Sidebar category configuration -- just follow watching/tracking instead of having separate config?

Continuing the discussion from Try out the new sidebar and notification menus!:

@Jonathan5 suggested that the separate configuration for sidebar categories could be dropped in favor of simply using “watched” and “tracked”. @mcwumbly replied that this was the original design, but that people found this was too much notification noise. And then:

It looks like since I tried this something changed — or else I was wrong before — and now sidebar categories which are not watched or tracked show a new-message count (just like tracked categories). I guess that’s a little less confusing.

I still am not convinced that a “slightly less tracked than tracked” class is needed, but if it is, it seems less overwhelming to users to add to the category watching options, like this:

  • Watching
  • Watching First
  • Tracking
  • Sidebar Link
  • Normal
  • Muted

… and then have everything Sidebar Link and above show up.

Fewer separate config option places, and as a bonus easy to configure from each category with the existing bell icon.

What do you think?


I think the desire to split sidebar appearance from tracking level is more apparent when we look at the UI… having a dropdown with 5+ options that each require their own explanation feels like a lot.


So with the sidebar combined here, these descriptions get longer and the functionality gets less apparent… for example, Watching would become:

You will automatically watch all topics in this category and a link will be added to your sidebar. You will be notified of every new post in every topic, and a count of new replies will be shown.

That feels like a lot to understand. I suspect that there are already many Discourse users that can’t explain the difference between watching and tracking without referring to this menu.

I’d like to work towards simpler more universally understood concepts that require less explanation.

We’re also considering future functionality like the concept of personalized homepages where a user can aggregate topics from specific categories/tags/etc. The “tracked” link in the sidebar is kind of an early version of this.

So maybe in the future “tracked” becomes “subscribed”, and at that point we can follow a pattern that requires less explanation. YouTube, for example:

Screen Shot 2022-10-19 at 10.12.45 AM

In their case “Subscribe” means I want to see this on my homepage and in my subscription list, and their notification options are very simple. We’ll still require more detail than that, but if we have a separate “subscribe” button perhaps we can focus on making the existing tracking menu more notification focused, and as a result, easier to understand at a glance.


(just an example, we don’t have set plans for something like this at the moment)

I agree with this generally, I’d like to see the ability to add categories or tags to the sidebar from the category or tag pages directly rather than an isolated preferences menu… but I hope we can come up with a way that isn’t further complicating some already complicated concepts.


2 posts were split to a new topic: Is there a way to easily see which things you’ve already tracked?

That makes lots of sense. Although I’d like that to be useful and not overwhelming, I was thinking primarily of finding it in Preferences. It feels weird to me that it’s not here:

… and discovering it in another area makes me feel like I need to click through all of the different areas to see if there are category preferences in those too.

This is especially confusing because settings in Notifications do (I think? right?) change what is displayed next to the categories in the sidebar — as well as what shows up under “Everything” and “Tracked”.

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Yeah we are totally up for a revamp here. It is not particularly fun to use these controls and there are so many of them in so many different places. It would feel particularly wrong to move sidebar there cause it does not notify and this is “notifications → categories”.

We have discussed the idea of a unified UI for handling categories and tags user prefs, but it is still in the brainstorming phase.

@awesomerobot general idea is a single row per category or tag where you can decide what you want to do with it. Then show you a list of all the things you acted on with a search box.

I can certainly see us make progress here over the next few months.


Love that this conversation is happening, although curious if there’s been some movement since October.

I run a fairly well-trafficked community and since launching under Discourse 2019, the most common question/request/complaint is always around notifications. Simply, the number of options is so overwhelming to most users that they don’t engage with the features at all. I don’t blame them. They just want to be in community, and not spend half their time trying to learn the application. (And, frankly, from a UX standpoint, they shouldn’t have to).

History/Context: my forum has been around since around 1999-2000. We’ve gone through at least a dozen iterations of forum applications. Discourse easily outperforms them all in terms of generating conversation and community. My humble opinion: simplifying Notifications under Categories and Tags with Sidebar reflecting those preferences would only benefit users.

Have them think less, utilize more.

Right now, if I polled my users, very few could tell you the difference between “Watched” and “Tracked” and “Watching First Post.” When you account for the Sidebar (which has been a much needed addition, and I love it), it further adds to the complexity.

So, here’s some hard questions that will probably irritate some (not my intention) because I’m sure there’s history here …

  • Why do we have Watched and Tracked and Watching First Post? What’s the history here? Did it come about organically? How has that decision aged? Is there data that suggests these options are actually used, or have they just sort of been there since the beginning?
  • Does Watching First Post still make sense? What’s the use case? Are there that many users that would say, “Sure, I want notifications on my categories, but I actually only want the first post in each new topic.”
  • Even reading the descriptions of Watched and Tracked for myself, I’m not sure I know the difference.

