Why isn't there any true innovation in Forum Design?

Discussion in 'Community Organization' started by Wayne Luke, Sep 15, 2005.

  1. Wayne Luke

    Wayne Luke Tazmanian

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    When you look at most forum designs they are all the same basic boring layout. Header, Breadcrumb, Forum List/Thread, Statistics, Footer. Very few sites go beyond this basic layout. The only one I know that did it successfully is SitePoint where they have a two column design on their main forum page (linked below) but lose it on subsequent pages. Nor do they go beyond simply adding a new column and bring some choice content to the front. It still has the same basic top to bottom layout. Add to this the fact that many sites simply add a two or three column portal page as their main entrance page and everything starts to look the same.

    Is it really useability that is preventing people from moving away from this or is it conformity? Do we really need the two/three column homepage with a single column or can a true double column layout be carried throughout? I am talking more than simply having a tower advertisement on the left or the right. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this and if anyone has gone with a truly unconventional community forum design. You get a little variety in blogs but they still follow a standard cookie cutter pattern. So I guess my main question is where is the real design in online communities?


    reference link: http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/index.php?
     
  2. crackers8

    crackers8 Developer

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    I've been wondering this for years. The problem is that nobody can really think of another way to organize the information. Humans like information boxed and organized neatly.

    I have two thoughts right now though:
    1) Curves and circles are more natural to humans, even though we don't utilize them much on the Internet. Perhaps something can be done with that instead of using "boxes" for forums. The question is how and can a script be written to do it.

    2) A customizeable interface. I think the Personalized Google Homepage has something going for it. You can add ANY content to your homepage there, including RSS feeds for any site. Then you can even grab a chunk of content and move it somewhere else. It is then automatically moved (and using AJAX or whatever engine they are on it doesn't even require a page reload).
     
  3. Wayne Luke

    Wayne Luke Tazmanian

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    While I haven't used Google's implementation, I believe I have a similar option through MSN. However that is still a basic design concept similar to many websites.

    Customization might be a key factor in the future and you are right, it is easier to handle boxes rather than curves online.
     
  4. amykhar

    amykhar Enthusiast

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    I would dearly love to break out of the box, as it were. But, the one good thing about the standard box is that people learn how to use it. This makes it easy to get new members active in the site.

    To you and I, posting on a message board is trivial. You find the new thread button or the reply button, and away you go. But, I frequently watch non-net savvy people on forums. They are absolutely clueless as to what to do.

    If forums were radically different, people would be clueless over and over again. But, by sticking with the basic vbulletin/infopop type structure, we have some hope that the user will learn the basics and be able to participiate.

    It is sort of like Windows. If every computer was different, users would suffer. It's the sameness that's offered by the operating system that helps the user's cope with different software packages. Software that works the way typical Windows software works is easier for them to learn than software with a unique interface.

    Amy
     
  5. crackers8

    crackers8 Developer

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    Yes, but who's to say that we can't come up with a NEW standard? YaBB was the (or one of the few) forum system that initially designed the layout you see today on every other message board. Why can't we come up with a new design that is more intuitive. It can be pushed to be used by every system eventually and become the new standard that everyone is familar with using. Don't think that lateral and boxy is the way it's always been. Boards started out as threaded ;)
     
  6. phoenixdown21

    phoenixdown21 The Man with the Plan

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    I think the big problem right now is the limitations of browers in accepting new webstandards quickly *cough ie cough* and some of hte difficulties we still have today in eliminating tables from design.

    Plus its a real pain to sift through a 100 + templates.
     
  7. amykhar

    amykhar Enthusiast

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    I wonder how much Vista and the 3 dimensional desktop that they are promising will change web site interfaces.

    For now, the linear chunky setup works well for the 2-dimensional window paradigm. But, maybe if we move to a different way of working with computer data, message boards will evolve as well.
     
  8. crackers8

    crackers8 Developer

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    I haven't heard anything about Vista pushing changes to websites. How can the desktop do that? Or is it mere inspiration from their 3-D windows components? Is there an article about this?
     
  9. amykhar

    amykhar Enthusiast

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    I'm thinking more inspiration. I know a lot of web sites imitate operating system features.
     
  10. Mike Feury

    Mike Feury Habitué

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    That's the basic answer to Wayne's Q. Most forums are started to build a community rather than to experiment with design or innovation.

    It's a pretty fundamental rule of community building to make life as easy as possible for your members. Same as with a commercial site, make it easy for your customers thru familiar navigation, shopping cart etc.

    A site like SitePoint can be more experimental because it caters to a web-savvy audience. That's the sector which can afford to experiment without alienating a large portion of their potential new membership.
     
  11. Wayne Luke

    Wayne Luke Tazmanian

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    These are some good points. Design can be evolutionary without being revolutionary or radically different. vBulletin 1, 2, and 3 have the same basic design as do any of the other popular forums. That hasn't changes in a long time. Yet, we moved from a predominantly threaded discussion would to a flat discussion world. I think it is time to take it a step further.

