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Usability of the Joel on Software forum

If you are reading this it's obvious you are a forum user, so you might have an opinion about the following:

As you well know, Joel has this thing for usability. One could also reasonably imagine that he cares about the public visiting this site. This very forum is a centerpiece to the community that frequents this site, and probably even generates most of the content ;-).
Now forum software comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Was Joel's choice for a rather minimalist approach a conscious one, or did this just happen to be the offer of the month when this thing got started? My guess is the former.

I tend to like this interface more than most. That being said ... here's one thing I would not mind added:

- E-mail interaction: A webboard is great if you are a casual visitor. It's like an archive on display, but for actual participation, there's nothing like email. An e-mail client automates the polling process, and you get notified when there are new messages posted. For contributing, you just hit reply and you have got your message checked for spelling errors while you type (especially handy for us non-native speakers). Is it just me? Doesn't everyone think interaction with a webboard through email would be far more usable for the active community member, while the casual visitor still has that nice browser interface?
Yet when you look around for webboard packages, none of them have this support. Should I maybe look for listserv software with a nice web front-end? I haven't found it yet. For hosted solutions, MSN seems to support this, but apart from the ugly interface, I do not think you can integrate it in your own site.
So, what's up? Am I just a creature with a strange habit, or do you agree and is there an opportunity for a creative developer to make a few bucks on this?

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, June 20, 2002

For various reasons I prefer news (NNTP) to email.

Christopher Wells
Thursday, June 20, 2002

Joel has already expressed his opinion about this board - it's the way it is because it's the way he wants it.  This is not a usability question, but one of how he wants the board used.  He has the right, it is his board.

I perfer a PhpBB implementation myself... not because of the technology, but because of the usability.  You can see who posted last and when.  You can see the number of views of the topic also.  I like the alternating color of the posts, and don't have to have my old eyes squint too much to find the end of one post / beginning of the next.

Joe AA.
Thursday, June 20, 2002

It seems like a nice feature to me, though it adds complexity to the process.  One of the reasons I'm an advocate of Joel On Software-type forums is because it forces concentration on the subject at hand.  One can't get distracted by users posting all their messages in italicized 18-point Arial Black, with an animated gif signature.

So, I tend to evaluate every feature in terms of whether it will enhance the discussion itself.  Let's think about this.

The first issue I see is notification.  I wouldn't want to be notified every time a message is posted; Joel's forum alone would probably generate several dozen e-mails a day.

There are two possible solutions to this.  One is a digest that's mailed to e-mail participants every day.  The problem there comes in replying to the digest; how will the forum software know which topic the reply is supposed to fall under?

The other solution is for the software to only e-mail the user about certain topics -- either topics that the user has "signed up" for or only those topics in which the user has participated -- but both of those require periodic access to the web-based interface, which negates the whole purpose of this exercise.

Secondly, there's the issue of context.  If I only receive a notification when there's a new message, how do I know what's being replied-to?  This forum particularly emphasizes the flow of conversation; by receiving the forum piecemeal in e-mail, that flow will be lost.

So, all told, I'm not keen on the idea.  It may work, and I certainly wouldn't advise against somebody trying it on their own board.  But I think that it would cause more problems than it would solve.

Brent P. Newhall
Thursday, June 20, 2002

Personally, I think this forum would be improved if posters were allowed to edit (and delete) their own posts.

Anonymous coward
Thursday, June 20, 2002

Christopher:

News wouldn't solve my major problem, since it is still a pull medium wheras in the user context, email can be considered push. In a slightly different context than the one currently under discussion, I have noticed that when using community ware for work collaboration, people tend to participate in listserv style groups, while webboards and newsgroups usually remained empty except for the announcement post and a very few topic starts.

Joe:

Sure, I do not wish do deny Joel any right to run his board as he pleases. As I said for a "pure" webboard I tend to like it over a most if not all of the others. PhpBB to me seems to be one of those "everything but the kitchen sink" kind of boards, yet it still has no full SMTP interaction interface.

Brent:

Good points. Personally I do not mind high mail traffic volume since I'm on a very fast line and Outlook filters make it managable. The tread context is then easily provided through a single click on the subject sort button.

Just me (Sir to you)
Thursday, June 20, 2002

Am I the only one who likes this board just the way Joel wrote it?  If this forum had all the nifty features of slashdot, I probably wouldn't come here, either.

Alyosha`
Thursday, June 20, 2002

> News wouldn't solve my major problem, since it is still a pull medium wheras in the user context, email can be considered push.

Your email client software polls your mail server for new emails.

In exactly the same way, your newsreader (NNTP client software) polls the news server for new messages posted.

Sometimes this is called an "offline" newsreader. The benefit is that newsreaders support threading, filtering, etc., ... users choose their own newsreaders ... advanced functionality (filtering, sorting, etc) is built into the end-user's newsreader (and therefore doesn't need to be implemented by the server: data is on the server, presentation is on the client, as it should be ;-).

> In a slightly different context than the one currently under discussion, I have noticed that when using community ware for work collaboration, people tend to participate in listserv style groups, while webboards and newsgroups usually remained empty except for the announcement post and a very few topic starts.

It depends on the community; some communities are familiar with newsreaders.

If it were my baby I might expose the message base to the world via NNTP as well as via HTTP.

Christopher Wells
Thursday, June 20, 2002


"Personally, I think this forum would be improved if posters were allowed to edit (and delete) their own posts. "

That would be a nice feature, and God knows I would use it --I tend to err on the language side-- but also you lost the notion that you _have_ to think before to post.

