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We are creating a web application with a Twitter-style list of items, with a new item being added/shown once every few minutes.

A subject for debate is whether we should show new items automatically as they arrive, or display an incrementing total in a banner like "x new items".

I think the former approach needs some visual style added to new items, perhaps with a way of removing styling once they are "viewed" (how that is defined is a separate issue). The question were stuck on is, is there any accepted standard for this sort of UI or would it be a 50/50 choice entirely reliant on testing with our users?

A thought: We're wondering whether the amount of time people spend reading each item vs how often items appear is a factor. If people spend longer reading an item than the time between new items, then a "X new" would result in less interruption (UI changing as they read).

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    What is your use case, and what is the expected volume of updates? – Franchesca Apr 25 '14 at 10:45
  • You mean adding new items "on the fly"? – Michael Schmidt Apr 25 '14 at 10:50
  • The app is a tool for professionals that shows updates, I need to keep the details vague though as it's not publicly released. It's working and the current implementation shows new updates "on the fly" at the top of the list, once every few minutes. – Don H Apr 25 '14 at 11:06
  • Twitter does both. It informs you when new items are available and allows you to load them when you're ready. It also does a some slight highlighting of all new items. – Fractional Apr 25 '14 at 11:30
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For a large volume of updates, where the user has scrolled down the page and is reading older posts, it might be annoying to have stuff just added to the top without warning. Either you will have to snap the user back to the top so they see them, which is annoying, or you will silently add them and they won't be aware of the changes. On the other hand it could also be annoying to constantly have prompts telling you to load new items.

You could go for a compromise where you add them if the user isn't focused on the tab where the web app is running / isn't scrolled away from the top to read older posts, and prompt if they are scrolled. Whatever you do, don't take the user away from what they are reading currently (i.e. keep them at the same scroll position relative to what they were looking at before the update came in).

Of course, the only way to find the least annoying method is to test it on real users. Before you have that information everything is just opinions.

EDIT:

For the highlighting, you could just check where the user has scrolled and if they have scrolled past an item remove the highlight after a certain time (like Gmail do in the promotions tab of their inbox). If the user jumps about a lot this is not so effective.

Another thing you could do is assign a sort of temperature to the updates. Most recent has the strongest "hot" highlighting, with older updates having their highlighting faded or "cooled" (you can check scrolling to trigger the highlighting decay, or make it absolute).

  • The decision originally made was to have the list update automatically as it's quite low volume. The main issue being reported is that people aren't aware of which items have appeared since they last looked at the list. The "X new items" might appease this, though highlighting new items might also. We're currently discussing which to test first. – Don H Apr 25 '14 at 11:08
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    @DonH updated answer re new item highlighting – Franchesca Apr 25 '14 at 11:12
  • Good ideas. It could be worth avoiding the friction of having to click on the "see new items" banner, making use of some of these to highlight things that are new. – Don H Apr 25 '14 at 11:29

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