How to do article comments, make UI decisions. Firefox style.

Data — which were once know casually in newsrooms as “facts” — are invaluable when making decisions about your site’s user interface, and when explaining your decisions to an often impolite customer base. Here’s a great example from Alexander Limi of the Firefox Web browser’s user experience team.

I’ve been wondering why Firefox 3 doesn’t have that cool little RSS subscription button in its address bar anymore. It used to be there. Now it’s gone. A quick search for rss address bar firefox 3 brought up a link to the Firefox support site. There another Firefox user had posted an obscenity-laced version of the same question I had. And the question yielded this reply from Limi:

“Because the RSS button is the least clicked button in our UI. When you want to use it, you know that you want to use it, so we don’t need to show it all the time. It’s still available, but in the bookmarks menu instead. Unfortunately, most people don’t use RSS. I am a big RSS user myself, but I’m in the minority. — Alexander Limi, Firefox UX Team “

Brevity. Politeness in a response to rudeness. And… facts. (Alexander: if that whole “working at Google/Mozilla/creating your own internationally known open-source CMS thing doesn’t work out for ya, you’ve got a job in my imaginary newsroom anytime.)

1. Unlike too many newsrooms I’ve seen, Mozilla appears to be making user-interface decisions based on … well, data about the users’ experience. If you’re making decisions in your newsroom based on an editor’s war stories, a designer’s favorite color palette, or even an expert’s advice, then stop. Use smart guesses for decisions that can be easily reversed, but base your big decisions only on cold, hard, relevant, current data.

2. Note the empathy. “Brother, I’m with you on the RSS thing. But you and I are weirdos and/or not everyone is as smart as us. So, we do things for them.” I tell my students that newswriting isn’t about self expression; it’s about selfless express. Same with user experience.

3. This should be point 1. But this is a real response, from a real person, with a real name, and with some level of authority and responsibility. This isn’t from the “Department of People Who Deal With User Complaints”. So I trust it, and am more likely to trust the brand.

4. No whining. There’s no “You get the dadgum browser for free, so eat your vegetables and like it. “There’s no deleting the obscenity from the original question. No scolding. Just a factual, brief and polite response. And all of those things increase my trust in Limi. He’s a social Big Boy and that causes me to presume that he is a Big Boy in his work product as well.

If comments aren’t working on your news site, following Limi’s formula will start you back on the path to success.