It is a truism in the world of user interface design that if you make changes to a popular website, someone is going to complain — quite loudly, in all likelihood. Anyone who has lived through the past three or four iterations of Facebook can attest to that.
Even so, the overwhelmingly negative response to a recent revamp of the popular food discussion website Chowhound.com is notable for its intensity — and for its possible long-term ramifications on what had been a tight-knit, hyper-knowledgeable community, particularly here in the Bay Area. In the two weeks since the launch of the new site, longtime users have openly wondered if the Chowhound they had known and loved was either dead or dying.
On September 10, users who logged on to the website found that the old interface had been replaced by one that featured a much larger font size and sleek, oversized graphics, but was riddled with bugs and, in the words of user "mcsheridan," was "slower than molasses in January ever was."
Posting under the username "vipgeorges," Georges Haddad, general manager of the San Francisco-based company, wrote a lengthy "Welcome to the New Chowhound" introduction in which he hailed a number of more fundamental changes — most significantly, that the site's active regional discussion boards would be replaced by a "tagging"-based organizational structure.
Almost immediately, Chowhound users began to freak out. Hundreds flooded the Site Feedback board with their complaints, which ranged from lamenting the "Pinterest-like" aesthetic to describing the interface as "chaotic and nearly impossible to navigate." One thread was posited as a simple poll of whether users preferred the old format or the new. As of Monday afternoon, 170 users had voted for the old design; only four cast ballots for the new. Many vowed to leave the site altogether.
Many of the criticisms have to do with the usability of the site. Most notably, the new design meant that instead of being able to scan the titles of fifteen or twenty discussion threads at a time, now you could only see two or three — even fewer on a mobile device. As a result, users had to do a lot more scrolling.
The other concern was the fact that the regional boards had been replaced by a "tagging" system that many users found cumbersome. The fear is that if the sense of solidarity at, for instance, the board for discussing San Francisco Bay Area restaurants is weakened enough, and enough core users choose to leave, then Chowhound will simply cease to be the area's go-to online community for the food-obsessed.
It's that loss of community that is of greatest concern to Felice Lu, an Oakland resident who has been posting under the username "felice" since 2002. In an interview, Lu said she had already been worried that the Bay Area board had been less active in recent months. "With the site change, it's almost on its last legs, I worry," she said. What's more, Lu said many of the longtime users feel disrespected because the concerns they raised during the redesign's beta phase seemed mostly to be ignored.
When I spoke to Haddad about the blowback, he said, "I don't think you respect people by not innovating on their tools." And he pointed to the bright side: "There is an increasing number of users starting to say, 'I've been using this for the past few days, and it's not that bad.'"
Haddad was quick to take responsibility for the changes, explaining that Chowhound's parent company, CBS Interactive, hadn't given him any directives. In fact, he said he sold his superiors on his vision for a new Chowhound around the time he was hired in March 2014. Mostly, the new design is intended to make the site more accessible to newcomers — to the person who stumbles on the forum as a result of a Google search.
Haddad also cited several improvements to the site that he believes are being overlooked; for instance, the new tagging capability means that in the future, a user might run a search on Chowhound for "mojitos," and find not only user-generated discussions, but also recipes, videos, and image galleries. "We would have the best mojito page on the internet," he said.
For now, many users seem to be taking an extended break: For the past two weeks, there have been anywhere from ten to twenty new comments posted each day with the "San Francisco Bay Area" tag — far fewer, longtime users say, than the hundred-plus posts a day that used to be typical.
Sampson Shen, a Palo Alto resident who posts under the username "ckshen," is one of several longtime Chowhound users who left the site due to his disillusionment with the redesign. Even though he doesn't have any background in website design, he's started a new, not-for-profit site, HungryOnion.org, whose streamlined appearance recalls Chowhound's olden days in the late Nineties.
Lu, for her part, is holding out hope that Chowhound won't collapse outright, but she's already made her first post — about the Uptown Oakland restaurant Calavera — on Hungry Onion.
Disclosure: I, too, am a longtime Chowhound user and have posted for many years under a pseudonymous account that I created before becoming the Express' food editor. In the future, if I do post on the forum, I will use my real name. This decision is unrelated to Chowhound's redesign.
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