problem. It offered a far better balance than does the current hybrid system.

This is a HUGE issue. And I hope it is getting the feedback it deserves. I say that only because it is something that really, REALLY needs to be implemented. Without it, the interface will simply not be capable of delivering the users the ability to navigate a thread while retaining the precious context of each individual post.

Bear in mind that I speak primarily of long threads, or even moderately sized threads. But not short threads, of which the bulk of the boards are comprised. Short threads are easily handled by the current (new) interface. There are not many relationships; just a quick "Q&A" style of interaction.

But that's not where the action is!

The value of Chowhound is in its rich, diverse, passionate and opinionated community. This value is realized when the Chowhound user is given the tools to digest a long and complex thread with multiple levels of sub-posts *while retaining* the context of each post and understanding the relationships at work in that discussion. To digest a thread completely is to understand the subtle interplay between users of diverse backgrounds and differing opinions. Only when these relationships are spotlighted does the evolution of a thread maintain its integrity.

The focus should be on the *relatioships* between the posters. Only then will the true value of their responses be realized!

Thanks for listening,


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  1. The replies are displayed in a hierarchical chain, there is currently a limit in the software which allows no more than 5 "generations" of replies to display "offset" from the messages that they are replying to. We have reported this to the engineering team.

    The software was enhanced yesterday so that if you return to a thread topic that you had previously read, and there are new replies that you have not read, the background color of the new replies will be in a slightly darker colored shade. New replies also are tagged with a "New" label.

    This should help you to quickly scroll down to the new replies.

    6 Replies
    1. re: The Chowhound Team

      I can appreciate what you are saying, Chowhound Team. And I appreciate that you are working to provide additional generations to the current hierarchial interface. And that you are providing other enhancements in the software to enable the quicker location of new replies to posts and sub-posts.

      This is not really the issue, though.

      The current interface -- although technically containing certain certain hierarchial elements -- provides the user a dramatically different experience than did the previous hierarchial interface.

      It is more than hierarchy, then. It is also the value of interaction.

      To help explain what I mean, let's return to the core of my original post.

      My complaint was that in using the new system, the relationships between each post (beginning with the identities of the posters) is lost as the process of reading the sub-posts (and sub-sub-posts, etc.) loses the critical interaction (clicking) that was so gloriously present in the old system.

      By clicking on each post, the identity of the poster *behind* that post was logged PRIOR to reading his/her post. This was a critical element in the process which *forced* an interaction and *forced* the reinforcement of the context.

      This cannot be understated. It is the forced *interaction* with the interface that enables the building of the context (and a depth of understanding) of each post. This is what has made Chowhound such a rich resource in the past.

      So the issue, aside from the hierarchial layout, is the forced interaction that the previous interface required to read each post. By modifying the process, an active system requiring interaction was replaced by a passive system that requires no interaction. Yes, the new system allows for quicker processing of any given thread. But the gain in speed (by eliminating the interactive process) comes at the sacrifice of (the knowledge of) context. Context which is essential to fully appreciate the data contained in a post. Without the knowledge of a poster's identity, the full range of subtleties contained in any given communication *by* that poster is lost.

      It is data in a vacuum. Lifeless. Soulless. And without passion.

      We need the interaction of the old site back. We need to once again appreciate the subtle *relationships* at work in each thread; not just their literal substance. The old interface provided an elegant solution for that.

      Is it too late to apply some of the ancient wisdom of this (former) quirky, yet lovable interface?

      I hope not.


      1. re: David Ford

        I'm no engineer but I imagine that it would be impossible to change this flat view system into a threaded view system. I agree, threaded view is vastly superior to flat view.

        What WOULD help, somewhat, would be the addition of a "quoting" function, that allows a respondent to easily quote the text of the post he/she is responding to.

        1. re: Chris VR

          All due respect, Chris, but adding a quoting function to the current interface would only serve to further complicate the problem.

          We don't have to re-invent the wheel here. The old interface provided a near-perfect balance between speed of processing and depth of comprehension. And I hope it's not too late to incorporate the critical elements which would enable that again.

          1. re: Chris VR

            I don't know if it's possible to change *this* system to threaded, but it is possible to have a system that gives the user the option of how the content is viewed. does it. The default view there is very much like the old Chowhound, but there's also an e-thread view that can be viewed collapsed or expanded.

          2. re: David Ford

            "By clicking on each post, the identity of the poster *behind* that post was logged PRIOR to reading his/her post. This was a critical element in the process which *forced* an interaction and *forced* the reinforcement of the context."

            Mileage varies. I found that aspect of the old interface painfully tedious and annoying.

            On the new site, the only creature with whom I'm interacting less is my mouse.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              >On the new site, the only creature with whom I'm interacting less is my mouse.


