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Joel on Software

Why does this forum exist?

Dr. Harvey Motulsky: "The [Joel on Software] forum is great because you attracted a group of thoughtful people who can write clearly. No flames. No all caps. No crap. Little HTML showing where it shouldn't. No one replying just to be the first to reply."

When I wrote the software that runs Fog Creek Discussions, I carefully crafted a user interface which is optimized in every way to created the highest possible quality of discussion. You may not have noticed this, but a lot of the things that look like "bugs" in this software are features.

Here are just two examples of the dozens of design decisions that create high quality conversation:

* when you hit Reply, you get a page that only lets you compose your reply. It doesn't show you the message that you're replying to. That is intentional, and intended to discourage people from quoting the text that appeared in the previous posting. These usenet-style quotes make forums BORING to read because you keep reading the same thing over and over again. There's no need for that here, because the entire topic is on one page. This makes it much more pleasant to read a post from top to bottom - the noise ratio is lower.

* the Post Message doesn't show you a preview of your posting. This makes people extra careful about what they post, because they know there's no safety net. The technical quality of posting is higher. (The principle comes from highway safety: twisty mountain roads without guardrails are statistically safer than twisty mountain roads WITH guardrails, because drivers get scared and drive extra carefully. The guardrails give them a false sense of safety which makes them drive carelessly.)

There are a bunch of other little things like that, and they seem to have worked well in the Joel on Software forum ( So as an experiment I'm expanding the forums by adding new programming topics one at a time. If it catches on, we'll find out empirically if my ideas about how to make an online community work well are actually valid. If I'm off the wall, this will deteriorate into Usenet and we'll turn it off.

Joel Spolsky
Thursday, September 19, 2002


Congrats on the new forum - I'm not a dotnet programmer (and have no intention to be :)) but it's always fun to launch a new forum (I have a community of my own).

I'd like to offer a few suggestions and reply to the first rule you have in your message:

1) You don't see the original message you're replying to on the post page.

I think this is a necessary feature for just general usability's sake - I had to open up your original message in another browser window (thank god for Mozilla tabs!) just so I could accurately repond to your message. I can understand not letting people not quote eachother's messages - removing that feature should be good enough to keep redundant text out of the topic. I believe that without seeing the original message people are going to be more willing to post shorter, less thought-out messages because they won't remember everything in the original message they wanted to respond to.

A few other comments:

* You might want to reconsider the front page (topic listing) UI. You can't see the time the last message was posted - this is especially key since you don't bump up topics with recent replies to the top of the list.

* Is search working? I searched for "report" and got the message "All the words in your search query are common words and were ignored." -- uh, what? All the other words I tried yielded the same result.

* You allow guests to post messages. I found this to be *super* annoying on my boards because there was no accountability. We had a lot of bogus posts and even spam. You might view user accounts as a barrier to entry, but it's worth it so you don't have jerks posting spam. Besides, user accounts are a great way to give status to members of your community (usually done via the # of posts you have).

Anyway, good luck with the forum.


Thursday, September 19, 2002

The "I want to see the words I'm talmudically commenting upon" problem is easy: generate an image from the text.
This makes it impossible to cut&paste the original.

Lance Norskog
Thursday, September 19, 2002

The full text indexing (for search) is only done every 6 hours so it took a while to kick in.

Make sure your browser remembers visited links. Then you'll see topics with new messages as a different color. It's a bit easier than mentally parsing and calculating the "time of last post" (gosh, when was I here last?)

Not bumping up messages with new replies is another one of those intentional things. Among other reasons, old topics that people won't stop talking about are boring and need to die eventually. Because the list order in the main page is stable it's easier to remember what you've seen and where you've been.

We allow guests because nothing reduces participation more drastically than requiring people to sign up just to post. Reducing participation reduces the potential number of people who will answer questions -- the sign up step probably drives away 90% of the people who see it. The downside is that once in a while I have to "pick up the litter" and delete a post that's horribly inappropriate. No big deal.

Anyway, I don't mean to brush you off, but I really did mean it when I said that the board has been carefully designed to work exactly the way it works, it's intentional and thought out, and it appears to be working quite well in the Joel on Software discussion group. But I still consider it an ongoing experiment in "community interaction design" and reserve the right to tweak things.

Joel Spolsky
Thursday, September 19, 2002

I've posted a lot on boards that allow edits.  And I've posted on this board (that _doesn't_ allow edits).

