The New York Times experiments further with user comment designs

It’s all change in the user comments on the New York Times. With an impending redesign, they’ve also been experimenting with new features.

Interesting post by Justin Ellis over at the Nieman Journalism Lab about the New York Times employing a new type of commenting platform that elicits more structured data from users. Those wishing to leave their thoughts about the election of Pope Francis I were first invited to place their feelings on a sentiment analysis matrix, and could optionally declare whether they identified themselves as a member of the Catholic faith or not.

The New York Time’s structured comment form

The New York Time’s structured comment form

Comments were also limited to 100 words, and Ellis noted that the end result was “something that reads like an edited selection of pullquotes from a magazine rather than walking into the middle of shouting match on a subway platform.”

In the comments on Justin’s piece I noticed something from my former Guardian colleague Meg Pickard, with whom I worked on a lot of community related projects over the years we were both there. She said:

“I recommended a similar structured approach when I was at the Guardian, though looking more at increasing data points for sifting and social summation – e.g. asking people if they agree/disagree with a positioning statement (=‘27% of commenters in this conversation agree with the point under debate’), and getting contributors to categorise their comment as follow-up, question, personal experience, additional resource, answer, off-topic etc.”

We tried to do this a little by crudely adding agree/disagree buttons under comment pieces in the Guardian’s defunct Facebook app.

Agree/Disagree buttons in the Guardian Facebook app

Agree/Disagree buttons in the Guardian’s Facebook app

I had hoped that the easy interaction of the “agree” button would help redress the balance where it often seems that the only people who want to comment below a piece are those who object to the author’s stance.

The New York Times is approaching the launch of a re-design, and several reviews of what we’ve seen so far are beginning to appear online, some of which have also touched upon the future of commenting on the paper’s site. Creative Review have an early critique in the form of a blog post, and another ex-colleague of mine, Mark Porter notes that:

“The New York Times appears to be taking a lead from the kind of design we’re seeing on touch-screen tablets and smartphones, making the content the hero, and trusting the reader be smart enough to invoke the navigation, comments and links when they want them”

On Co.Design, Mark Wilson is asking “Will the New York Times redesign lead to a new web standard?

On comments, he says:

“The area up for the most debate may be the refreshed user comments. Commenting matters on most sites. But when it comes to the New York Times, everything is elevated. Commenting is suddenly a matter of freedom of speech. Formerly tucked beneath each article, comments were always displayed, and always displayed in the same place. Now, most comments are buried a click away. But here’s the counterbalance: Once you make that click, the comments show in full directly beside the article. The commenters suddenly have equal footing with the writers.”

Wilson goes on to quote Ian Adelman, director of digital design at the paper:

“It’s interesting to hear reactions on this. Some people see it as an elevation of comments; some people see it as a demotion. But we refer to them in more places. We think it presents a nice commenting experience. What remains to be seen is if it’s a useful comment reading experience.”

Comments in the new NYT design

Comments in the New York Times redesign

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