My UI brothers and sisters, I posted a request at Meta.StackExchange about clarifying what (s) means when adding tags on StackExchange.


I think amongst us UI designers, we can agree that this is poorly designed. The (s) does nothing to signify that "saute" is a synonym of "sauteing". And it does nothing to help the user decide whether to choose "sauteing" or "saute". The folk at Meta.StackExchange do not agree. They believe that by making this feature hard to use, StackExchange can weed out the stupid people.

User comment (+5)

If "synonym" is a hard word I think people are going to have trouble functioning on this site. We can always change the (s) that appears in the tag auto-complete, but the concept of "tag synonyms" is all over the place – Michael Mrozek

Moderator Comment (+1)

Stack Exchange is for experts (who are all smart and literate enough to know what "synonym" means) and inquisitive people (who are perfectly willing to grab a dictionary if they are confused). We're not here to conform for the lowest common denominator, we are building something a lot better than that. – HedgeMage♦

In the school of thought of Krug and Nielsen, I counter with:

  • Don't make users read a FAQ / dictionary to figure out what this (s) does.
  • Redesigning it so novices can understand would benefit not only the novices, but also the experts. It would be a better UI for all.

My proposal is that we UI designers come up with a solution here. Once we have an accepted solution, we can post it back on Meta. It has not been productive discussing on Meta because those folk do not have UI experience.

  • 1
    I see someone has already suggested there that "syn." be used. I think it's a good solution. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jul 10 '11 at 3:39
  • @Vitaly: It should also show for which other tag it is a synonym, I think. Right now this is quite complicated to find out until you press Save Tag edits (or whatever saves your edits here). – Paŭlo Ebermann Jul 10 '11 at 18:37
  • In possibly someone elses school of thought I learnt to assume you have at most 10% attention of the user. If I'm really an expert I have better things to do than figure out little (s)'es. That's for OCD's. – peterchen Jul 11 '11 at 7:48

...Maybe we should just say 'synonym', flat-out. It isn't that space-consuming, and at least it's unambiguous.

I'd also use a 'branch' structure, greyed text and italics to mark a synonym entry as 'secondary' to the main entry. Consider this example:

A suggested UI design

Ok, so java isn't actually a synonym of javascript, but you get my gist.

  • +1 for showing the original tags here. (Though I'm not sure the tree/branch structure here is really good - often the main tag will not even show if I typed part of the synonyms name.) – Paŭlo Ebermann Jul 10 '11 at 18:39
  • This won't scale if the tag has 20 synonyms (whether that should be allowable is a different discussion) – Rahul Jul 10 '11 at 19:11

So I walk into a coffee shop and I look down the list of options, but before I finish reading I get asked what I would like. I say "I'd just like a regular coffee please". The barista then asks me "Would you like that white or with milk?".

Huh - what!? White or with milk? It's the same thing - did you mean to ask whether I want it black or white?

Why bother giving my a choice between two things that are different ways of saying the same thing - it's pointless. I get the same thing whether I choose one or the other.

So anyway, White or with milk - err - white I guess, ask me a meaningful question instead!

So the barista then says, "We don't have regular size, only medium or average. Regular is the size they serve in Barstucks over the road". I don't care - it's the same thing - you know what I mean. Don't bother me with more choices if there is no difference!

Finally I get my coffee (medium flat white) and find somewhere to sit down. It's busy, but the waitress sees me looking around and asks me whether I'm looking for a seat or a chair...

  • Good point. Why not just show the one, canonical option? At least then, when I search for the thing I've tagged, it appears under the exact category I assigned it. – Jimmy Breck-McKye Jul 10 '11 at 14:50
  • You use this as a joke...but if you order a "medium", the Barstucks guy will 'autocorrect' you to Vente (or whatever it is). – Alex Feinman Jul 11 '11 at 14:20

In an ideal world, synonymous tags should return identical results in a search.

Assuming this is true, whether you tag something with saute or sauteing shouldn't really matter. And so I don't see any real benefit in indicating synonyms when you're tagging your question.

  • You can't really show the number of posts for the synonym, since there are not any. We could either show the same number as for the original tag (which might confuse users thinking they have to tag with both). This could be the reason to show something else ((s)) instead. – Paŭlo Ebermann Jul 10 '11 at 18:46

I like the proposal mentioned in the meta thread by Gilles:

What could make sense, though I'm unconvinced that it's worth the trouble, is to write the master name after the synonym.

tools (= equipment)

In the example from the question, this would be something like this:

oil sau|
    sauteing (18)
    saute (=sauteing)

This “(s)” is not meaningful at all. And I doubt it be accessible.

Here is my proposal.

  • Synonyms are synonyms, so searching for “film” equals searching for “movie”. I think this is already the case.
  • The site respect the user's chosen tag, the site just equals it with its synonyms.
  • When the user types “film”, the site suggests “film (= movie) (18)”. The site may suggest “movie (18)” too, and in this case the user can choose “movie”. But the user can keep “film”. Forcing the replacement of “film” with “movie” is bad.

Here is my user experience :

The other day, I was writing on scifi.stackexchange.com, and I had written “film”, and, at some later step, I had the surprise of seeing my tag “film” replaced with “movie”. I disliked that. I could write again “film”. But I did not want my chosen tag to risk being silently changed into “movie”. So I removed this tag altogether.

Food for thought : Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags, by Clay Shirky. An interesting talk. The guy shows that there are even advantages in considering different words as different tags, and he suggests forgetting synonyms altogether. I disagree with his conclusion, I think synonyms are good ropes. But the handling of synonyms by StackExchange is too dictatorial.

Let's do as Windows does with case. Windows is case-preserving, and handles that neatly. When I choose the name Nicolas, the computer shows Nicolas, and trying to open nicolas or nICoLas opens Nicolas. Let's be tag-preserving !

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.