The editable boards are better.

Just my 2-cents'-worth.

Alex Chernavsky
Thursday, September 19, 2002

Open the "Reply" link in a new window and you can see what ever you want from the post you are replying to.

The list of replies on a topic can grow very large. I think I don't want all those on top of my reply form. Maybe Joel sometime change the link to open in a new window by default?

Thomas Eyde
Thursday, September 19, 2002

Hey Joel,

your "Community by Interaction" sounds like a book:-), when is out?

I really like your marketting stratergy:

1.) creating these forums gives you immediate access to a good knowledge base.

2.) There is nothing better than Word of mouth advertising! has anyone ever seen an add for google?

3.) It builds that feel good factor about your site which translates to your company and any products you sell thru your company.

Good luck!

To Bill :

having users rated by the no of post is akin to comparing a programer who can get the job done in 10 lines to the one who gets it done in 100. Quality counts, not quantity.

If you don't belive me ask Ged :-)

Prakash S
Thursday, September 19, 2002

oops "community interaction design"

Prakash S
Thursday, September 19, 2002

Regarding the problem for users of determining which threads have new posts in them, one technique I've used on my site is to simply set a cookie at the start of a user session with a last-visited timestamp. Comparing each thread's most recent message with this timestamp should then make it fairly simple to tell which threads have changed since the user last visited.

(Actually, I used it for all content, and I don't have the traffic for a discussion forum yet, but the principles the same, and it should still work - depending on how you store articles and threads though it might require quite a few queries).

Christo Fogelberg
Thursday, September 19, 2002

Joel's two points will be interesting to test (of course, I could just open the Reply link in a new window to view the contents of the thread).

At the same time I could posit that not quoting back the original thread will lead to misinterpretations and off-topic posts, while no preview will just lead to rash posts (because there's no chance to review and revise what you wrote).

And on top of that, the nice thing about a preview combined with viewing the thread is it lets you see if any new responses have been posted while you were carefully composing your post.

Regardless, any sucessful message board needs to deal with growth.  Every community has great conversations when its small, but ultimately reaches a point where the sheer volume of participation prevents any focused conversation to continue.  And both of Joel's points don't address this. 

Monsur Hossain
Thursday, September 19, 2002

I've never understood why there is a preview feature on any message board. If you want to review what you've typed before it gets posted, why don't you just read it in the box where you just typed it? Who is precisely lazy enough to hit the button without reading it but will read and correct it if it's shown in a preview page before it actually gets posted?

Ryan Eibling
Thursday, September 19, 2002

By the way, I realize that a preview could be helpful on boards that support html or other funky tags so you can see if everything works correctly, but I get the impression that a preview is usually intended more for the purpose of addressing rash or inappropriate posts. I'd dispute that they do any good for that purpose.

Ryan Eibling
Thursday, September 19, 2002

I like very much Joel's ideas on how a forum as this should
My only complain (we all have one, it seems :P) is that the
text is limited to a fixed width. I wish it used all the free
space, as when I am tired of reading it with its default font size, I increase it 2 times, as mozilla allows me to do this ;-)

Joao Pedrosa
Friday, September 20, 2002

Just a minor point, since people are using this post to talk about the usability. I have no issue with it at all, except why don't external links open a new window. I don't mind right-clicking and hitting 'Open in new window', which I'm sure would be the response, but other forums usually fire a blank one automatically -- which I find less annoying than forgetting this forum doesn't.

I'd be interested if there was a genuine reason for NOT opening a new window .... (I can think of one, but I'm not coaching! ;)


Greg Harvey
Friday, September 20, 2002

while I have had minor remarks before, I always liked the "gently discourage bad habits" approach. Some examples:

- Long treads (which have inevitably deteriorated) are not forbidden, but having to scroll and search for the last contribution point gradually requires more effort to keep it up.
- "No treading" keeps the discussions more homogenous and avoids fragmentation of the topic

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, September 20, 2002

I have to agree with most of this. My own "feature rich" forum certainly suffers from some of these problems.

For example, someone posts to an old thread, and it immediately jumps to the top of the list. Keeping in the order they were created would certainly reduce this, and possibly prevent threads reaching 100 or more messages on one page.

Threaded forums tend to produce fragmented discussions which branch in all directions, whereas keeping the discussion tends to make the conversation progress. People don't tend to comment on messages in the middle of the thread unless they have something important to add, which tends to make people focus on only posting relevant comments.

