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Forum Design - Good & Bad

A recent thread investigated various options available for forums. I looked at these and agree that the design of the forums posted was at least better than slashdot...

Does anyone agree that most forums out there are very badly designed?

The notable exceptions are:
1. The linear forum/Joel Design.
2. The collaborative generalized graph/Wiki Design.

I find both those designs to have high usability both in terms of reading and posting. They are both simple, elegant, easy to use. They reveal the presence of an architect who sat down and thought about The Design.

Other boards suffer from many maladies, perhaps the most severe is feature-itis. They are not cohesive but have every possible Way Kewl feature that can be imagined tossed in. They may only render on a subset of browsers, they may take 30 minutes of downloading before displaying a single thread, they may contain pages so large they cause all but the most powerful and latest machines to crash.

I appreciate restraint much more.
I appreciate simplicity.

I do not think it a coincidence that the Obese Way Kewl boards are dominated by teens, brawlers and other EQ deficients looking to get their eye-candy fix while knocking around some hapless newbies.

I do not think it a coincidence that the Designed boards attract more thought and have a higher signal to noise ratio.

X. J. Scott
Sunday, September 29, 2002

The one thing that is bad with Joels web page is the Multi Language translation thing that takes up so much room, first time onlookers would be excused that its a forum about languages rather than software development.

Its cute, but silly. In my opinion.

Alberto
Sunday, September 29, 2002

Just to clarify, I think the conversion to different languages is a good idea as it increases the audience, but it should be one link to the conversions rather than each individual conversion clogging up the page.

Alberto
Sunday, September 29, 2002

Alberto,

Fascinating points, but you do realise that the original question was about Joel's forum, rather than his primary web page...

Seeya

Matthew Wills
Sunday, September 29, 2002

I have to disagree - I don't really like this forum format and I think wikis are generally a great big mess. The problems with this are:
- if you clear your history or temp files you don't know where you've been
- there is no way to mark threads of interest
- no email notification option
- no way to review the previous message while writing

Wiki's tend to look organized but meander aimlessly, also there is no ownership of word or effort, so it somehow seems more like a job. I also don't it when someone 'improves' what you said, esp when they turn it into something you didn't say. Some work I guess, better as an acrhive than a dialog I find though.

I do agree most forums are overdone, though I'm not sure about the abundance of teenage mutants you refer to. Maybe (certainly) on game boards, but that is about what you'd expect... They can be restrained - it is very easy to take things out and turn the bkg to white on most of them.

My favorites are just nntp with a news reader, or a mailing list, with a searchable web archive. Sometimes html just doesn't cut it imo...

Robin Debreuil
Sunday, September 29, 2002

Please note that Joel was very fortunate. 
a) he was able to see all the extreme experimentation that went on
b) discussion sites are at the point where threats are not that concentrated, as they were when Slashdot was the only real place to discuss
c) socially "hacking" these places is not at all interesting

While it's a good job, and it seems to take good taste to write a functioning board that a lazy person can implement, we should note that requirements for a forum have eased up.

I have to respectfully disagree with Robin's points, I think that the less infrastructure to learn, the better it is for everyone.  One problem is that some people have such a large investment in learning a forum, that they just sort of write dull posts because they must write something.  After all, they made the investment.  So I'm glad these forums are weak in terms of features.

anon
Monday, September 30, 2002

Regarding "no way to review the previous message while writing": Haven't you yet discovered that you can have more than one browser window open?

Shift-click in IE on the reply button.  Or right click and select "open in a new window".

With two windows open, you can review all you want as you reply.  You just have to switch back and forth between the two.

A. Coward
Monday, September 30, 2002

"Haven't you yet discovered that you can have more than one browser window open?"

I was a bit afraid of the learning curve though - don't get me wrong, I love a challenge, just I'm worried that after mastering that I'd have nothing left in the tank for posting. I would probably end up posting all sorts of dull things just for practice.

Besides, a C++ friend of mine told me that opening a second internet window uses up a lot of secret performance memory that only micro$oft knows about. He showed me a graph, it really proved everything about it. Anyway, I always use linux (not red hat noobie linux either, the old kind without a mouse) so it isn't really my problem. In fact I usually write everything from the linux dos prompt. I'm recombining my kernal, so that machine is busy - try that in windoze anyway, ha!

