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Context: Irrespective of threaded-vs-unthreaded comments, I've noticed that a few sites have started to experiment with comments in the margin (as compared to comments above or below content in a central container). I did a few searches around here and on Google, but didn't find any formal writing or analysis on how this might affect the commenting experience.

Question: Can anyone point me to such writing, or care to comment on the perceived pros/cons of this pattern?

Hypothesis: this comment-UI pattern improves comment quality, given that comments don't feel so divorced from content, so there's a lower likelihood for response threads (whether technically supported or not) to veer off into political/religious/fanboy/girl rants.


Further context: Branch.com had this functionality, although it looks like they've taken it out in more recent redesigns. Medium.com launched with this functionality, although as of this writing, it doesn't work the same way on desktop vs. on mobile. A post on Medium with comments expanded, wide-format proportions

Quartz (qz.com) recently unveiled their first commenting feature since their launch (they're calling them 'annotations,' see their blog post about it here), which follows this same in-the-margin pattern. An article on Quartz with comments expanded, wide-format proportions
As of this writing, the feature is hidden on narrow-format screens (or at least, I couldn't find it on my phone), so I'm sure they're still experimenting/getting ready to launch that.

The Economist (economist.com, viewed on a mobile device), curiously, has introduced this feature on mobile but not on their wide-format (desktop) site.

The bottom of an article from The Economist showing the 'comments' feature access point, narrow-format proportions      An article from The Economist with comments expanded, narrow-format proportions

I was actually pleasantly surprised at the feature's smooth animation, given that that's tricky to do successfully on a mobile UI.

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Really interesting and well-founded first question, welcome to UX stackexchange - I hope you get some good answers. –  kontur Sep 24 '13 at 18:14
    
Out of curiosity, how does one comment on Medium.com's comments? –  Majo0od Sep 24 '13 at 18:31
    
Thank you @kontur, been lurking a while, figured I ought to start giving back. –  bdyffrent Sep 24 '13 at 21:35
    
Also, @Majed, if you see below every comment, there's a link labeled 'Sign into Twitter to leave a comment' (see screenshot, or just visit Medium.com). When you click on that and finish authenticating in via Twitter, each instance will be replaced by a 'Reply to...' underneath every comment, so you can respond inline. Try it out! –  bdyffrent Sep 24 '13 at 21:40
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Pro: Comments are at the same 'level' as content. Con: Comments are usually terrible and not worthy of being at the same 'level' as content. –  DA01 Sep 24 '13 at 22:33

5 Answers 5

I think it depends very much on what do you try to achieve.

If your main focus is to make your readers consume a content you provide on a page I think you should not distract them with additional content which are comments shown aside.

If your main task is to try engage users into conversations and socialize them with each other, then I think it's a great idea. For the sake of the a flourishing community it is very useful.

Answering your question, I don't know any references to experiments or research. But you can always perform one with good old AB testing and Google Analytics or whatever you think appropriate. Maybe you'll be the one who will generate this knowledge ;)

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[opinions incoming]

I'm very interested in how these websites will solve the issue of multiple people commenting on the same section of a document, in a nested conversational manor. It sounds messy to me (not that it can't be done). It just seems like trying to cram a potentially infinite amount of content (continuous commenting) into a finite space (the margins of a text).

If the comments don't relate to the text they appear next to (like conventional margins notes) then I personally find them confusing as a concept.

I can't see them enhancing the legibility of the body text in any way, only the opposite.

I can't see how this improves the legibility of a conversation relating to the body text.

[/opinions]

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in the examples, the comments pertain to the article as a whole--not specific parts of the text. –  DA01 Sep 25 '13 at 5:45
    
I mean't most of my comments for the whole text and specific parts, they're mostly interchangeable issues. –  Kayo Sep 25 '13 at 9:19
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"It just seems like trying to cram a potentially infinite amount of content into a finite space (the margins of a text)"... Fermat's Last Theorem was one comment that didn't fit :( –  Lescai Ionel Sep 30 '13 at 13:08

Alice starts to read the article. She ignores all the other columns. She thinks the article is really interesting. But when she comes to its end, she doesn’t read any comments … she doesn’t see any! The article column is longer than the comment column.

Counter-measure: Close every article with a link like "12 comments", which scrolls back to the top where the first comment begins.

Question: Why not add the comments instead of the reminder link there in the first place? Where is the benefit in displaying the comments next to the article?

I think it depends on the content type if there can be a benefit in displaying the comments in a sidebar next to the content:

  • It might make sense for embedded multimedia. Users can start reading the comments while watching a video, controlling an audio applet, or marvelling an image.
  • It might make sense if most of the comments consist of "First Post!", "+1", and "LOL".

For longer articles and/or extensive (threaded) discussions, I’d prefer comments beneath the content or on a separate page.

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I strongly believe this depends on what type of website you have, who your audience is and as LoomyBear explains nicely, what you're trying to achieve.

Though I tend to agree with DA01, I think some websites such as reddit has a very strong commenting community where most of the interest revolves on the commenting itself. This goes same for any Q&A related websites. In these cases, I can understand the benefits of having comments within the same level as the content.

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Maybe it was a case of the following line of reasoning: Narrower columns of text are easier to read than wide blobs of text so let's put the text of our articles into a narrower column. But what are we going to do with the blank space to the right of our articles? Advertising? Maybe. But let's experiment with putting the comments there and see what happens.

Maybe we'll get more comments and increase user engagement with our site. Maybe let's put the top rated comments next to the article so our users will get more benefit. Or allow annotations at specific points in the text so our users will get more benefit.

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