        2. Having reread the OP's post a few times i am not sure even now that I fully comprehend the complaint. But if he is waxing nostalgic for the need to go back to the original thread after viewing each subsequent post, I must say that I consider the elimination of that process, which like Robert Lauriston I found 'painfully tedious and annoying', one of the greatest improvements of the new site. The long, slow, back and forth and breakups etc had led me almost to give up on chowhound after about a decade participating. Whatever the issues, I think this is indisputably a superior platform.

          6 Replies
          1. re: dbird

            Me too. I found it rather tedious and difficult to follow the entire discussion on the old board. Reading a single disembodied post one at a time made it tough to get a sense of where the conversation was going or coming from.

            I would welcome a more prominent presentation of the threading in this view. I appreciate that the site is still under development and there's lots to do, but perhaps a summary of the entire discussion with clickable links to indicate threading at the top or bottom or side of the posts such something like this would be very useful:

            Technical interface considerations (long) - David Ford Jun 28, 2006 7:53 PM
            • The Chowhound Team
            •• David Ford
            ••• ChrisVR
            •••• David Ford
            •••• Chimayo Joe
            ••• Robert Lauriston
            •••• carswell
            • dbird (new)

            (using "•" in lieu of tabs as spaces or tabs don't format properly)

            1. re: limster

              Oops, I neglected to reply directly to limster's post as I had intended.

              To view said reply to limster, please see my post below beginning with limster, you have just done a great thing!".


              1. re: limster

                What limster suggests sounds fine, if you could click on any of the sub-posts, and see _all_ the subsequent headers below; not just those of the subthread. My problem with the original interface was that you would only see the direct responses to a subthread, and would have to click back to the original post to see all the response headers (this setup took me a long time to even understand). IOW, I'd like to see a setup as in the Usenet reader "Agent". Does that make sense?

                1. re: Steve Green

                  That gives me an idea. Show, with mouseover, the thread diagram (with clickable links) showing both parents and children of that post. That way it'd be a piece of cake to trace parallel subthreads within a thread.

                  For those who don't know, a thread diagram is a visual representation of the structure of a discussion. Our old software was nothing but thread diagrams. They help you orient the track of discussion.

                  For any of these solutions, though, we have to preserve threading. So please, everybody, please try to avoid using the reply box beneath each thread unless you intend to reply to the first posting in the thread.

                  BTW, a "thread" is a single discussion topic.

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    This could be really cool, especially if by color-coding you could easily see what posts you have read.

                  2. re: Steve Green

                    Bingo -- exactly what I had in mind.

              2. limster, you have just done a great thing!

                Chowhound Team, if you are listening, *this* is what I have had in mind all along. Please take note of the elegant simplicity of this interface. All that I (and others) are asking for is for you to offer this thread view as well.

                Many of us appreciate the ability to click directly to a portion of the conversation that interests us; either be it that it is a post we have not yet read, or that it is a post that is authored by a particular user, or it is a post that we have read and would like to read again, etc.

                This view (the "closed thread" view) offers that to us in a way that makes sense and allows us to gain the feeling of community that is so central to the Chowhound experience.

                And thanks again, limster! :-)


                7 Replies
                1. re: David Ford

                  David Ford said:
                  "Chowhound Team, if you are listening, *this* is what I have had in mind all along. Please take note of the elegant simplicity of this interface. All that I (and others) are asking for is for you to offer this thread view as well."

                  David, Chowhound Engineering is indeed reading and considering input from all of you and from the Chowhound Team and me, and they're already doing a great job (as you've surely noticed!) of tweaking and improving. I'm betting that, in time, ways will be found to make long threads with lots of parallel discussion more easily followed and organized (less of a "big blur" as you put it). This is all a work in progress, bear in mind.

                  Meanwhile, I have no doubt that we, as a community, will find ways to make it work. Consider that we survived nearly 9 years with software that was a headache all around, and the resulting forum nonetheless sang with chowfulness. We can certainly do the same now; we all just need to adjust and figure out resourceful new methods.

                  I'm wondering if it might help at least a little to remove the generic reply box below each thread, which encourages scattershot reply to anything one sees (with no preservation of threading) and breaks the discipline/habit of always hitting the reply button to the posting you want to reply to (which does preserve thread relationships). Even I find myself sucked into the ease of using that reply box to reply to anything I see, rather than carefully selecting a posting to reply to. Same for removing the big "add your own" button on the original posting, which also breaks the model, and keeping that a "reply" button. Our threads often don't address the original posting; they more often address the replies (i.e. O.P. asks "where do I find great pancakes?", several replies offer several tips, and parallel discussions ensue re: the merits of each tip).

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    I don't think any method will ensure complete compliance, but it took me awhile to get over the "Add your own" wording. I'd prefer a simple "reply."

                    I do think that the reply box on the bottom makes sense. Most of the time, you'll want to read a whole thread before replying, in case someone duplicates what you want to say to the O.P.

                    1. re: Dave Feldman

                      I do like the idea of people reading through before replying (though I don't mind an opinion site like this, consensus and corroboration are all-important).

