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Facebook and StackExchange have both recently changed how comments are handled.

Users enter text in what appears to be a textarea. When they press enter the comment is now submitted. Using shift-enter will insert a carriage return.

Previously enter inserted a carriage return and a separate button is used to submit the comment.

I'm interested in expert views on whether this is good or bad for usability - should other sites be adopting this approach or alternately explicitly rejecting it?

Details of the background to the StackExchange change: http://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/63303/why-can-you-type-new-lines-in-comments-if-they-are-never-rendered

I can't find similar discussion from Facebook about their change.

EDIT - some additional thoughts. People have mentioned not noticing the change in SE - I wonder if this is because the submit button has also been retained. In contrast Facebook have removed the Add comment button, so it is more jarring to users as you stop writing and then think 'how can I submit this?'

It was also pointed out to me that Facebook does explain about using shift-enter for carriage return, but only after the user has already pressed return in a comment and then subsequently deleted the comment.

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Interesting that Facebook have changed. I use SE a lot and find myself expecting "Enter" to post comments on Facebook, Twitter etc. –  ChrisF Mar 29 '11 at 11:22
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I agree. Hmm...now I'm just bored and brainstorming, but...what if it were a one-line textarea (looking like an input field) that grew taller as need be? Best of both worlds? Superfluous? Maybe this isn't that big of an issue either way? Time for lunch? –  DA01 Mar 29 '11 at 16:41
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Personally I think that's an interesting idea DAO1. Also I agree with Lode's answer that it appears that Facebook and SE are trying to create a new form field specifically for this comment / chat like functionality –  Kris C Mar 29 '11 at 16:44
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+1: Avoid changing the default browser behaviour, no matter what your reasons are. –  Lee Kowalkowski Mar 29 '11 at 20:17
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On a side topic, facebook's change coincided with a tighter integration between the chat and messages... they now appear much more seamless because of this feature. –  Ape-inago Apr 1 '11 at 7:42

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Having a textarea submit on enter breaks with the default behavior. In theory, if you want users to be able to submit a comment by pressing Enter, you should change the textarea to a single line text field. The use of a textarea implies that one should be able to put line breaks in the input.

However, I have to admit I haven't noticed the change. That might be because I've been using the mouse to click the comment button. (Tab + Enter doesn't work on Mac OSX by default -- Tab doesn't focus buttons.) It might be that I habitually press Enter at the end of a paragraph, and a comment is rarely more than a paragraph, so by submitting the form the UI is anticipating what I was going to do next.

It might be the fact that when I do submit a comment prematurely, it's easy to edit or delete. Unlike Twitter, there's no reason to be concerned that a lot of people would have seen the half-baked version or will still have a copy of it after the edit.

Is it good UX or bad? Should others use it on their sites? I don't know. But here's three things I would take away from this interface:

  1. Be consistent.
  2. Test your assumptions, even if the usability tests lead you away from consistency.
  3. Always provide an easy way to undo.

Edit: I'm now convinced the SE change was a bad idea. There was nothing wrong with requiring a user to press the button to submit a comment. For no good reason, SE has created a different kind of textarea with no visual affordances to distinguish it from regular textareas. It forces users to learn two different rules for textareas and remember or guess which rule applies where. Don't make me think. :-)

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After much consideration I think the edit in particular best sums it up. I've put some thoughts about it in a blog post: itsnotrocketscience.nfshost.com/2011/04/10/… My fear is that this will catch on despite breaking the user's expectation. If it does, my hope is that the standards community pick up on it and fold some kind of input of type 'comment' into the HTML spec to handle this different behaviour in some form –  Kris C Apr 13 '11 at 14:14

Generally my reaction to breaking typical user behavior (as FB is doing now with comments) is that it's poor design. However when Facebook makes this change, it demands a deeper look. I'm not privy to how FB's usability team works and how much testing they did, but I'm guessing that @Lode may be onto something -- they're intentionally trying to change the way their user's interact.

By making it difficult (the average user has no idea that they should press Shift+Enter to enter a line break), they're making comments shorter and, I'm guessing, encouraging volume rather than depth. But they're not doing that with status updates - maybe the assumption is that you start a conversation with something a bit more in-depth and polished.

Beyond that, I think it's important to remember that the notion of "web forms" is evolving. Maybe our mental model for what makes a successful "form" is based on more traditional form models (paying in an online store, signing up for an event) where minimizing errors is paramount. Just b/c FB's comment interface is form-like doesn't mean that it needs to meet our typical expectation for forms.

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I think the usability really needs to be measured against expectation and reversibility.

Obviously it is non-standard behaviour in browsers, so it breaks expectations that way. But the behaviour has been implemented in other areas for a very long time - for instance in IM clients.

There is also the danger of mixing the two models, such as here on SE sites. The main answer box accepts return characters, but the very similar looking comment box does not. The user needs to switch their mental model depending on which part of the same site they are using.

