There are a lot of things I don't like about the site's design, to the point that I'm using a stripped down version of NullUserException's Theme Switcher userscript to browse the site with the Beta theme:
Although it's a very basic theme, I find it quite more enjoyable than the actual theme. But, who cares what I find enjoyable or not, this discussion is about identifying flaws in the design that are a bit more important than personal preference.
First, the whiteboard concept. As you probably already know, the core concept of our design is inspired from this paragraph of Introducing programmers.stackexchange.com:
In a nutshell, Stack Overflow is for when you’re front of your compiler or editor working through code issues. Programmers is for when you’re in front of a whiteboard working through higher level conceptual programming issues. Hence the (awesome) whiteboard inspired design!
It's a great concept, and I'd be lying if I pretended I have a better idea. That said and while a whiteboard is an easily identifiable element of the software design process, it's also supposed to be ephemeral and sloppy. And basing the entire design on handrawn elements comes out more as sloppy than casual and/or conceptual. I don't know if the playful nature of the design was intentional or not, and I might be completely wrong but I feel that the original, more relaxed scope of the site was taken into consideration, even though the design was finalized after the scope changed.
The first round of design ideas was a lot cleaner and simpler than the second round and I'm guessing that feedback from the community played an important role in what appears to be a very drastic change in direction. The community back then was more accustomed to the old scope, and if you read through both discussions you'll find out that differentiating the site from Stack Overflow was considered quite important.
And it was, but I don't think it is any more. Programmers being defined by what it's not, rather than what it is has been a constant PITA for the community, and I really don't see why it should be such a big part of our identity now. We've gone a long way, we've certainly proved that we can stand on our own, and I'd really love it if the site's design and overall branding reflected that.
I'm not suggesting completely dropping the whiteboard concept (at least not until I come up with a better idea; expect a long wait), just that we're overusing it. Almost every design element has a hand-drawn look and feel, using Hugh Laurie's handwritting as our main font is completely nonsensical (more on this later), and nothing in the site says "professional". Our design is far from clean and simple, in contrast with almost every other Stack Exchange site that targets professional audiences. Compare it, for example, with:
Even sites that mostly target enthusiasts, like Bicycles, have cleaner and less playful designs.
The Font (mini rant)
I never understood why Hugh Laurie's handwritting was relevant to a site about conceptual questions on software development. I can certainly appreciate the nerd value, but:
It's just a TV show.
A great TV show, but just a TV show and one that has absolutely nothing to do with programming. We love fun as much as everyone else, but this is supposed to be a place where we hate fun.
Not really the optimal choice for several of our labels, for example: cohhunity bulletin. Any handwritting font has similar problems, and that's simply because handwritting fonts aren't really supposed to be clear and readable.
IT'S AN ALL CAPS FONT
Why are we shouting things like "QUESTIONS", "COMMUNITY BULLETIN", "FAVOURITE TAGS"? Do we really need to emphasize labels that no other professional oriented Stack Exchange site seems to be emphasizing? Is there any value to using an ALL CAPS font, other than being annoyingly distracting? The only other site that uses ALL CAPS seems to be Arqade, which kinda proves my point, Arqade is awesome, but professional is not.
All we're gaining with the font is nerd value, and I'm afraid going for nerd value on a site that's striving to be the resource for conceptual software development questions isn't really a good idea, it's a quirky in joke that's fuelling a bad stereotype.
Can the design be changed?
A complete re-design is probably out of the question. Jin, Stack Exchange's designer, already has a huge backlog, even if we only consider the custom themes of the Beta sites that are graduating. However I always felt that Programmers didn't really have the benefit of the normal process, with the drastic change in scope, and I'm hoping we could at least persuade Stack Exchange to at least consider taking another look at our theme, and perhaps we could just tone done some of the more playful elements. A few ideas:
- Getting rid of the font,
- Toning down (or completely removing) the horizontal header and footer lines,
- A less curvy and over-styled header and footer,
- Moving on from the whole whiteboard-y / handwritten style for at least some design elements (vote arrows, for example).
And while we're at it, we could also fix the damn links ;P
I want to make it abudantly clear that changing anything in the design, even a complete re-design, would probably do nothing at all to prevent low quality questions coming in. If that's our reason for changing the design, there are quite a few other things that we should improve first that would be far more beneficial in communicating what the site's about and what our general expectations are (stop upvoting crap, for example).
I do feel though that a less casual, less playful design would help better communicating the site's purpose to our target audience. I had to explain the handwritting font a couple of times, and the response was less than enthusiastic, for more or less the reasons I explained in the mini-rant. My main reason for advocating for a cleaner, simpler, and all around more professional design is that it would help me advertise the site on professional communities, without having to explain quirky in-jokes or the no longer relevant need to differentiate ourselves from Stack Overflow.