Is there a world where those three are conflated? Or at least two of them? What if a user just wanted to be alerted to new topics under Category or Tag? And their Sidebar simply reflected those choices. Instead of providing an overwhelming amount of options, what if we just got out of their way so they could focus on contributing to the community?

I know that’s a lot, and I sincerely don’t mean to kick nests. But I do know users. Or least mine. So of course, take it for what it’s worth. Either way, I continue to love the Discourse product, and that interest has amplified with the introduction of the Sidebar. :slight_smile:

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I’ve said before that the notification/email system would need a PhD to understand fully, so I agree with you in general, but I do use “watching first post” as a reader (switching to “watching” for topics that really interest me), and with my own forum I recently saved about $20 a month on emails by switching the default on some categories from “watching” to “watching first post”.


This option is great for sites with Announcements or News categories. I want to be notified when there is a first new actual post, but not about every comment on that post.

For a real-world example, look at Home Assistant’s Blog category. A new blog post? Yes, please notify me. Every one of hundreds of replies varying between “yay good job” and “you moved my cheese so I hate you now”? Not so much!


Great example, but let me play devil’s advocate: how many actually use Discourse as … a blogging or news tool? I don’t even see it mentioned anywhere on the Discourse home page or subsequent feature pages. In fact, it only mentions “blog integration.” Discourse is a community-building tool.

Because Ghost is a blogging tool. And so is Wordpress. Discourse isn’t trying to compete with those platforms; rather, they sit alongside them very nicely. Using Discourse as a blogging tool is certainly unique, but does that qualify as a use-case for a baked in feature that we’re now trying to grapple with how to distinguish the complicated “notification” feature set?

I’d love to know what @sam and others think about this. Because it very much has to do with the identity of Discourse.

I think your example makes sense if “Watching First Post” is a plug-in but not necessarily out-of-box, forcing community-first sites to figure out how to untangle the complex web of notification options.

I think Watching First Post makes sense for most sites? Obviously, it’s a user preference so is in no way mandatory, but it’s great for being made aware of any new topic in a certain category (or tag) without being lumbered with all the notifications for all the subsequent replies. Can you give me an example of a site where it wouldn’t be useful?

From a practical point of view, I don’t see how it could work as a plugin?


“the first post in each new topic” is actually: “each new topic”, and we might want to rename it to “watching new topics”.

I think this is actually the most useful notification setting of all three. You get notified about new topics, and if you find it interesting, you will participate (which will switch it to watching) or set it to watching manually.


Love it.

I was merely trying to poke at the complexity of notifications and how to simplify. This might be one route: if they’re just watching New Topics, do the other options make sense? Are they necessary?

I’m still curious if Discourse has any data on usage rates, or any feedback from actual users (non-admins) to help inform, because it seems we’re all working from a lot of assumptions.

Interesting idea - hold my beer - I will gather some data from the forums we are hosting.

Settings on category_user level below. I just counted all the settings from all the forums so certain large forums might skew have a large impact on the numbers.

I would say, let’s get rid of tracking and rename “watching first post” to “watching new topics” (and “watching” to “watching new posts”)

percentage level
20.2% regular
11.7% tracking
33.8% watching
34.2% watching first post

I never choose “tracking” but it might be good to keep it as something that happens in the background (after reading four minutes or whatever) as the number things draw your attention. I think tracking just gives you numbers in a circle, and how active a topic is makes the numbers different colours. The whole thing is hideous but sort of works.

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Well, I’m notified here anyway. That’s why we have… new.

Data driven decisions. Woo!

I think that’s a good step, if we were to drop something only 11.7% of users find useful, if it means making notifications more efficient with (potentially) better tie-in to the Sidebar.

I think the Tracking and Watching nomenclature is a huge part of the confusion, and I’d guess, lack of adoption.

I assume you mean, e.g.,

That is fine on a small site, or if you don’t mind selecting or bookmarking particular categories. But on a big site, it’s just a firehose. Setting this for certain tags or topics lets you pick out things you’re more likely to care about, and have those highlighted for your attention.

Is that just the category-level ones? Do tags fair any better with Tracking? And would that mean that most of the Tracking is done at the topic-level? (topic_user.notification_level), or most opt for ‘normal’? (And Mute didn’t make it onto the board, which is quite surprising)

FWIW, I think with ‘Watching First Post’ you also get notifications if there are any edits to the OP as well? So there’s a little extra than just new topics.

Tag notifications are not used that much.

Au contraire. And I’m not surprised, either tracking isn’t very useful, or I don’t understand its purpose.

tag_users breakdown:

percentage level
0.5% regular
1.9% tracking
10.4% watching
87.2% watching first post

I left Mute out explicitly, since I was interested in the notification preferences, and mute is mostly used in different scenarios. I did not include topic_user either since most of those are made automatically when someone replies or reads the topic for a certain amount of time.

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Is there any way of know how many of these are the default settings? Maybe many people aren’t using the settings at all.