Short Run by J.D. Hancock on Flickr (Used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.)
The Background Story
I come from a background strongly focused on communication; my Human-Computer Interaction masters’ degree was out of RPI’s Language, Literature, and Communication Department and my coursework was built on language, literature, and communication as a foundation to understanding newer digital communication methods. I may be biased, then, in thinking a lot of the angst (E.g., It’s Scary to Join an Open Source Project, Customer Support, The Simon Cowell Way, Channels for Community Communications) around getting things done in free software is coming to a crescendo because our tools for basic communication are not serving us well as we scale larger, and fixing that problem has massive potential to better the free software community.
Two years ago now (*sob*!) Luke Macken and I came up with some ideas for a web-based mailing list interface that would complement (not replace) mailing lists as they are today. We’re both pretty busy though and have had a ton of projects we needed to work on for our jobs, so neither of us have really done much with it since then. However, the post is one of the most widely-referenced and popular posts on my blog – maybe a good indicator of an idea worthy of time investment. Honestly, I really really want it to happen, and occasionally have wonderful dreams about it that make waking up to the reality of mailing lists a bummer.
A New Hope
So, over the past couple of weeks my team has been devising a plan for what we’ll work on over the next year, and fixing mailing lists made the cut!
I feel good…!!! by Lenora Enking on Flickr (Used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.)
So, expect to see some more mockups and workflows for a potential mailman archive web interface revamp, then. 🙂 Pingou and Toshio are on-board as well and have started talking to Barry and the mailman developers who are in the planning stages right now of a revamped webui for list archives. We’re very early stages in discussion right now.
I recently joined the mailman-developers mailing list, joined #mailman on freenode, and set up a an area on the fedora-ux git repo to start throwing out UI ideas for it. I’ll make blog posts about this project under the Mailing List Improvements category.
Okay, Here’s Something to Look At
Click on it. It’s 7,750 pixels tall. Probably the longest mockup I’ve ever made. It’s really just a rough idea of what a view of a single, real-life fedora-devel thread might look like in a mailman web UI. There is nothing here that is wedded / married to anybody or anything, so please blow away. The visual design could stay or go. Maybe we could support different visual styles for different communities.
Please leave comments here in the blog comments if you’ve got any feedback / advice on this. Does it seem like something that would be natural to interact with? Here’s some notes on it with some questions for you, thanks to some good questions / comments on identi.ca, on Twitter (the thread is really broken on their webui though. Twitter: 0 Identi.ca: 1), and in #fedora-apps today:
- We waffled back and forth on this in IRC today, but I think we concluded what’s in the mockup is right: in the very top header, you click on the left-facing arrow to go to the next-newest thread, and the right-facing arrow to go to the next-oldest thread. You read a book from left-to-right, oldest content to newest content… but I think you read mailing list threads from newest-to-oldest. (Once within a thread, however, you read the messages from oldest-to-newest until you’ve caught up.) I think then, treating threads as newest-to-oldest is the right way, so the current mockup arrows / positions for navigating between threads make sense.
- Replies don’t have buttons to reply to them. Whoops. They need ’em.
- Threads have a value. Potentially a category too. (The category in the mockup is ‘Question’) This value helps users figure out which threads to skip and which ones to pay attention to.
- Individual messages in a thread have a value. Think Slashdot. When you first go to Slashdot, troll-y messages with low moderation ranks are hidden from your view by default. A very interesting and insightful thread still might have some useless noise in it; giving individual messages in a thread each their own value will help filter the bad apples out.
- People have ranks. If Matthew Garrett posts a message detailing what you should do to fix your laptop, it’s a lot more authoritative and trustworthy than Binky the Clown telling you what he thinks you should do to your laptop in his debut list post. Serial trolls also have a rank – it’s not very high.
- There’s a lot of different ways to display a rank for a given concept (person, thread, post.)
- Although Toshio and Pingou like YouTube’s ranking widget with bar graph, number of votes, and total vote count (example), it is a bit heavy for individual messages within a thread, so something lighter-weight should be chosen there.
- There are a lot of different people-ranking systems. You could give folks a rank number, or a military-style rank with a title. Some forums have ‘stars’ you earn over time. We’re not sure what works best yet in a mailing list context.
- There are progress bars per thread for the number of participants and comments. These are meant to give you an idea how how ‘crowded’ and how busy a given thread is. E.g., if a thread has 500 people and 500 messages, it’s going to be flavoured a bit differently than a thread that has 2 people and 500 messages. 🙂
- There’s a little arrow in the upper-right notch of each comment. I was thinking that could be a drop-down menu for less-commonly used utilities like, ‘report as spam’ or ‘link to this comment.’
- The full date is only displayed in comments where the date changed between comments. Only the time is displayed if the comment was made the same day. (maybe weird? I didn’t want to clutter everything with a full date/time stamp on every single comment.)
On the Queue
Some ideas mockup-wise I’ve got in the queue to explore for this:
- A mockup to show a profile page for folks in the thread. It might talk a bit more about the stats that gave them their rank, and show their most-liked posts, and recent activity.
- For this single-thread view, a way towards the top of navigating straight down to particular sub-threads, and a way to jump back up to the main post. Maybe. I’ve been thinking about playing around with this.
- Again in the single-thread view, some kind of ‘hide all’ or ‘collapse’ for threads, or a more minimal (vertically) view.
- Again in the single-thread view, a mechanism to vote / change the category of the entire thread. Is this something admins only can do, or can individual users vote on this?
- Single-thread view again, display the mechanism for the thread’s rank itself (if needed; maybe the category is enough)
- Place this same exact thread in a variety of different ‘styles’ (
Slashdot style, phpbb / classic forum style, Reddit style, Facebook style, etc.) to get a feel for how the same exact conversation feels differently in different UI arrangements.
- I’m sure more will shake from working on the above, and some of the above will turn out to be abandoned dead ends!
If you want to work with me on the mockups, you can grab the source files from my web checkout of the repo and you could even check stuff into the fedora-ux git repo if you’re a member of fedora-ux in the Fedora account system. (Let me know if you want to join)
lively conversation by Kai Schreiber on Flickr (Used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.)
Well, what do you think? Go nuts in the comments.
(Added a couple more variations on the mockup style to illustrate how we could provide different themes.)