Don’t make me look stupid

Most weblog comment systems convert a single return into a break tag, and two returns into a paragraph. If yours does not, that’s something unusual, and you need to tell people, before they submit a comment that they expect to be several paragraphs long, only to find that they’ve submitted one giant lump of text that makes them look foolish.

Most weblog comment systems either allow some HTML, including links, or they convert raw URLs to links. If yours does one, or the other, or none, you need to tell people, before they submit an unlinked URL or the words “read this” with the surrounding link stripped out, and end up looking foolish.

You can let people know what will happen to their comments by either adding a little explanation to the comments form (“Line breaks aren’t converted: use your own paragraph tags”, “No HTML allowed, URLs are converted to links but leave a space before and after”, “The following tags are allowed: …”), or by offering a Preview button and making sure that it actually works and displays properly (an amazing number of Movable Type weblogs have a Comment Preview Template that has never been touched, with a broken link to the stylesheet, so the preview looks like ass and make you wonder if it even displays what will happen correctly). However, if you do not allow HTML, you need to tell people even if you do allow preview, since your preview will generally strip the HTML out of what it puts in the textarea, so that someone who is previewing a comment with several links will completely lose them and have to start gathering up the URLs again from scratch.

Don’t like the way instructions look on your comment form? Tough luck. Put them there anyway. Yes, you are being hospitable by allowing comments, and as a result you get to set the rules, but not telling people what the rules are until after they break them is as bad as not allowing shoes in the house, but not telling your guests until after they’ve tromped all over your white carpet in their muddy boots. Telling people how your house rules differ from the norm, and what they are when there is no norm, is just basic, essential hospitality.


Comment by Simon Willison #
2003-04-13 13:11:22

Guilty as charged! I’ve been meaning to add ”instructions” to my dicedly non-standard comments system for ages, but your post finally gave me the kick I needed to actually do it. Thanks :)

Comment by Gerald #
2003-04-13 14:29:09

Nice, just launched my new weblog and now I have to realize that I missed a common usabilty guideline ;-) Jacob Nielsen would love it. What’s about some more usabilty mistakes (resp. hints) related to weblogs? Sounds interesting.

Phil, just realized that the comment instructions/rules are missing at your preview page. Not mandatory, but perhaps a small benefit.

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-04-13 14:51:58

Indeed they were missing from the preview page, exactly where they are needed most, and just as bad, the template for replies to previous comments had an old version claiming that all HTML is allowed, rather than the current version listing allowed tags. Usually I’m sharp enough to clean up my own house before pointing out how messy other people are, but not this time.


Comment by Ed Swindelles #
2003-04-13 14:36:59

I am guilty of this as well. Ive been meaning to revamp the comments and leave some instructions, thanks for the reminder.

Comment by Joshua Kaufman #
2003-04-13 15:05:16

I tell people how my comments work in fine print underneath my comments form. However, in general, I think it’s more important to let people comment as easily as possible than possibly confuse them by telling them how my comment system works.

”Line breaks aren’t converted: use your own paragraph tags”, ”No HTML allowed, URLs are converted to links but leave a space before and after”, ”The following tags are allowed: …”

Many of my visitors don’t understand what that means, nor should they need to understand in order to comment. So, yes I agree that instructions are good. Just make sure you’re not scaring anyone away by including them.

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-04-13 16:06:42

There probably are issues related to what you should and shouldn’t tell someone who’s going to leave a ”This is my first time seeing a Web log” comment. Unfortunately, I’m on such a Kool-aid induced sugar rush that I can’t think where you would even start. I’m lucky in that the only entry I have that attracts non-webloggers is one where users of a certain popular! service!’s instant messaging client ask me to create usernames with illegal characters for them. That entry needs some serious instructions, about how the paragraphs at the top were written by the site owner, the parts below were written by other readers, the ones that have something to do with the top part are good and the ones that don’t are bad… where do you start?

Comment by Jennifer #
2003-04-13 15:05:37

Thank you for pointing it out. I’ll get right on that. :)

Comment by Mark Paschal #
2003-04-13 23:55:53

So what do you think of requiring comments preview? I liked Matt Haughey’s reasoning when he explained why MetaFilter does it that way, so when I set up my MT weblog I removed the ”Post” button from the initial pages.

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-04-14 08:09:25

I never object to it when someone does it, I know that it would save me from myself when I’m sure I know what I’m doing, but every time I think about doing it, I start to think about how many one long sentence no formatting comments like this I leave, and I decide to leave well enough alone for now.

Comment by Tom Coates #
2003-04-14 13:47:21

Ok Ok. Phil I know you’re looking at me. I’m sorry ok? I just don’t like the way that people format their comments! They make my site all messy!

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-04-14 16:50:59

Heh. Actually, you were just the straw: the log that did the real damage was a few weeks ago, where I replied to two comments in a thread with two paragraphs, but when they ended up smooshed together the first person thought they were both aimed at him. But for what little it’s worth, I was going to reply to two different things in your comments yesterday, but the problem of separating them overcame my will to comment. This morning, it did finally occur to me to comment twice to get two paragraphs, but now I’m not sure what I wanted to say. Maybe I should just switch to doing all my commenting via Trackback, where I’m in control, grumble grumble.

Comment by michael #
2003-04-15 23:09:41

Oh sure, I tell you to do this nearly a year ago, and now it looks like your idea. hehe

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2003-04-15 23:39:45

Half an hour of looking for who actually first said ”I only steal from the best”, and I’m now half an hour older. Googlesensus says maybe Milton Berle → Steve Jobs → Dave Winer, I would have said Mark Twain → Kurt Vonnegut → me.

At least Yahoo still likes you best.

Trackback by Confetti Falling #
2003-04-13 15:34:08

The ”Rules”

Phil Ringnalda had a really good point to make. If you do something unusual with your comments, tell people. If you allow anonymous comments, or strip all tags, or anything else that blog commenters won’t expect, tell them. I did…

Trackback by Sam Ruby #
2003-04-14 04:50:19

Nobody reads documentation

I agree with parts of this, and disagree with parts. Doing what people expect is clearly the right place to start. If you have surprises, make sure that they are pleasant ones. Having documentation only results in being able to say that the people wh

Trackback by Geodog's MT Weblog #
2003-04-15 01:14:27

Quote in comments without fear

I complained about how Robert’s very nice comment visibility thingy got broken easily, by people using quotation marks in their comments, but did I fix it, or spend more time investigating it, in spite of getting several useful hints? No, I didn’t do a…

2003-06-28 13:32:24

The ”Rules”

Phil Ringnalda had a really good point to make. If you do something unusual with your comments, tell people. If you allow anonymous comments, or strip all tags, or anything else that blog commenters won’t expect, tell them. I did…

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