Then there is reversibility - if things go wrong, how easy is it to back out and fix it. Lots of people, myself included, are going to make the mistake of pressing enter expecting a new line, and instead submitting the comment.

On SE sites, this is easily fixed by editing the comment. The users have a bit of time to learn the new behaviour without completely screwing things up long term.

On Facebook, however, you cannot edit a post (beyond deleting and starting again). When you make the, perfectly understandable, mistake, you are in no position to fix it and are more frustrated than you would have been otherwise.

One interesting effect of this change, beyond a couple fewer keypresses/mouse clicks is that encourages single line input, which in effect encourages shorter input.

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Interestingly - just checked facebook comments, and when you click the x to delete shortly after submitting it using return, it now opens up to be edited. If I then delete the text of the comment from the edit box and click away, the text is then removed. For comments more than a few minutes old, then the cross deletes rather than edits the comment. [This would be a good place for a carriage return ;) ] So it is reversible, but does go against my expectations in several ways. Also to note this behaviour is for facebook comments, not posts. –  Kris C Mar 29 '11 at 19:10
    
"But the behaviour has been implemented in other areas for a very long time - for instance in IM clients." — Yes, but I think most IM clients use a textfield (single line) instead of a textarea (multiple lines) by default (some might allow resizing or some may grow automatically if you enter much characters) –  unor Sep 17 '12 at 17:41

I agree with @Patrick.

Except for that I think that these websites are trying to create a new kind of form field for the 'comment' like behavior they have. And that I think is quite good. I hope they succeed in learning people that a 'comment field' looks and acts in some other way than a normal textarea.

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It is very poor usability. The box looks like a textarea, and people know how textareas work and are supposed to work. I have seen a significant number of complaints on Facebook because incomplete thoughts are posted and that people do not know how to create paragraphs anymore. Shift+Enter is not intuitive in any way.

I've seen similar complaints on SE as well, but not as many since comments here never had line breaks to begin with, and you can edit a comment for a short time after saving it. However, it is still poor usability that if I hit Enter, I have to move to my mouse and click to be able to edit the comment and finish my thought. How does saving that single keystroke (Tab before Enter) really make the user confusion and irritation caused by this change worthwhile?

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It's interesting to look at the reason for the change - it seems jjnguy noted an inconsistency (which is reasonable), then suggested breaking something in order to fix the inconsistency (which does not seem reasonable). –  gef05 Mar 29 '11 at 15:01
    
I think saving the 'tab + enter' is rarely an issue. Not many know that they can 'tab' through a website. Thus for less tech-savvy it is just convenience to also submit on enter, except for the bad usability for paragraphs on facebook. –  Lode Mar 29 '11 at 15:52
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@Lode - those people that don't know that Tab works to move between form elements are not going to be using Enter to submit a form (or in this case, a comment) either. They are going to use their mouse to click on the button. Nothing's going to change that. –  Charles Boyung Mar 29 '11 at 16:04
    
I agree that it is bad to change the expected behavior. To see an even worse case, go to your twitter timeline and press [WinKey]+[M] (the minimize all windows shortcut in Windows)... WTF?! why is a message window to other twitter users showing up?? –  scunliffe Apr 1 '11 at 1:32
    
The entire set of standards like Shift+Enter for a carriage return rely on being learned by word of mouth. I try not to rely on people's knowledge of them. If I have to use them, I like to drop a note or instruction into the UI. –  Evan Sep 18 '12 at 14:07

As primarily a keyboard user, I don't want to have to touch the mouse if I don't have to. Since comments are not expected to have rich formatting, it is much easier for me to type a continuous thought and follow up with the enter key. So I would welcome it as a common paradigm for comment editing.

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Why couldn't you just hit Tab then Enter? That extra keystroke doesn't really add that much. You have to do that anyways when posting an answer; why make comments so different? –  Charles Boyung Mar 29 '11 at 13:01
    
I have seen many people being afraid of using the keyboard. They type in the text into the textarea and then reaches out for the mouse to click the submit button. I hope that facebooks recent move will help people become better at not depend on the mouse. –  neoneye Mar 29 '11 at 15:43
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@neoneye - what is wrong with using the mouse? Why is there such a derision towards mouse use? I agree that it can be slower, but it is definitely easier for less savvy computer users, and that group will definitely be greater than its converse for as long as we're all doing this job. –  Charles Boyung Mar 29 '11 at 16:07
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@neoneye. "Afraid"? It's my preference as a user. I can't type, so the mouse is my tool of choice. –  gef05 Mar 29 '11 at 16:24
    
@Charles I could, but that's one extra keystroke. One other thought here is that having enter send the comment directly is how my Twitter and IM clients work so I guess I think of the comment blocks more like IM style messages than the full posts. –  Steve Mitcham Mar 30 '11 at 15:59

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