Discourse is intimidating to begin using?

(Loren Baum) #1

I love it, but much of the feedback I’ve gotten about my site is that it is intimidating to begin using. This may have to do with the fact that the user is first presented with so many options and information.

This inhibits civilized discourse, because some people are discouraged from participating.

There has been great work here on how to structure and nurture conversations, but less about new-user engagement. Perhaps there features which could be built in to discourse which would guide new users into the forum. What are they? Apart from features, what are some best-practices for welcoming new and non-technical forum participants?

(Erlend Sogge Heggen) #2

Do you have some more specific examples of what your users experienced as intimidating?

One example of mine was that the categories page was overwhelming. So I explained the perceived problems and made some mockups for a redesign. It didn’t get the traction I was hoping for but I might commission a plugin later on.

(Jeff Atwood) #3

Without specifics, nobody here can help you. Can you provide exactly what was said? Perhaps some quotes?

We have many, many people using Discourse that have limited computer experience – and Discourse goes out of its way to put as little on the screen as possible. New users have even less displayed on the screen.

Compare with the amount of infojunk on the screen in, say, vBulletin:

(Loren Baum) #4

Here are a few first impressions:

This one has to do with the landing page.

The forum is also interesting but confusing at least to me glancing at it quickly. I would guess that like my first comment it will likely come down to strategy and who you are trying to attract. If it’s a place for people to go who know what they want to learn / are part of cause then it probably works, but for newbies it’s tough to get cozy with.

and this is the most common question I get:

I’m glad you put this up as I was trying to figure out how to post it. Which Icon would I use for a post?

I agree that the discourse landing page is better than existing forums. That being said, I clicked through on @erlend_sh’s comment and saw Convoe’s page, which I think is compelling. They have a minimalistic splash screen for those not signed in. Another implementation is the Hummingbird site. I think the concept of having a simple, welcoming ‘cover’ to the forum for users who are not signed in is worthwhile.

I’m wondering if this concept could be expanded into a ‘welcome series’ which guides new users in setting up their accounts. For example if a large forum like cyanogenMod were to use Discourse, it might be useful for new users to take a short poll as part of the welcome series. That way their experience could be customized by what categories they find interesting. A welcome series such as this would be important for activistConnect as well, because there may be many issues on the site, but you may only be interested in, for example, civil rights.

Category and topic subscription already happens in Discourse via just interacting on the forum, and it does so in an elegant way, but I am suggesting that it happen in a way which encourages new users to a larger degree.

(Jeff Atwood) #5

I dunno, some of that I would file under “I just joined Facebook and I find it confusing.” Uh… OK?

I have a hard time taking “I can’t tell which button to press to post a reply” seriously. Anything is confusing the first time you see it. Remember the first time you saw a computer mouse? A tablet computer? An iPhone?

The question isn’t whether or not something is immediately obvious in 500 milliseconds after seeing it, the question is, how quickly did you figure how to use those things?

We really do not see problems in this area. People are using Discourse all over the web. In fact, here’s a real usability review from a random Internet user who has never seen Discourse before:

(Now, a proper usability test gives the user a task as well, but I thought this was really interesting even without it.)

I understand what you mean, and right now the standard pinned welcome topic is that.

Eventually we might want to support something bigger and dismissable at the top, ala

Moving the discourse search box and making it functional - how?
(Cameron Martin) #6

The splash pages on those sites you posted just seem like an additional barrier to getting at the content, and don’t seem to serve any real purpose. That’s even overlooking the fact that Hummingbird forces you to sign up, which gives a terrible UX.

(Luke S) #7

What I found fascinating about that user test is that he never went near the pinned welcome topic, even though he wondered out loud about some of the things it would have told him. You’d need more tests, but I wonder if that’s a hint that its not quite up to the job?

(Jeff Atwood) #8

Not disagreeing at all – that’s why I proposed what I did in the second image above. We’ve observed several Discourse sites do this independently, and those are patterns I pay attention to.