    Amy said we could take suggestions from the operating system for web design. So I will use that for comparison.

    In the days of DOS, we had BBSes. These were the forerunners of todays communities. They were text based, limited to sixteen colors and had limited ASCII based graphics. They were popular. They introduced forums on a broader scale than USENET was available. The forums were feature rich with static read marking and threaded or flat modes. They allowed attachments and both private and public email. They had addons such as games and other entertainments or could be attached to massive files libraries. They lacked a robust search but all things computer did then.

    Next came Windows 1.0... With this BBSes got more graphical but it was still basically a text environment. HTML was born but the WWW didn't exist in the mid-80s at least as we came to know it a decade later.

    Windows 3.1 brought the GUI mainstream in a boxy and clunky way. Yes, the Macintosh did it 6 years earlier but it was a niche PC. The "Internet" became popular but HTML didn't have a rich environment. Forums actually devolved as people moved from BBSes to the WWW. We got products like Web Board. These didn't have many features but they fit a need. Most people used USENET though. They introduced the threaded forum interface.

    Finally, we got Windows 95. This was again an evolutionary step where the big clunky Program Manager was removed from the UI and it introduced a more streamlined interface with the taskbar and start menu. At the same time we go the forum format we still use today. The linear view and table based forum layouts still used today.

    However, OS have continued to evolve. More streamlined interfaces, better widgets, inline search, and a lot more. Forum software hasn't. We're starting to see some evolution in vBulletin 3.5 and IPB 2.1 (probably others but two examples are good). With AJAX we can simplify the user interface. We can add Rich-Text Editing (which has been in the OS for 22 years). Inline moderation makes management easier. etc...

    We can add new widgets and gizmos to make the software easier to use while improving the interface. Things like plugins and hooks make the software expandable without tinkering. Templates expand the horizons.

    Look at your forum software and see what could be improved. First thing that comes to mind is language. Our software is full of jargon. Do user's need this? Which is more clear: New Thread or Start Topic? Is a forum all the discussion areas on your site or just on? Second is help... Most systems call this FAQ or frequently asked questions. But Help is Help and for the new comer it should be called help.

    Changing the interface doesn't have to be drastic but do we really need 3 inch headers with 4 layers of menus and the clutter that we have today? Can that information be simplified? I mean just glance at the header on this page... How can it be improved?

    Could we make our forums more inviting by moving the discussion areas into a side menu and putting the conversation as the center of attention? Does adding distractions such as arcades and betting increase the long term viability of the community or are they just toys that detract from it. These are some of the questions we have to ask ourselves. A couple of years ago I read a good book called "Don't Make Me Think". It was about web design. Too many forums today make you think and I think they can be done better.
     
  12. NexopiaRob

    NexopiaRob Habitué

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    I think a lot of it is because so many people are using the same software (vB, phpBB, etc)

    I really like our forum layout. Very clean and simple
    http://www.nexopia.com/forums.php
     
  13. Scribbller

    Scribbller The dude

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    Rob you use frames :eek: anyways at the end of the day its the same top to bottom design Wayne is talking about.
     
  14. NexopiaRob

    NexopiaRob Habitué

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    Yes, we use frames, shock horror.

    It solves a lot of problems for us (mainly related to advertising (we show less ads by show each one for longer and they're always in view))
     
  15. Graham

    Graham I Like It Here :)

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    This is probably the best question I have seen on here for a long time..... but you are up against the major problem with humanity. We like what we know.

    Why do cars have four wheels. Why do motorbikes use handlebars instead of a wheel ? ( and lots of other daft questions like that :) )

    What we have now works. people are used to it and dont have to think to hard.

    I agree with questioning the terminology. New users wont know what a post or thread is and these should be changed, as should many of the other buttons ( and anyone can do that for themselves ) but the main layout of a forum works well, I cannot picture a better way of laying it out ( and I have tried ).

    Things move on all the time but whats that old saying ? Oh yes. 'If it aint broke, dont fix it' :)
     
  16. snowcrash

    snowcrash loafing

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    One way of thinking about this is to examine how what we now call forum software has evolved, both graphically and features-wise
    For example, some of my newbie forum users only think in terms of threaded email conversations, and initially find the flat conversation display weird, but now prefer it. Having said that, some luddites still like email and nothing else, and consider "going to another website" outside of email wasting time.

    If forum software is about enabling virtual communication, then there must be many ways of achieving this. And outside of threaded type discussions there are, eg. instant messaging, webcams etc

    If you think about it, web communications is still in its infancy in terms of the history of human technologies of communication (starting from beating a drum say...)

