What is going on with Quora's UI?

Published: 2020-09-07

TL;DR: Quora's UI actively discourages you from finding answers to your questions. This essay is me wondering aloud: Is it necessary for a content site to play zero-sum games with it's audience in order to be a viable business?

Have you used Quora lately?

The site actively tries to discourage you from finding information.

That's a harsh statement to make about a company who's mission is "Sharing and growing the world's knowledge."* Just to be clear, I'm not saying Quora is useless—far from it. I am saying Quora does it's best to reduce it's own utility to any would-be knowledge seeker.

Anyway, enough abstract claims. Let's look at the UI.

From https://www.quora.com/What-does-it-mean-to-fork-a-processa,https://www.quora.com/What-does-it-mean-to-fork-a-process
From https://www.quora.com/What-does-it-mean-to-fork-a-process

The Ad

Right when you jump in to seek knowledge you're immediately prompted to go try a completely unrelated product. At best you ignore it. At worst, you actually the link and your attention is derailed. While seeking knowledge Quora successfully distracted you. Hopefully you will gain knowledge next time.

I'm not knocking Jira (although I've been known to do just that in the past), I'm pointing out that it's not only irrelevant to your knowledge seeking but actively detrimental.

ASIDE Yes I use an ad-blocker but that Jira ad was fully "native," as in plain HTML within the overall site. No iframe no JS. Rather pleasant when compared with the standard crop of invasive online advertising, but an ad nonetheless.

What about the Google precedent?

Of course, there is a precedent for ads before knowledge in the form of Google search results. However, user experience (UX) isn't a legal domain—Bad UX doesn't become good simply because it's been done before.

What of knowledge?

Quora is even worse than Google though, because Quora is meant to be a repository of knowledge. Users come to Quora seeking knowledge. This is what makes distractions from that pursuit particularly egregious.

At least with Google it's not clear cut what the userbase wants. If someone is searching for shoes and Google shows them an offer to buy shoes at least the outcome has a veneer of relevance.

The Content

What we came for! This is why we're here and for good reason—there's real knowledge to be had here. Several answers (not just the top one) are well written and clearly took some non-trivial amount time to write.

The content is good

This of course is why Quora can have an ads program and can worsen it's UI over time with some degree of impunity. As long as there are humans seeking knowledge, and that knowledge can be had on Quora, people will go there.

In fact, I find it rather surprising that such good content can be had on a site with such poor UX. Of course there's no inherent contradiction here, but it just feels odd. Quora is not the only game in town. Stackoverflow has quite nice UX, for example.

The "more" button

Would it have drawn your attention if I hadn't drawn an arrow to it? It certainly didn't draw mine, and yet that unassuming "more" button is hiding the exact thing I came here to find.

It's small, unassuming, the opposite of a call to action. If this UI was consciously designed (and I suspect it was) the designer either did not consider the information priority to the user or had other incentives driving their design.

The "Engagement Box"

Two answers down there's this gem:

Rather than obtaining the knowledge I came here for maybe I'd prefer a distraction?

I'm not sure if there's a known design term for this type of UI, but I call it an "engagement box" because it seemingly exists for no reason other than to drive engagement metrics for the site owner. If increased page views or topic subscriptions is a good thing then this box makes perfect sense. If knowledge acquisition is what you're after, this box actively tries to lead you astray.

The fact that the title says "more answers below" seems an acknowledgement of the fact that the pair of eyeballs seeing this UI is probably interested in something else.

This type of UI appears on many sites these days and invariably it intentionally distracts from what you came to see. Twitter is another example: They like to throw "Who to follow" boxes in between the tweets of someone you're already interested in.

Needless to say, I don't like it. However, I've never tried operating a site like Quora or Twitter so if anyone thinks I'm being overly cynical I'd love to hear another perspective.

JS Unless... You're Google

Now I depart form the specifics of the UI to the broader behavior of the site. Some people use the internet without JavaScript enabled in their browsers. Quora does not like this.

As a developer I can partially empathize—if you're site is built using JavaScript in a web browser it can be a pain to render it on a server.

However, some sites have been known to create artificial barriers to their content for people without JS enabled. Why would they do this? I assume because it makes it difficult to track user metrics, but there are probably several reasons.

The problem is, search engines might not have JavaScript enabled. This was definitely true in the past although I think these days (2020) several search engines will try to render JS. Regardless, unless you're sure search engines can index your JS-only pages it is worth while to render your content on the server.

Looking at the source of the Quora page it appears that they don't do this—they don't render their content in such a way that search engines could definitely figure it out.

Of course, that's not the end of the story. Anyone making a request to a browser will send along some metadata telling the server who's requesting the data. To be technical, I'm talking about the User-Agent HTTP header.

Curious as I am, I changed my user agent to mimic that of the Google search engine. This is quite easy to do within the Chrome devtools:

Now what did Quora return? Well, visibly it is still just a page requesting that I enable JS. However, the source changed quite a bit.

This is just an excerpt since there's way to much code to put into a screenshot.
This is just an excerpt since there's way to much code to put into a screenshot.

Now, pretending to be Google, all the content is available to me without JS. Of course it's not very readable to my human brain, but that's beside the point. Quora has the existing ability to render content on the server but chooses not to, which leads to some (undoubtedly small) subset of users not being able to seek knowledge through Quora.

Getting to the Point

This post turned into a bit of a rant so I feel I've done a poor job of elucidating the point, which is this:

Can a content site operate without engaging in zero-sum games with its users?

Quora's UI seems to be very much for Quora and not very much for users. What I'm openly wondering about in this essay/rant is whether or not that's necessary. As far as I can tell Quora has two goals:

  • Make money through ads
  • Drive engagement, which will ultimately lead to making more money through ads

It's not as if they can sell ads without users though, so they do have incentive to attract users to the site. Supposedly this is why there really is great content on Quora—they're good at attracting knowledgable contributors.

However, the strategy portrayed by their current site seems to be one of finding the minimum possible UX which won't drive their users away, rather than trying to find positive-sum paths where users gain and Quora gains.

Stackoverflow (SO) certainly makes it seem possible

If SO can make it work is it unreasonable to assume Quora could too? This is not meant to be a leading question.

This post was written in September of 2020. If you're reading this from the future then Quora's site may have changed significantly.

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I write about life as well as my mistakes and successes as I learn to build a business. I'm building a self-funded startup (Pairwise).

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