Leonardo Herrera
Thursday, June 20, 2002

What forum software exactly is Joel using here?

Woodrow Stool
Thursday, June 20, 2002

Discussion boards should absolutely not allow editing or deleting. Posters should exercise care when writing. The allowance of editing or deleting shifts power to the weaker posters which is undesirable.

Email discussions are very lame.

If there's anything this boards is, it's usable. I don't recall having participated on a board that was more usable. What critics are really suggesting are features that they like, not that make it more usable.

pb
Thursday, June 20, 2002

At least sort the topics by order of last update/post.
MAJOR flaw.

Bella
Thursday, June 20, 2002

Christopher,

I used to like treading for discussions, but not any more. In my experience treading promotes subject fragmentation. You get all these parallel sub-treads going, often with lots of cross referencing and the whole thing becomes an intangible mess. I like the way a single tread puts a slight pressure on the contributions to address the subject as a whole.
I often find that when dealing with "solutions" to problems, one should be very careful. E.g. the environment of this board makes that it is very inconvenient to have long treads, since as the tread grows, it becomes more and more difficult to find your current position in the tread. This could easily technically be solved by having a bookmark type indicator for you. But, do we really want long treads? I do not, so the disadvantage is actually an advantage (To all smartassess here, yes, I know this contradicts my previous email suggestion, which I now have to admit was made more  in the context of something else I'm working on than in reference to this particular board).

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, June 21, 2002

> threading

With a newsreader, it's up to you and your client software how you display threads, i.e. how you sort messages.

You can thread by subject and then date (which is what this web view does); or you can thread by date, most recent message first irrespective of subject.

Client-side newsreaders also provide innumerably more user-specific features: for example remembering which messages have been read (not simply which subjects have a new message); marking, keeping, deleting, filtering, interfacing with email, working offline, etc.

> If it were my baby I might expose the message base to the world via NNTP as well as via HTTP.

Could be implemented by screen-scraping this web view.

Christopher Wells
Friday, June 21, 2002

"With a newsreader, it's up to you and your client software how you display threads, i.e. how you sort messages."

But in that case you loose the common context. Some people using a treaded view carry on their business in a fragmented subdiscussion, because their client settings allow them to with ease. They would not even be aware that they bother the others (or force them into the same view).

"Client-side newsreaders also provide innumerably more user-specific features: for example remembering which messages have been read"

Which is a great solution for making lengthy treads usable, but the absense of this feature maybe avoids lenghty treads in the first place. This board interface for instance does not forbid lenghty treads, but it very gradually ask for more effort to keep them going.

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, June 21, 2002

Personally I think that this forum is a marvel of usability.

It can't consist of more than 100 lines of ASP and yet it serves its purpose well.

Ged Byrne
Friday, June 21, 2002

Bella, it is not remotely a "flaw". Not resorting threads by most recent comment is a very specific design decision Joel made to reduce the instances of monotonous, never-ending flame wars as well as to increase the turnover and freshness of new topics.

pb
Friday, June 21, 2002

Here's a list of board implementations I like or dislike. Remember that I am not referring to the content, but to the usability of the technology.

Like:

http://discuss.fogcreek.com  :-)

http://www.totaltele.com/forum/debates.asp

Dislike:

http://webboard.oreilly.com/products/webboard/index.cfm

http://www.webwizguide.info/forum/default.asp

http://slashdot.org/

http://www.shacknews.com/msgboard/

http://www.phpbb.com

http://www.infopop.com/products/

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, June 21, 2002

The one change I'd like to see to improve this board is a prominently positioned Forum FAQ that explains Joel's reasoning for designing this board the way he did, so that this topic doesn't have to be repeated every time it falls off the list.

Big B
Friday, June 21, 2002

> But in that case you loose the common context.

NNTP support would let you automate polling the server and let you control your own view: exactly like the mail support which you suggested.

Also, NNTP support for the message-base may be implemented WITHOUT allowing tree-like threading by the clients: if the message base simply sets the "References" field of every reply to always reference (chain to) the 1st message in a subject-thread (instead of referencing e.g. the most recent message or a specific message in the thread).

NNTP has all the advantages of email, more advantages than email, and no extra disadvantages (in my opinion).

Christopher Wells
Friday, June 21, 2002

When I'm reading over a long list of posts I'd find it helpful to have a noticeable line every time the posts switch over into a new day.  That way I can quickly visually scan the posts and just read those from the last day.

anon
Friday, June 21, 2002

I have to admit that I've never been able to figure out the intracacies of the boards at slashdot.org.  They seem enormously more complicated than necessary.

asdfasdfasdf
Friday, June 21, 2002

When you are reading this article, how would you go back to the discussion board?

1. Click on the "corridor" pic. But without any label, how can we know that's what the pic is for? (The tip box is not an excuse. )

2. Click on "Recent Topics" at the bottom. But "recent topics" is different from "Back to Joel on SW discussion board". Of course it turns out that they mean the same thing, it may also mean that it points to another page of just the "recent topics", not the discussion board.

So Joel should put "Back to Forum" somewhere under the pic and change "recent topics" to "Back to Forum". The changes are simple, and make sense. A guy who emphazises on usability should do it.

Sam Wong
Sunday, June 23, 2002

I open topics and reply with "new window".  That way I can review the topic I am replying to... saves my memory cells (yes, both of them!).  Joel's "usability" doesn't want us to see the topic during our reply, but there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Joe AA.
Monday, June 24, 2002

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