Wednesday, January 5, 2011 Screen Space by Dave Täht

I was a little miffed by Joel Spolsky's overly positive comparison of stack overflow to a USENET FAQ, so I posted the following over there, yesterday. I'm still awaiting moderation... perhaps I caused a stack underflow, over there?

I do think my little demo and criticisms as to the size and shape of their actual elephant is quite revealing:

To Joel Spolsky (who I otherwise deeply respect)

I spent the afternoon prototyping a gnugol engine that could parse the json output that stackoverflow.com provides into a format that I can deal with, in Emacs. I got it sort of working a few minutes ago.

gnugol screenshot

You’ll note that my little tool (an afternoon's work) – shows 10 results in 710×289 pixels in a very USENET FAQ-like format. I wanted to have some visual indicator of scoring along with the links back to your site, but didn't get that working in time for this posting.

This search takes up roughly 1/6 of my available screen area on my laptop.

For comparison, here is a link to a full size screenshot of your site, stackoverflow for something approximating the same search, with my tool overlaid on top, for comparison.

This screenshot of Stackoverflow shows only 2 results, while using all of my available screen area, in other words, 6x the space for 1/5th the answers!

When I’m working, and being productive, my screen is usually covered with non-web windows and looks something like this.

I hope you’ll understand why, now, I find it difficult to participate in the modern internet to the extent that I did in the USENET days. I find interacting on most forums ducedly timewasting and inconvenient, simply because they insist on eating your entire screen to use them. USENET at least had kill files and scoring – built in and invisible rather than up front, on every page.

Some asides:

  • The stackoverflow json api is well documented. Thank you. (good)

  • There seems to be no way to go from a question to an answer in a single query. It would be nice if the API would supply both the text of the question and the recommended answer in one go. (bad)

  • The search titles interface to the json api takes 7-10 seconds to complete. Searching google with a site:stackoverflow.com restriction takes 384ms and yields a screen-full of more relevant results. (bad)

  • Your search (not json) engine interface uses an opensearch API (good, but not json)

  • The fastest I’ve seen a result with that API took 709ms. (bad)

(I am based in colorado if that helps your speed of light calculation)

  • Searching titles with json or using your web site's is nowhere near as effective as searching google with a site restriction of your site.

It’s the EXTRA distance stackoverflow invokes between a question and an answer that’s the problem here.

It might help (others) somewhat if the question(s) and (best) answers were actually on the same page on the search results, perhaps folded, using javascript.

  • from reading the api, I don’t see support for vote up/down built in. (then again, my eyes hath glazed over) I do like the idea of being able to provide useful feedback in my environment.

  • Stackoverflow UI could take better advantage of the wider screens now available as there is a lot of whitespace in the second screenshot. (bad)

  • I would like it very much if there was something like a "short-stack-overflow" so someone could participate and use the system in a window size that didn't actually interfere with actual work.

Please note that I would not make these comments unless I actually liked using stack overflow. I do, I just can’t stand the UI.

Old school FAQs and USENET styles still have their place, and I would like it if it were possible to meet somewhere closer to the middle between these two extremes.

Thanks for listening.

I sometimes get a real education when reading your blog, Dave. Other times I get a wake-up call that I don't know everything.

[Maybe I just need another cup of coffee this morning.]

Comment by Ed Friday, January 7, 2011