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NowComment for Online Communities of Practice

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First, I'd like to thank Bob Spielvogel, Megan Thomas, and the other nice people at EDC for inviting me here today.

For those not already familiar with NowComment, it's a free cloud-based tool that makes it easy for groups to discuss online documents.

Two things before I start:

  • This presentation is online as a NowComment document at:, so you don't need to take notes

  • Go there any time you want to ask me to elaborate on anything in this presentation

Bob asked me to talk about NowComment as an example of a text-centric discussion tool, and in particular to talk about some aspects of NowComment's design relevant to its use in community of practice contexts.

To give you context for this, I'll start with a very quick overview of the NowComment user interface. I have to use screenshots rather than a live Internet document to avoid time lags for those watching online.

User Interface Overview

I’ll explain each of these interface elements via the next 3 screenshots:

  • Document is to the left, comments to the right. Documents can have text, images, and video content

  • Paragraphs are automatically numbered for easy reference

  • Balloon icons show where existing comments are, and how many there are; paragraph balloons by the paragraph#, sentence balloons after the sentence ends. When you're reading a document the balloons quickly fade into the background and, trust me, you won't find yourself distracted by them.

  • The panes are synced; if you click a document passage that has a word balloon, the right pane will scroll to show you all existing comments.

  • To reply to any comment, just click “Reply” (assuming you’re logged in)

  • There are two parts to a comment:

  • Summary of Comment (required) -- concisely convey your main point or two

  • If you need or want to say more, this elaboration field has no size limit.

  • You start a new thread by clicking on whatever you want to comment on: doubleclick on the text if you're using a laptop or desktop, single click if using a tablet or phone and then look in the right pane for a start new conversation link.

  • Other features appear off these navigation strip links.

Now that you've seen how NowComment works, I'll describe seven key design decisions we made. Normally I take questions as they arise, but given my 10-minute target window we'll have to hold off until the Q&A afterwards.


NowComment's archetypal use is intellectual “heavy lifting”, to help group members really dig into a document: note what’s unclear, identify implications, suggest alternatives, take issue with conclusions, etc. etc.


1. Threaded discussion

  1. We assume lively and highly interactive interplay among group members; there will be many passages where multiple discrete topics will be explored, so keep them in separate threads for time efficiency and to avoid frustration.

  2. Unlimited number of threads on any item. For example, say there's a sentence that recommends training all 10th grade math teachers in a certain methodology; Alex might want to talk about budget implications, Chris might want to talk about training challenges, and Pat might want to talk about a competing methodology. One sentence, 3 separate threads.

  3. You can reply to any comment you want, not just respond to the most recent comment.

2. Comments Must Be In-Context With the Document (vs. Online Forums / Message Boards / Blog comments)

  1. When a passage interests or confuses or bothers you, you can immediately see what others think about it.

  2. When you want to add a new comment you shouldn't:

  • lose your train of thought going to another screen

  • have to quote or explain what part of the document you’re referring to.

Note: NowComment works on smartphones, but if you have a very small screen there’s just not space to show both documents and comments, so you lose the in-context experience.

3. Minimize Distractions to Maximize Concentration

Intellectual work requires concentration, so:

  1. Our commenting is asynchronous rather than real-time chat; we want to encourage thoughtful consideration over a reasonable period of time, not immediate reactions to incoming stimuli.

  2. When you're reading a document, we don't automatically update it with new comments; any new comments appear after you make a comment or when you manually reload the document.

  3. We don't pop up notifications each time someone else logs in or is looking at the same document; the notifications we do send are via email, and the default is a daily digest.

4. Even Heavily-Commented Documents Must Remain Readable

Our balloon interface scales very very well; I’ve seen several 5-10 page Higher Ed documents with 400+ comments on each and the interface works beautifully.

Some approaches we rejected early on:

  1. With “sticky note” commenting tools, pages started becoming hard to read after just a few comments per page.

  2. Tools that use highlighting risk the same problem; when there are a lot of comments the document can start to look like a Christmas tree where too many lines are highlighted and the document becomes too distracting to read.

  3. MS Word would put use different colors for different people's comments (e.g. Alex's comments in red, Chris's comments in blue)... that just doesn't work well when group size exceeds 5-7 people.

5. Document Owner/Editor Collaboration Model

  • Microsoft Word and Google Docs approach collaboration mainly as group editing, with some commenting tools;NowComment emphasizes shaning ideas, with document changes secondary.

    • Beauty of “track changes” à focus on proofing vs. intellectual work

    • Psychological dynamics of making changes vs. making suggestions (red ink)

  • Wikis (everyone can change everything semi-visibly) take this a step further

NowComment Model

  • Each document is owned by its uploader, only he/she can make changes (audit trail)

  • Group members can suggest text changes that the Document Owner can accept via a “track changes”-like tool

6. Summary (Subject) Field: The Power of Skimming

When lots of people are making lots of comments you can't assume everyone in the group has the time or desire to read every comment in full. So... we copied the structure of email and have a subject field (basically, a “what's your main point” Summary field) separate from the comment itself.

This has two big advantages:

  1. If time is short, group members can skim comments to identify the most relevant ones to read more of.

  1. Because the summary field can be skimmed so easily, group members can feel free to make longer, nuanced comments in the other field without worrying about taking up too much reading time from other group members.

Here’s what skimming looks like: