Flat or threaded? Which way is best to help discusions more?


@joewhelahan - I feel like a broken record today. I don’t understand how to help. Would you be willing to clarify?


I’m not sure that either way is a catch all fix, it depends very much on the nature of your community.

e.g. threaded are super important for basic Q&A style sites (ala stack overflow) but a flatter structure makes more sense in a discussion forum like this one (although in this case there is partial threading which is useful).

Can you give us more info about your use case?


Flat and threaded refers to two ways of doing online message boards or forums.
There are two ways of typically doing it.

FLAT (Which is how this forum works)


THREADED (Which is how Stack Overflow and Reddit works)


Reply 1

Reply 2(To Reply 1)

Reply 2(To reply 2)
Reply 3(To reply 2)

Reply 4 (To original post)


We do have basic threading here (you can reply to the person or to the thread) but generally that is correct.

I didn't realize that was the distinction, I thought it had to do with indentation. :confused: Isn't the "reply" button merely the same as the "@" tagging feature? That is, 1. It highlights who you are talking to. 2. It gives that user a notification. Or am I missing something? My understanding of a threaded approach is that it is supposed to take that "thread" of discussion and encapsulate it?

EDIT: Oh wow, now I see it, I had completely missed that you could click the “1 Reply v” to show all direct replies to that message. That’s pretty clever design (when you don’t miss the feature entirely). A very welcome improvement, I feel, to a more run-of-the-mill approach to flat design.

@joewhelahan I’ll take this as an invitation for debate, rather than question about a specific use-case. If you have a real product in mind, using your target audience for research, testing and validation is the UX way!

Let me preface this by saying that I am still a novice, I just like to poke my nose into discussions so that I can learn from the resulting conversation.

I agree with @HAWK that there is no ABSOLUTE fix, and that it all depends on exactly what kind of discussion you are hoping to facilitate.

I read this article a while back by Jeff Atwood, the co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse, in which he mostly argues AGAINST a threaded approach for internet discussion.

Here are, what I think, are his most important points against a THREADED approach:

  • You have to think A LOT harder about your “physical” placement in the discussion.

“Browsing a tree is complicated, because you have to constantly think about what level you’re at, what’s expanded, what’s collapsed … there’s always this looming existential crisis of where the heck am I? Discussion trees force me to spend too much time mentally managing that two-dimensional tree more than the underlying discussion.” – Jeff Atwood

  • New replies can appear anywhere. With so many threads about very different things, the discussion can’t really be “tracked” in the same fashion. This is important because it becomes hard to keep a discussion going. You have to decide which thread to track, and then stay with that, if you want to keep your sanity. The exact thread you are looking for can also be nigh-impossible to find again, if you aren’t going through your personal notifications.

  • Finding sense in a threaded discussion is work. You have to prune away a lot of threads to read the specific thread of discussion you are interested in.

" I can still barely force myself to wade through the discussions there, because it’s so much darn work. As a lazy reader, I feel I’ve already done my part by deciding to enter the thread; after that all I should need to do is scroll or swipe down." – Jeff Atwood

In my Non-expert opinion, a THREADED discussion facilitates a whole lot of different, simultaneous discussions from the main discussion. It allows users to tap into one very specific part of the discussion, and simply pay attention to that, or branch off to comment about an entirely different detail. It also means that the discussion is disjointed, unorganized and very hard to track.

Here’s an example.

This is reddit. These are comments to a news article called “The North Korean mountain under which it’s conducting nuclear tests is at risk of collapsing, sending radiation across the region, a Chinese scientist says” that has 3153 comments.

My point here is, that on Reddit, reading the comment section can be confusing and chaotic. Reddit isn’t DESIGNED for deep, meaningful debate, and the design does NOT encourage it. On the contrary, what you see here is what makes Reddit’s design pretty great. Because each thread is a separate discussion, users can UP- and DOWNvote what is important. The most upvoted threads rise to the top! On news articles, these are, usually, people calling out bad citation, lack of evidence or explain the headline in the context of the BIGGER picture. So even though someone will want to talk about why Seth Rogen and James Franco are great fits for this movie, they can, without interfering with people who are there just to get insight on the article itself.

FLAT design can’t do this, because it requires a linear discussion. The most important points could be anywhere, but it keeps the discussion FOCUSED.

Here is how I think about it.

Picture a room full of people. The topic of debate is presented on stage in an orderly fashion. Then, when the presentation is over, it is time for the debate.

For FLAT design, the microphone remains on stage, and one person at the time can go on stage and respond to the topic. People can, naturally, reply to each other, saying “Okay, so to touch up on what Bob said two turns back…” If you enter the room later, you can see “what stage” the conversation is at and join in from there. There are a few sidesteps here and there, and the conversation might close on one topic and open up on another, but there is a better sense of progression. People will even remind eachother to “stick to the topic”, simply because we can’t keep if the conversation starts branching off.

A THREADED debate, however, is an open-floor debate. People cluster in little groups and chat amongst themselves. A lot of people walk from group to group constantly. There is a lot of valid stuff going around at a much quicker rate, but it is much more difficult to center the debate around the actual topic. If you enter the room post-presentation, you can jump into any group you want easily, but the conversations can have fallen very far from the actual topic. Luckily, people have voted which discussions are the most important, and placed them closest the entrance.


  • A FLAT design works better for in-depth discussions. It keeps a topic on track, and the very design of it goes against branching off. A topic is very to-the-point. Works great for in-depth conversation and discussions that are supposed to evolve.
  • A THREADED design is great for just seeing the single, “most important” parts of a discussion, but the discussion strays far and wide. It is very difficult to track- and keep to a single topic for long. Works great for a comment section.


Yeah, there is that. FWIW I’m working on better signifiers.[quote=“DavidSkodt, post:6, topic:4850”]
I read this article a while back by Jeff Atwood, the co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse, in which he mostly argues AGAINST a threaded approach for internet discussion.

Ha! Jeff is my boss (and this is Discourse for anyone that doesn’t realise).


Wow! Uhm, if you catch him during a break, could you ask if his opinion has changed? The article is from 2012, but I am guessing the discourse-way is an embodiment of his take on optimal web discussion?

I envy you are little bit. I’d love to pick that man’s brain.


It hasn’t. Here is a recent discussion where he and I are trying to explain the concept to someone.

He’s a fascinating guy to work with and we have a great team (there are 18 of us in the company). I feel fortunate.