I'm not entirely convinced about not showing the previous messages in the reply form, but as has been said, if people really want to see it, they can open the reply in a new window. I really think the preview is unnecessary except for forums that support HTML (which produces it's own set of nightmares).

I also made the mistake of adding cute smilies that people could insert in their messages in my forum. I must have left my brain at home that day. :-)

I agree with the comment that links should open in a new window. I'm also surprised that you don't check that email addresses are valid (see my own for example). I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not.


James Shields
Friday, September 20, 2002

I've used countless of forums, and I do like all those "bloated" features like being able to edit your posts, getting e-mail notifications, smilies, etc.

Yet, I would not change a thing from this forum. I just *love* simplicity.

Ivan V.
Friday, September 20, 2002

If you get a chance, you might consider an article about the interface design decisions you made for this group.  I'm deep in decisions for how to redesign the discussion area of my own site and your advice would be most welcome.

Mark Morgan
Friday, September 20, 2002

Looks great Joel,

Several comments.

I find having alternating background colors for separate posts make it
easier to page through messages.  Right now my eye has to look to the
right side of the screen to see the author's name and email to see
when a thread ends.  An example is this jpeg

which shows a ticket tracking system and at the bottom, each entry
alternates the background color.

Also, having the author's name on the left would make it easier to
find posts by people who you want to read.


Blair Zajac
Friday, September 20, 2002

Reason for not opening in a new window: It removes choice. Quite often, I'll read a posting, find a link, and decide that I'm done with the original thread. Now, if I click the link, I still have the old discussion window (that I'm done with) in the backgrund that I'll have to close.

Giving me a choice let's me use shift-click when I'm not done with a thread yet, and just click when I don't care about the rest of the discussion anymore.

Checking for valid emails: There's no way to determine whether the email is actually pointing somewhere meaningful, so checking validity only catches spelling mistakes (and only concerning the "@", ".", and having two or three characters after the dot). Now, not checking allows people to (at least try to) fool spam bots looking for need preys.

David Heinemeier Hansson
Sunday, September 22, 2002

As for the forum program:

minor bug:
the .net forum is not included in the index.

The 'visited links' option does not work for me as I work in 2 places on different computers.

Dates would work for me. Can they at least be added (last modified/replied date).

And a full context search would be great. Current search only searches subject/submitter

for me: I understand the power of this discussion forum mechanism, but please do realise that it also costs a lot of time. It takes time to see if anything has changed (at least when using multiple PC's).

Adriaan van den Brand
Monday, September 23, 2002

Brave New World: We are learning to do something new - talk asynchronously across the globe.

I've enjoyed the discussion so far. There doesn't seem to be a perfect model for this yet. Part of the answer may lie in how to change the forum into a process for improving itself. Along those lines, is there anyplace where the experience is captured so we can implement what has proven to be good design changes?

Thanks for all the hard work.

John Diekmann
Monday, September 23, 2002

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

I've been a forumite for years -- obviously I believe the all ones at which I spent quality time were excellent boards, but returning to the point, they had a wide variety of interfaces.  Nevertheless, I'll assuredly grant that there's a broad correlation between UI and the type of messages one is likely to attract.

At one end of the scale are the places where each message is accompanied by animated smilies, graphical avatars, and screen-length "signatures."  Ugh.  Draw attention away from the text, and you inevitably (1) remove the regulars' interest in producing it and producing it well (2) drive away the folks who *gasp* want to read and write.

On the other hand, the balance struck by the places I've committed the most effort seems helpful, e.g. simple markup to allow hyperlinks that don't disrupt one's narrative.  This board's minimalist approach is quite different, though it reminded me of a BigMouth Lion forum I'd nearly forgotten (the first great community I joined on the 'real' WWW, in fact, nearly 10 years ago -- the precursor to, if anyone cares).  I like the results so far more than I expected; it's certainly preferable to Usenet, which while minimalist on the surface, is merely anarchic.

I can't know whether it's an intended feature or an oversight, but in any case my sole suggestion: put the metadata at the top of posts.  Keep it at the bottom too if you like, but not finding out the date (and especially) the author of a post until after reading it necessarily strains the literacy of place devoted to "talking asynchronously across the globe."

Richard Berg
Saturday, October 19, 2002

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