(Alexandre Angelim) #9

This is what I do to welcome new users. The banner on top is shown only to anon users. I’ve also hidden some topic details for people first glancing the forum. Finally, I use a link to create a new topic(linking to login) to encourage signups. Once they join, I use the vanilla layout.

(James B) #10

This whole thread is really useful to me, it helped me understand more about intentional design in Discourse.

I see what you are saying here and would agree in some respect, but I don’t think “how quickly” is the only question. I agree and do think it is important to consider how long it takes new Discourse users (savvy and otherwise) to adapt as well as any correlation to retention of users versus other platforms. I don’t think those are the only or most important considerations for new user familiarity, though.

On the topic of Facebook familiarity, there is a certain point where you can’t improve familiarity. This is true, but only temporarily. Facebook has evolved over the years to offer improved and more in-depth resources. When it was first released for public use, there wasn’t a whole lot beyond basic help. Now you can’t sign up without the site automatically hijacking your browser to inform you the next task you should try out with detailed text and pics showing you how to do so as well as videos, discussion areas, and etc.

As a result, Facebook is actually concentrated with people who might find other sites too confusing. My grandmother is on there but there’s no way I could get her to try Discourse, even if she would benefit.

I don’t think Discourse should be a FB clone and I think you all are doing an amazing job. I want to learn enough about it so that I can pitch in and try to help, too. I can understand some things might be frustrating when brought up, but I don’t think they should be dismissed. Maybe more about what @Mahamsamatan can be revisited later on. I think dismissable headers if not splash pages are great to think about and there are already a lot of great resources about getting started with Discourse, but for some people this is going to still be a mindflip. In my experience, if a user takes the time to post feedback they probably didn’t expect to understand how the site works in 500 milliseconds. They may or may not have given an honest effort to read basic resources first, granted, but they at least tried tinkering around on their own. I get that some usability testing shows Discourse to be promising for new user experiences and I can see many reasons why, but there are always ways to improve.

Here’s something else to think about. As a dedicated co-founder that has helped to build Discourse from the ground up, you are emotionally invested in it. For a new user that has never even heard of Discourse, if they find it confusing at first then the only hope they’ll stick with it long enough to learn it is how invested they are in the community or topics using it. For what it’s worth, my first impression of Discourse was that it seemed clean and colorful but it didn’t make sense compared to how I am used to online experiences. I found some things difficult to find, some basic features seemed missing, and overall I probably would not have spent much time exploring it if it had not been for the community using it. It isn’t because I am dumb or don’t care, it’s because there’s a lot of people out there with their own idea of what a perfect online social experience should look like and I can’t physically give them all a proper test drive. Now that I’ve used Discourse, it makes a great deal more sense. I like that it is a different experience than I am used to. But without some kind of invested reason to stick it out, I personally wouldn’t have given it more than a couple minutes before I used my limited time to try out other things.

I think it would be worth looking more into what people expect as new users when they visit and even what may seem like minor issues. If there’s a way to catch more of the stumbling blocks on first visits, I can’t see that as a bad thing.

(Katie Hunter) #11

VBulletin has the same data Discourse has, it is just layout differently. I actually like VBulletin clean style. I don’t think it is filled with infojunk since it is the same data, just sorted differently.

If i had to place Discourse data per columns, giving posts, likes and views each a column + the user columns and activity, the result will be very cluttered.

I also don’t think in term of SEO, when search engine bots crawl the category’s pages, they should be linked to user profiles via the “User” column. This actually acts as a nuisance and does not increase the content to code ratio which is desirable for SEO purposes.

I would recommend not linking to user profiles through the “User Column” or giving an option in the admin system to disable linking back to profiles. You can have the images but not a direct link back to the profiles as this may also not help increase the relevant keyword ratio for these pages. The important and focused keywords should be all around the titles of the topics. The more data you have on that page with direct links, the more distraction it adds to the page.