Robin Debreuil
Monday, September 30, 2002

Excuse the total off-topic-ness :-)

>Anyway, I always use linux (not red hat noobie linux
>either, the old kind without a mouse)

Oh..you mean the eLiTe Linux distribution, that without a mouse and all. Linux didnt come without mouse support since late -91 or early -92. Gotta love a true h4x0r.

Keep it up.

Patrik
Monday, September 30, 2002

A note on this forum too,

This forum has a very high quality of discussion in my oppinion ( not counting my one earlier post ;-) ). So the minor flaws that this forum have, I am willing to live with, because of the high quality of discussion.

Joel has explained before, that the design descisions made for this board was among other things

a) to make quoting hard, since it makes the discussion less dull to read becuase of less repeating. Compare to usenet, which is incredibly hard to read, since all the posts usually quotes the full post they are replies too.

b) No email notification, since Joel wants people to come back to the site and check for new answers on the topics they are intrested in, and maybe contribute by replying to other topics. Email notification results in less activity in a discussion board.

there were ofcourse other reasons as well, but these 2 i remember off the top of my head.

Patrik
Monday, September 30, 2002

My standard and Joel's original forum is LUSENET:
http://greenspun.com/bboard/

I started with it because it was free and took about one minute to crank up.  It did everything I could think of in a most straight forward way.

In fact I never actually used it as a forum but as a way to broadcast a high school's sports news.  A fan returns from a football game, types in the score and a report, and the email alerts go to about 150 fans.  We get an archive of the reports to boot.  The fans don't even know they are using a web forum.

tk
Monday, September 30, 2002

Amen, Patrik. What people are calling "flaws" here are actually design decisions.

pb
Monday, September 30, 2002

"What people are calling "flaws" here are actually design decisions."

Hey, the 'our bugs are features' line sounds much better repackaged with a software engineer ring to it. No need for user feedback then, sorry.

Btw Patrik, not sure how you guessed my brand - it is actually Leet H4axor Linux++. The anti-enterprise edition comes without a mouse (or is it Patrick? Sorry, don't want to risk losing this text with the back button and I'm too lazy to open another window and go back there).

Robin Debreuil
Monday, September 30, 2002

"a) to make quoting hard, since it makes the discussion less dull to read becuase of less repeating. Compare to usenet, which is incredibly hard to read, since all the posts usually quotes the full post they are replies too."

Warning: completely off-topic post below:

Anybody else finds that Outlook ruined usenet? The brain-dead "save-some-keystrokes-and-quote-text-below" feature of Outlook and it's bastard child Outlook Express filled our usenet landscape with HTML waste and useless quoting.

I'm sorry for posting this off-topic rant, but I really, really hate outlook. I hate it more because people have accepted it's faults, and tagged as "internet virus" or "email worms" what must have been labeled as "outlook/internet explorer security bugs".

I also hate when people send one line mails with pages and pages of useless quoting and signatures repeated forever.

Phew. That was therapeutic :-)

Leonardo Herrera
Tuesday, October 01, 2002

"I also hate when people send one line mails with pages and pages of useless quoting and signatures repeated forever."

I hate it when my so-called "friends" keep sending me totally idiotic jokes that are buried in mountain of ">" signs and Fwd: headers.

And the jokes aren't even funny.

.
Tuesday, October 01, 2002

I also hate it when people even on this board feel the need to include an obnoxious signature line with each of their posts.

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, October 04, 2002

Getting back to forum design....

I would agree, in general, that a lot of forums suffer from feature creep.

However, I want to point out that different forums serve different needs.  Some forums exist to provoke serious discussion (like this one), while others are what I call "treehouses," intended for informal chatter and banter.  Game, art, and fan websites, particularly, tend to have treehouse forums, and since they're more informal, lots of features that would distract from serious discussion is okay.

So, I think that the purpose of the forum is an important factor in determining whether it's well-designed.

Okay, fair enough.  Let's talk about specific forum features.  How worthwhile are they, and in what contexts?

* Allowing HTML in posts
* Signatures
* Themes, where you can change the colors and certain aspects of the forum's layout
* Avatar images (an image that shows up next to your post, usually depicting someone's head...it can be a photo of yourself, or of a celebrity, or a drawing, or something completely random)
* A subject line for each post -- I rarely find this useful
* Explicit separators for each post (like different colors or boxes around each post)
* Email notification
* Sorting threads by most recent post
* Text-smiley-to-graphic conversion (ick!)
* Quoting

Brent P. Newhall
Friday, October 04, 2002

* Allowing HTML in posts

Why? I can add _emphasis_ using simple *ascii* art. Perhaps some parsing would be nice.