    The current similar look and functionality of forum software is perhaps not that surprising. Again, email is so ubiquitous on the net not just because of protocols enabling universal communication, but because it is relatively easy to use for the internet masses, as well as it being asynchronous (which is why instant messaging is unlikely to surpass email)
    The problem is that any radical innovation of forum software may be so radical that most potential users would find it difficult. Compare this with all the geeky discussions we have about tweaking our current forum software. And why some Admins prefer the "simplicity" of say phpbb compared with vB.

    It can feel that we are "trapped" by our current conventions, and the form/features of current forum software is essentially similar. But I think the shift towards the formation of virtual communities & community building may start to change how we conceive of forum software. That the discussion forum itself won't be at the heart of the community; and so it may evolve differently...
     
  17. Wayne Luke

    Wayne Luke Tazmanian

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    There are several points that I feel current forum software fails out all of which can be tied into a better overall interface.

    1) Engaging the newcomer. On large sites this is particularly overwhelming. Look at my previous example of SitePoint. If I was brand new there today, the sheer number of forums would be intimidating. Their featured discussion frontpage gives me fewer entry points so I am not overwhelmed. Even TAZ has a lot of forums that may not be totally necessary.

    2) Gaining the newcomer. Look at Yahoo! Groups. One of the worst interfaces to individual communities that I have ever seen but signing up for a group is easy. The groups are more active than your typical forum. I am a member of one group with 38 members and it gets 1000 posts a week. Other community based sites such as Blogger, Live Journal easily gain the newcomer.

    3) Balancing the needs of the experienced forumgoer with the inexperienced. This is the main thing affected by the interface. We get so many different features that it becomes cluttered. Even the "relative" simplicity of phpBB is cluttered to a lot of people. Let's look at "Quick/Fast Reply" for instance.. Do we really need two reply buttons on every post? Why not have one and have settings to control which is used or why not have a floating response window with everything you need in it? Why can't the forum interface be more like the email one?

    4) It is said there is beauty in simplicity. Why not hide the lesser used controls behind a better interface. Look at the TAZ header up above, does it really need a menu for "Active Topics" and a link for New Posts?

    Now I understand about advertising, the limitations of HTML, and everything else but I just feel there has to be a better way. I feel that in some places that it is broke and should be improved.
     
  18. phoenixdown21

    phoenixdown21 The Man with the Plan

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    One way of simplifying is to hide option behind dhtml menus but this works and it doesnt work at the same time...

    For example, the subscribed links - I have to really work to get to that. When I go to a forum, yeah I may want to see the catagories and the threads in the forum but I want to a) see new threads and b) see what (if any) replies may have been made to threads I am participating in.

    Another thing is that its a pita the change your avatar or signature. Thats three or four links deep but its something that as a user, I'd like to have more readilly accessible.

    EDIT: Wayne, maybe this can be a seperate project on the vbcss site?
     
  19. MGM

    MGM vBulletin Guru

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    I have already come up with ideas to solve plenty of these problems.

    Somebody before mentioned customizability, and I think this will be the future of the forum industry. The way I have things setup, a new member would come to the forum and find 5-8 forums available. When he/she gets to 10 posts or has been joined for a week, he gets access to 3-5 new forums. At 50 posts or a month since sign up, he gets access to 4-7 more new forums. Each new forum is more specific than the last (ie, first forum is General Discussion, second is Rants, third is Rants Against the Game Industry, etc.).

    For those who'd rather not wait, I have utilized the store hack so that a member can simply buy access to the hidden forums. The new member would probably have to convince an existing member to give him/her points to do so but the option is available.

    This not only solves the problems of overwhelming new members, but it also gives new members something to shoot for. I make it plainly obvious that there are forums they cant post at and tell them how to get there. A member gets interested or curious and posts or stays active to gain access.

    Somebody mentioned too many features. I have solved this as well. Thanks to vBulletin's amazing template conditionals, I was able to make everything have an on/off switch through the usercp. Now, I have two ways of going about this. One, I can have a forum style that is bare-bones for newer members, and the other styles have all of the features. Two is to use conditionals and have everything set to Off as default. So if a user wants to see the Similar Threads at the bottom of each thread, he/she can choose to do so by simply changing an option in their UserCP.

    This, again, solves the problem of overwhelming new members. It also gives the members a sense of customizability just like the Google Homepage, allowing them to change whatever aspect of the forum they dont like.

    I'm actually currently in the works to allow users to make their own styles using nothing but template conditionals and profile fields.

    It's a lot of work, but I love doing template-related edits :)

    MGM out
     
  20. Scribbller

    Scribbller The dude

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    I am not in favour of users having their own templates infact I strongly feel about having more than one skin on the board reason being I am from old school I designed the site certain way and I want it to look like that for everyone. I read a very good article by TedS a while back where he emphasized on branding of your forum and having a standard custom look of the forum as a whole is one of platforms of branding your site. I want my site to be remembered that way so I am against customizability of the forum or site itself.
     
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