Design discussions

We discuss ideas for improving Zulip’s user experience, interface, and visual design in the Zulip development community. The purpose of these design discussions is to help us make smart, well-informed decisions about design changes to the Zulip product. We want Zulip to work great for a diverse array of users and organizations, and discussions in the development community are an incredibly valuable source of insight and ideas. We welcome all perspectives, respectfully shared.

Most design discussions take place in the #design stream in the development community. Discussions about mobile app design happen in #mobile-team, and design of the terminal app is discussed in #zulip-terminal.

Guidelines for all participants

Everyone is encouraged to participate in design discussions! Your participation greatly helps improve the product, especially when you focus your contributions on supporting the productivity of the design team. The more we are able to incorporate a variety of ideas, experiences, and perspectives into the discussion, the better decisions we’ll be able to make.

Please start by reviewing the guide to how we communicate in the Zulip community. Also, when sharing your ideas:

  • Think about corner cases and interactions with existing features that the design will need to handle, and bring up problems with them, especially if they are not obvious. (E.g., “This component also appears with a darker background in the Drafts UI,” with a screenshot).

  • Present technical considerations where appropriate. “X requires some refactoring that would take me another hour,” is probably not worth bringing up if X would produce a better user experience. “Adding X might require removing feature Y,” or “X is incompatible with Zulip’s security model,” is important to present early.

Note that #design is a high-traffic stream, and thoughtful participation takes time. Don’t let it prevent you from doing your own work. It can be helpful to pick particular conversations to follow, where you feel that you have insight to share.

Participant roles

At this point, it will be helpful to define a few key roles in design discussions:

  • Code contributor: Anyone working on a PR that includes some frontend changes.

  • Community moderator: Any core contributor or other experienced community member who is helping guide the discussion (with or without “moderator” permissions in the organization).

  • Design team: Anyone working actively on the design of the feature at hand and/or overall design for the Zulip product.

  • Decision makers: Project maintainers responsible for design decisions, including design leaders, product leaders, and overall project leadership.

Guidelines for code contributors

When you are working on a PR that includes frontend changes, you may find it helpful to get interactive feedback on the design. The best way to do so is by posting a message in the #design stream in the Zulip development community.

When to post

  • The issue or a comment on your PR specifically asks you to get feedback in the #design stream.

  • The issue you’re working on is not specific about some design point, and you would like advice.

  • You’ve implemented an issue as described, but the UI doesn’t look good or seems awkward to use.

  • You’re prototyping an idea that’s not fully fleshed out.

Guidelines for requesting design feedback

You will get the most helpful feedback by sharing enough context for community participants to understand what you’re trying to do, and clearly stating the questions you are looking for feedback on. Some advice:

  • Start a new topic, or use an existing one if there is a topic linked from the issue you’re working on. If you’re starting a new topic, appending the issue or PR number (e.g., #1234) to the topic name will turn it into a handy link.

  • Summarize the feature you’re working on. You should provide enough context for readers to understand your question, and include links to any relevant issues or in-progress PRs for additional background.

  • Post screenshots, and screen captures if there is an interaction that screenshots fail to show.

    • You may want to post a few screenshots of different options you’re considering.

    • Screenshots should show enough of the app to evaluate how the new feature looks in its context, but not so much that it’s hard to see the feature.

    • Screen captures should demonstrate the feature with a minimal amount of extraneous content.

    • See here for some recommended tools.

  • Post a clear question or set of questions that you need help with. What specifically are you looking for feedback on?

  • Since you’ve been working on this issue, you have likely gained some expertise in this area. Educate others by sharing any tradeoffs and relevant considerations you’re aware of.

Keep in mind that the Zulip community is distributed around the world, and you should not expect to get realtime feedback. However, feel free to bump the thread if you don’t see a response after a couple of business days.

Guidelines for community moderators

Any experienced community participant can guide design discussions, and help make sure that we use everyone’s time productively towards making the best decisions we can.

Improving the quality of discussions

Here are some suggestions for how you can help the community have a productive design discussion:

  • If a design discussion seems to have been derailed by a tangent or argument, consider moving the tangent to another topic so that the conversation can refocus on the questions at hand.

  • If the direction of the discussion seems unproductive, you can explicitly suggest circling back to a topic where additional discussion seems valuable.