* Signatures

One line answers are common in forums. They only increase the noise level.

* Themes, where you can change the colors and certain aspects of the forum's layout

Probably, yes.

* Avatar images (an image that shows up next to your post, usually depicting someone's head...it can be a photo of yourself, or of a celebrity, or a drawing, or something completely random)

Clutter.

* A subject line for each post -- I rarely find this useful

It is not. It only serves as a topic diverter.

* Explicit separators for each post (like different colors or boxes around each post)

A little visual aid is never too bad.

* Email notification

Nice, but not missing.

* Sorting threads by most recent post

No sorting, please.

* Text-smiley-to-graphic conversion (ick!)

Can be funny sometimes...

* Quoting

Nah.

I would like some formatting rules ala Wiki, but that's all.

Leonardo Herrera
Friday, October 04, 2002

* Allowing HTML in posts

Unless one is on top of things, this can present security problems and is best avoided. A better approach is to look at the types of html formatting most forum users would want to use and implement custom markup codes for handling them, such as on wiki boards. I do think that being able to do bold and italic and have hyperlinks and section headers and dividers and limited support for images are all nice things that don't detract.

* Signatures

Beyond the name, email address and time of posting - no. It's distracting.

* Themes, where you can change the colors and certain aspects of the forum's layout

I guess it depends. Certainly the moderator of a forum should be allowed to choose its appearance, but you are suggesting that individual posters be able to do it? I'd say no, too likely to be abused and doesn't seem to serve any useful function.

* Avatar images (an image that shows up next to your post, usually depicting someone's head...it can be a photo of yourself, or of a celebrity, or a drawing, or something completely random)

This is one of those ideas that sounds neat but is really terrible in execution. I've been to these boards and they take absolutely forever to download posts and the images, though cute, don't really justify the effort. Possibly it would be more tolerable if the size of the images could be limited to 1k or so.

* A subject line for each post -- I rarely find this useful

I agree that it serves to divert topics, but that happens anyway I think if a board allows subthreads to branch off from the middle of a discussion. And the subject line does provide useful feedback to summarize the gist of the post in cases where the body of the post is on another page. On forums like joels with all responses in a line, a subject doesn't add much. If formatting is available, users who want a subject can simply make a line in bold or header text and those who don't need it can leave it out.

* Explicit separators for each post (like different colors or boxes around each post)

It's a good idea -- even Joel does this in that the signature is to the right at the end of the post. Too many embedded tables and lots of color changes though can easily be misused and should be considered carefully and tested on slow connections and old computers.

* Email notification

Haven't though about this feature much. Seems like a nice idea as long as its optional. Could be useful to draw traffic back to a board that someone has long forgotten they posted at but on the other hand having them come back and check for responses to their post has its advantages also. Any sort of sendmail using feature always needs a careful security review of course.

* Sorting threads by most recent post

I do like Joel's method since I do agree it allows old threads to naturally die. If there is really an interest in continuing an old thread, I see here that people will repost to the top and continue, so when there are relevant interesting posts, that works fine. I like how Joel shows how many responses there are -- if you see there is 0-1 responses to some repost after a couple days, you can safely skip it, realizing people aren't that interested after all.

* Text-smiley-to-graphic conversion (ick!)

No.

* Quoting

I don't see it as a big problem to include it but if you do chose to use it, should enforce ratios -- people posting 1-line responses to long posts will see their post interrupted and be asked to edit out the excessive quoting until you have at least 24% new material to old or such.

Or do like Joel does and if someone is particularly motivated to quote, then can carefully cut and paste the relevant info, possibly thinking out their post more while they do so.

This last case is an example of how it's a wise idea to gently yet transparently discourage use of features that experience shows are easy to misuse.

X. J. Scott
Friday, October 04, 2002

Is the question 'should forum software offer these features' or 'should you enable them'? If a), yes to all as long as they are easy to disable, if b) obviously it depends on the purpose of your forum. Email is essential for a support forum. So is [code] on a programming forum. Everything has its place - my kids are still scratching their heads wondering why on earth I would disable avatars...

Robin Debreuil
Saturday, October 05, 2002

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