(Apologies for the length but the background to the problem is needed)
I’d appreciate some thoughts on an impending problem with the CAMRA Discourse system and the potential overuse of categories. I notice that the number of categories on here is relatively short and I’m aware that the over-arching design ethos is as flat as possible and not deeply threaded or categorised architecture. I get this and I personally buy into it.
This is not specifically requesting a change but more of a chewing the fat kind of discussion. Hope that’s okay… I’ve stuck this under UX because I couldn’t see anywhere obvious to put it but it is about an impending UX problem.
CAMRA (campaign for real ale) as an organisation has a deeply routed habit of trying to categorise everything! It’s one of it’s failings but it’s so ingrained that it’s very hard to overcome. You should see their definition of a pub - runs to about six A4 pages.
The organisation is structured thus: central volunteer teams acting nationally, paid-staff at the office (working for the membership) and around 200 branches of varying sizes made up of volunteers - at a guess about 2,000 people.
There is a well documented breakdown of communication between CAMRA centrally and the so-called active members in the branches. I’ve been an advocate of a national forum system for many years. Initially they set-up a phpBB system which limped along but wasn’t exactly buzzing. Part of the reason was that the central teams never really engaged. This was partially a mind-set problem and partially the phpBB solution.
So I’ve watched Discourse with much interest since it’s inception and last year CAMRA launched its own Discourse implementation. It’s already a success primarily because of the tagging system whereby member’s of those central teams get notified when their name or group is mentioned. It’s by far the single most important feature in Discourse and a very big reason of why it’s already more successful than phpBB.
At the very start, I tried desperately to get them to come up with a clean category system. Just a point about my place in the organisation - I’m an annoying active member in one of those 200 branches. I’ve dabbled now and then in central teams but I’m certainly not part of the inner core. So all I can do is influence and advise. At the very start, their natural tendency was to create 50+ categories splitting topics into lots of tiny categories & sub-categories. For example, consider the “Support” category - they wanted to create categories for every individual system of which we have 20+.
The main problem here is the list of categories starting to swamp the user interface plus confusion by users as to which category to start a topic in. I’ve been partially successful in getting them to reduce the number of categories down.
But there is a problem looming. Historically most branches had their own private Yahoo group for local discussion. It works okay but there is a desire to move away from Yahoo (don’t blame them!) plus there is no easy way to manage whether a person is a CAMRA member or not, i.e. authentication isn’t linked to the membership system - which Discourse is.
So centrally they have decided to migrate all 200 branches to Discourse. And by default, everyone will see all the branches which will flood the UX with a very long sub-category list, the sub-category dropdown list will be unmanageable plus user’s timeline will be flooded with posts from branches which they are not interested in. Imagine what this list would look like with 200 entries in it:
I’m aware that you can mute a category but that’s too draconian. Once muted, it’s very hard to find that category again. Out of those 200 branches, there is my own branch that I’m interested in but I’m also occasionally interested in some of the surrounding branches. At present, I use an Outlook rule to move those messages into their own sub-folder and I go look at them when I’ve got a moment spare. I don’t want them in my main inbox as that’s more higher priority stuff. I guess what I’m saying here is that this very useful idea of rules/separate folders mentality doesn’t work in the much flater Discourse “Latest” and “Unread” views. Is there a solution here?
There is one other side effect of this category creep. Many CAMRA members are well over 50 and “Don’t do IT” (see comments about markdown). They really don’t and are proud of it. So one has to strive to make everything as simple as possible. Consider one branch being migrated to Discourse where they can see all open groups by default - they are going to be presented with a huge list of topics none of which are anything to do with their local branch. They are going to switch off immediately as they won’t be able to see the wood for the trees.
My suggestion was that when a member is added to Discourse as part of a branch migration is that they only see two categories by default: the welcome category and the branch category (or probably sub-category). After they’ve been using the system for a while, they receive an email telling them about the rest of the categories and they can then go an subscribe to the categories they may be interested in.
Is any of this possible in Discourse? I think I’m sort of asking for a self-help subscription type system whereby you are presented with a list of all the categories and you can check/unchecked your membership of those categories - some of them may require further approval. Some of them are open and you can go straight in.
That will do for now!