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I'm working on a communication platform, that help teams (in healthcare) to work together. People most often post a message to the entire team (~25 people), but can also post a message to one person, or the entire organization (~1500 people).

This question is about a pop-out that is embedded on other web pages.

As space is limited, when you open the list from the bottom of the page, you quickly want to find out what's new.

That might be new messages posted to your team, but also a reply to a question you asked someone two days ago.

The default would be to order threads based on time of last reply. That would show the newest stuff first, but at the same time forces you to read all replies of all threads.

We know that replies are much less important than the initial messages. Except of course replies to your own messages, or replies added after you participated. It would be annoying to have a message sent to the entire organization, to be on top of the list for a few days, just because it has many eyeballs.

Would it make sense to order threads by last reply, but only if you participated in that thread?

So a reply to a thread you created two days ago, will bump the thread on top (for you).

But for another person, who did not reply in that thread, would see the reply counter going up, but the position in the list would stay the same for him.

Message list pop-out message list pop-out

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I love this - it's an electronic version of the whiteboard that everyone congregates around and annotates. I would look at those for inspiration. There are academic papers on hospital whiteboards and how they are used. A great area of study and fantastic use of UI/UX. I'm happy to see questions like this posted. :-) +1 –  LindaBrammer Jul 29 '13 at 16:54

4 Answers 4

I learned the following from this:

  • Ordering threads by last reply on top will overwhelm you with replies to threads you are not interested in.
  • Ordering threads by last thread on top, causes you to miss replies to messages you are interested in.

Luckily we already have the concept of notifications. A notification is generated according to the following rules.

  • Replies to threads you created or participated in.
  • New personal messages addressed to you.
  • New messages written by your manager.

If we have the list of messages ordered by last thread on top. We could then show the list of notifications next to it.

So instead of a smart list, that uses above rules to order threads by last reply or first message. There are two lists.

To me, this actually looks way more complicated!

pop-out with notifications

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How about a single scrollable list which includes a heading "Featured messages", then messages which contain new content of interest, followed by the heading "All messages" and all content? –  supercat Mar 25 at 22:37

The flaw with modifying the message order in the way you describe is that it won't really be obvious to the user what's going on. In fact, they might just think that the sorting is broken.

Instead, why not add filters? The user could choose "To me", "To group", "To everyone", or "All".

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That makes sense, but I wonder if those filters would be effective. To not overwhelm everyone with all replies, I want to go for ordering by thread start. Then create a filter for threads that I participate in. –  mlangenberg Jul 30 '13 at 7:54

I think the #1 things should be that the user feels in control. That means they understand what's going on. Having a lot of smart rules can be difficult for the user to understand.

For e.g. Facebook mini-feed applies a lot of logic to filter and not overwhelm you, but people don't understand that and are surprised to know a certain picture was posted by friend/family but it never showed in their feed.

With that in mind, I don't think that the software can perfectly predict what the user would be interested in seeing at any given point in time as that can change as well. In your example, there could be an urgent company wide communication that one might want to stay abreast of.

I think a better option might be to display messages in a reverse chronological list and have visual indicators to help identify the messages. For example the messages that the user is participating in could have an icon next to them. This allows the user to visually scan and find them more easily.

You could also add a filter, and mostly likely you would need to but it comes with it's own problems, so I would not treat that as a primary solution, but an additional layer on top.

Doing some research on how people identify what they want to track will help identify the visual indicators you need in place.

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With a reverse chronological order, do you mean to order by last reply or by first message? On a list ordered by last reply, I might get annoyed by the replies that keep coming to a company wide message. On a list ordered by first message, I might loose track on an important thread that I participated in. How would you solve that issue? –  mlangenberg Jul 29 '13 at 14:53
    
Let's say you write me a personal messages and it takes me three days to respond. Between you sending the message, and me posting the reply, 20 other messages have been shared with the team. Where would you look to find that original message back? How would you know I replied? (the default thing would be notifications, where would you put them on a pop-out like this?) –  mlangenberg Jul 30 '13 at 9:46
    
Your concern is valid, but you have described a specific scenario/user need that needs to be solved. I would suggest that you put a person icon next to the ones that are addressed to you. Message addressed directly to you are one way someone might decide the importance, there might be others like message from my boss should take prominance, or from a client.. or something that includes a term that I am currently watching - for instance product managers keeping an eye on a new release. That's why a) Make the sorting clear b) Make easier to identify different types of messages –  Alok Jain Jul 30 '13 at 23:03
    
In other words, software cannot know what's important all the time, so provide tools to the user to identify and make that process easier. –  Alok Jain Jul 30 '13 at 23:09
    
It appeared to me that this is quite similar to Twitter.com having the Home news feed, and a tab called Interactions that shows only the conversations you are involved in. In the answer I proposed, it looks more like Facebook with a sidebar showing the latest events all the time. –  mlangenberg Jul 31 '13 at 7:58

You mentioned that organizing the list by last thread on top would cause users to miss replies to messages that they are interested in. When you combine these two goals, you will get a list that is organized by newest thread AND newest reply to messages they are interested in.

Earlier, someone already mentioned this kind of sorting might be confusing to the user. A solution would be to add some visual identifier (some kind of "favorite" symbol, I would imagine). However, this would still pose the problem of having many new threads that push down the newest reply to a thread your user was interested in.

Instead of mixing the sorting of your list, you can opt to keep the sorting basic and easy to understand (newest threads on top), and combine this with a "sticky" system where the threads that the user is interested in are kept on the very top of this list. This allows the user to quickly see "their" messages. And if they have time and/or are interested, they can continue reading down the list for the regular messages.

Even if you cannot passively track the (un)read status of new replies to these stickies, an active tracking system would benefit the usability greatly. Just let users "check off" any stickies they have seen. The sticky will move to the main list, uncluttering the view, and come back on top if there is a new reply later.

If necessary (but would make it slightly more complicated to use), you could allow users to opt-out of this sticky thread, or allow them to sticky other threads

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