  • If someone is repeating the same points in a way that’s unhelpful, you can let them know that you understand what they are saying and appreciate their feedback, but at this point would find it helpful to hear feedback from other participants. People may sometimes repeat themselves because they are not feeling heard.

  • That said, sometimes the best way to deal with questions or feedback that don’t move the discussion forward is to let them go by without comment, rather than potentially getting into a protracted back-and-forth that derails the thread. Examples of such feedback include unmotivated personal opinions, proposals that ignore counterarguments that have already been discussed, etc.

  • It’s totally fine to let the conversation slow down or die, especially if it seems to be going off-track. If the decision makers feel that they do not have enough feedback yet, they can revive the conversation as needed, and the pause can serve as a good reset.

If a conversation is going off-track and you are not sure how to fix it, please ping someone on the core team to intervene and help get the conversion into a better state.

Moving threads to the most appropriate stream

Sometimes it helps to move (part of) a thread to a different stream, so that it’s seen by the appropriate audience.

  • We generally aim to discuss raw user feedback on the product’s design in #feedback. The #design should be reserved for design aspects that we’re actively (considering) working on. This lets the design team focus on discussions that are expected to result in actionable decisions.

  • If a discussion that started in another stream has shifted into the design phase, moving the discussion to #design helps the design team follow the conversation.

  • Discussion of implementation-related decisions should ideally happen in #frontend. The line can sometimes blur (and that’s OK), but we should aim to move (parts of) the thread if there is an extensive conversation that belongs in the other stream.

  • We use #mobile-team for discussions of mobile app design, and #zulip-terminal for terminal app design.

Guidelines for decision makers

The main purpose of design discussions is to help us make the best design decisions we can. Decision makers should guide the conversation to elicit the ideas, feedback and advice they need from the community.

Ideally, design discussions should also help us learn as a community. Community members who follow the conversation should get a better understanding of the considerations behind the decisions being discussed, and thus be better able to contribute to the next conversation.

Managing the discussion

Decision makers should actively manage the discussion to make sure we’re making good use of everyone’s time and attention, and getting useful feedback.

  • Decision makers should aim to follow design threads closely and provide input early and often, so that conversations don’t get blocked waiting for their opinion.

  • Decision makers should actively manage discussion threads when needed in order to seek the types of inputs that will help them. This may include outlining a set of alternatives to consider, posing questions to dig into someone’s feedback, asking for ideas to solve a specific design challenge, etc.

  • Decision makers should explain the reasoning behind their proposed decisions, so that it’s possible to identify any gaps in their thinking, and in order to build a shared understanding in the community.

  • That said, decision makers are not required to respond to every comment being made regarding a proposal, or to answer every question.

From discussion to decision

There is a number of factors that affect when it’s time to move a thread from discussion to a decision. In part, this depends on how significant a commitment we are making with the decision at hand:

  • We want to be very thoughtful about decisions that will take a lot of work to implement, and/or will be difficult to undo.

  • We should try to come up with good designs for the features we’re building, but sometimes it’s difficult to foresee how an interaction will feel until we try it. Prototyping a UI we are not sure about is a normal part of the design process.

  • When the decision results in filing a non-urgent issue, it’s fine to write up the conclusions on GitHub relatively quickly, and update the issue if more ideas come in later on.

  • We should accept that sometimes an idea we decided on is just not working out, and be willing to go back to the drawing board or iterate further until we get to a state we’re happy with.

With those considerations in mind, here are rough guidelines for when to move on to a decision:

  • For very small decisions, it may be enough to get a sanity-check from one or two well-informed community participants.

  • For more significant decisions, one should generally allow at least 1-2 business days for discussion, to give core team members time to share their perspective if they have something to contribute.

  • Beyond that minimum, the decision makers can move to the decision phase whenever they have enough input to make a well-informed decision. Here are some situations that would indicate that it’s time to move on:

    • There is general consensus on how to proceed. Or, there is consensus between the well-informed participants in the discussion.

    • For a relatively small decision, there is enough useful feedback to generate a solid proposal.

    • If the discussion is primarily rehashing old points, and doesn’t seem to be generating additional insights, it’s time to redirect the conversation or move on to a decision.

    • If the thread has died down, and the decision makers feel that they have enough information to go on. (If they don’t, the thread can be bumped.)