Stack Overflow adds dark mode--programmers' top feature request

With dark mode, the de facto source of solutions to programmers' problems takes one more step toward looking like and being an integrated development environment.

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If you've ever asked Google a question like, "how to remove a specific item from an array javascript," or anything else, then you have probably seen the search results for Stack Overflow. Starting with the ability to paste blocks of code that display as blocks of code, the site has moved from a static web page to feel like an extension of the programmer's development environment. 

Today, the tool's features include syntax highlighting that can be programming-language specific. Programmers who shifted their development to dark mode, however, still experienced a jarring sensation moving to the browser and back.

Until today.

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Stack Overflow released a new dark mode on its platform, thanks to user feedback.

Image: Stack Overflow

About Dark Mode

Meta.StackOverflow.com is the place people go to ask for features, and they went there a lot. As of this publication, it is the 12th most upvoted question on Stack Overflow Meta, and  No. 1 most upvoted on Feature Request (out of 41,785 questions), with 824 views and 30,000 upvotes. The Meta board is not a popular one, either. As a Stack Overflow user for 10 years with 750 karma (A measure of involvement in the site), I personally have only clicked into it two or three times. For every one person who found Meta and took the time to vote, there may be 100 who would be interested.

The white-background-black-text default for word processors comes from paper, which is black text on white paper. One of the advantages of this color scheme is the contrast--or difference between the colors--is so high. This is easier to read and leads to less eye strain. Programmers like it because it is possible to shrink the font size and still be able to read it as well.

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Sadly, while high contrast can help with accessibility, the sheer amount of white on the screen can create more eye strain, migraines, posture issues, and other related problems. By inverting the colors, dark mode provides all the high contrast without the extra eye strain.

And, of course, it began as a prank.

More than dark mode

Ultra Dark Mode was actually dreamed up at a hackathon to go beyond dark mode. Where other apps had dark mode, Ultra Dark Mode would be better than dark mode because it would be darker. That doesn't make any sense in practice due to how contrast works, but it was just the right combination of silly and fun rhetoric to get a programmer working on it in a hackathon. Ultra Dark Mode does have other fun features, including a flashlight icon for those who are afraid of the dark.

Once work on Ultra Dark Mode became visible, the team quickly became excited about a non-joke, true dark mode. Aaron Shekey, the principal product manager for design systems, explained it this way: "I've been pushing adoption of Stacks, our design system, over the last year, using dark mode as an opportunity to rebuild many parts of our products. This is the first of many projects to bring more accessibility to our users. It feels great to finally deliver a feature that so many people have asked for."

Lessons learned

The original request for dark mode came back in 2013. Other sites like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter all have similar features, with iOS introducing the feature in September 2019. Two things may have combined to make now the time to do it: The never-ending, continuous stream of customer requests, and the reality that the competition was doing it. When the operating system converts the background to the main system screens, it makes non-dark-mode applications a little more jarring. 

Stack Overflow's built-in voting system makes Meta a chance for software builders to test Stack Overflow by using Stack Overflow, something company co-founder Joel Spolsky refers to as, "Eating our own dog food."

 If you want to build good software, first, build democratic systems for your customers to make requests, then listen to those customers, and build what they want.

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