                      However every time someone uses that generic reply box at bottom, the reply goes to the first post. This breaks the threading discipline that gives us hope of tracking sub-threads. I'm already seeing lots of people getting into the habit of using that box rather than hitting a reply button to the specific posting they want to reply to. This works against the threading that is already possible with this breaks the parent/child relationships that are currently our main weapon against the blurring you describe on long threads.

                    2. re: Jim Leff

                      Thanks for the reply, Jim.

                      "I'm wondering if it might help at least a little to remove the generic reply box below each thread, which encourages scattershot reply to anything one sees (with no preservation of threading) and breaks the discipline/habit of always hitting the reply button to the posting you want to reply to (which does preserve thread relationships)."

                      That would be a good beginning. I would be in favor or that.

                      Regarding the rest, it sounds like you guys are on it. Good to hear.

                      If you will kindly indulge me one final thought in passing, it would be to consider that the success of Chowhound's first 9 years was due in large measure to the threading paradigm that was implemented at the outset. Yes, it was a bandwidth hog. And certain other visual elements and processes cried out to be fixed, as well. But nowhere among them was the dominant theme of the closed thread, hierarchial text based interface. That interface helped build a community. And we all owe a debt of gratitude to the minds that were behind it.

                      There was hidden genius in the old design that I rarely hear talked about. Sadly, much of it was not evident to me until I found myself without suddenly without it. And now I just want it back.

                      In the meantime, keep up the great work. It does not go unnoticed.


                      1. re: David Ford

                        The new design is pretty good for shooting the breeze. I think it's not as good for information exchange, and I think it does weaken the sense of community. On the other hand, I don't think it's any worse than its main competitor on those two points, so maybe the site won't suffer too much loss of its longtime users. I'm certainly not planning on leaving Chowhound.

                        The other forums I've used heavily and seen go through this process are the Audio Review site(which was abandoned by most of the core users who left and established Audio Asylum) and the Madisound discussion board(forum for amateur loudspeaker builders.) Madisound switched to a flat view, but the community went ballistic, and they switched back to the tree format. I don't think it can be chalked up to those two groups just being resistant to change or not being technologically inclined. They're always looking for something better, and the percentage of techies on those sites is very high. Sense of community is really strong at both those forums, too--could be coincidence that they use tree format, but I doubt it.

                        1. re: Chimayo Joe

                          I'm a webmaster with a site that has both threaded and flat views, as selectable, and have to say that I find this new interface to be totally confusing.

                          Just to create this post, I've been scrolling up and down to figure out the right place to hit the reply button. That means that I've had to reread the content three times, which is clearly inefficient from a UI perspective.

                          I'm disappointed with the RSS function so far -- I've actually just done a review comparing RSS Bandit, GreatNews, RSSOwl and FeedReader. It's actually possible to create a threaded view in some packages -- it's hidden as a background function in RSS Bandit -- but it's really inobvious to the casual user.

                          In the old format (which I agree was unsustainable), I used to be able to use Plucker to download the message to my Palm TX. (It's a huge file, and I guess an artifact now, if I haven't erased it). This was a function of the software being simpler HTML. I'd like to be able to continue to read this content on my Palm, but am pretty pessimistic about that.

                          I tend to use tabbed views in Thunderbird, and in the old interface would find an interesting post, and open all of the threads in a separate tab. I can still kind of do that, but the feeling is entirely different.

                          This is my first post on the new web site, and I'm disappointed to say that it's now about technology and not about food. I hope that you'll be able to straighten this out -- but also wonder why the technical group seemed to have reinvented the wheel, rather than using a standard open source package and extending it. That would be a community approach, rather than going out on your own, and having to do all of the support yourself.

                      2. re: Jim Leff

                        "I'm wondering if it might help at least a little to remove the generic reply box below each thread, which encourages scattershot reply to anything one sees (with no preservation of threading)"

                        Good Idea. Threading isn't working with the input box at the bottom.

                    3. How about breaking up the posts into pages so you can get to the last post quickly instead of having to scroll through screens of stuff.

                      1. Hello David Ford... I applaud the perseverance and elegance with which you continue to describe the *real issue* behind the bells and whistles issue: loss of relationship with community. On this most recent post, the replies have been of an understanding and helpful nature, even when in disagreement; on other silmilarly themed posts of yours from last week, it seemed that the mass of replies from yea-sayers of the new paradigm just didn't get the gist of the challenge that you set before the team. Imagine if scientists finally invented a time machine that could transport you anywhere into the past or future, but when you arrived, you could neither speak nor hear what anybody said. Not the best analogy, perhaps. But I feel that Chowhound is now a hundred times better at doing what is hundred times less relevant (if only to me and you, David). Sigh. Thanks again for trying yet again, where others would have long ago given up...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: silence9

                          How very nice of you to say, silence9! Thank you. And I agree. It seems as though others are showing more of an interest in exploring this issue. I view this as a very positive development, indeed.

                          And, with time, I believe we will see even more.

                          Thanks again for the very nice words.