(Loren Baum) #12

Thanks everyone for your input here. I think that there are two reasons why Discourse is so compelling. Firstly, the founders have put some serious thought into how communities have discussions. Secondly, because this Meta forum allows for meaningful conversation about the platform itself, and engagement with the founders, who can have their own ideas challenged and improved.

@James_B expands upon a crucial point I was trying to make when he wrote:

I probably would not have spent much time exploring it if it had not been for the community using it

This gets to the core of the question I am asking:

What are the ways in which Discourse could be more friendly for new users?

Here is an incomplete list of ways to welcome new forum users:

  • Dismissible Banner image - between the menu and the cateogory bar - this is already in the works
  • A new-visitor splash screen - ala Convoe would explain in a minimal fashion what the site is so new visitors aren’t barraged by choices
  • Task series - ala Facebook - this is probably the least-liked option
  • Welcome Slides - 3-4 infographic slides which explain the site and the basic action (how to post: e.g. look for the blue button
  • Various themes which change the way information is displayed
  • Survey - could be useful for larger sites such as Cyanogenmod or NTen, the Hummingbird forum has a survey as part of it’s registration process:

(James B) #13

@Mahamsamatan @Grif

I first found Discourse through Learning Creative Learning. Today I was in an LCL Unhangout Breakout session with peers. One of our cohorts (TechKim) brought up that while there are endless Arduino tutorials and guides out there, she has been looking for more MOOCs/miniMOOCs and detailed guides aimed at getting those with no electronics/programming experience through basic steps using clear and easy steps that work to eliminate intimidation factor.

For my own background and confidence in trying a new system, I’ve personally got experience with phpBB, SMF, vBulletin, and a number of other forum systems both as user and installing admin as well as other systems ranging from Moodle and other inclusive open educational tech to a chunk of the various CMS/blogging systems out there. So for me, once I decided it was worth a shot it didn’t take me long to figure out how to do what I was trying to do. I knew to come here when all else seemed to fail and was confident enough to tinker.

For a user that may only have experience with computers related to basic e-mail and casual browsing, though… that’s a different story and important to remember especially considering many people that decide to set up Discourse deal with a mix of technical experience and many even specifically aim to include unsavvy users with a goal of getting them more comfortable with technology like Discourse. It might not be that a user doesn’t care or is too lazy, they may just be too intimidated.

While I definitely support continuing improvement in all directions feasible for a system like Discourse, maybe a temporary solution could be something like Discourse 101 on P2PU or similar aimed at very basic and unsavvy users.

It sounds like a lot of people are able to quickly adopt Discourse, but if there are more ways we can keep people from turning away then I think it’s worth a shot. With rhizomatic/peer-based learning like on P2PU, this would also hopefully involve less effort on the part of those developing Discourse and more on the shoulders of the entire Discourse community at large. If we set it up thoughtfully, it could also deepen everyone’s understanding of Discourse and potentially lead to more engaging and meaningful networking. Just an idea, but maybe it’s worth a shot.

If we created something like that, then a dismissable splash page or even link up top could redirect to the Discourse badges and courses. I couldn’t find anything on P2PU and don’t know if there is already something there or elsewhere, but if not I invite others to join a brainstorm with me on it.

Related: LCL project thread where peers are discussing how to empower users to create (and use) their own learning communities using tech such as P2PU and Discourse (thread located here). I am proposing we go a step beyond and also look at creating a basic P2PU or similar course that works to empower nontechnical users to experiment with tech like Discourse.

If nothing else, when users have feedback one thing we can do is look at the feedback from different angles whatever their reasons for feedback, understanding of Discourse, match of target audience, or technical know-how. We can at least look at this feedback as initial impressions. Just because feedback has already been addressed before, doesn’t make sense to cater to, or otherwise not feedback that is adopted into feature implementation doesn’t mean the feedback is useless. A lot can be gained from looking at questions we can ask like “What did the user focus on in their first experiences? What did they get hung up on? What was important enough to them to post about?”.

(Luke S) #14

The assumption when Discourse was first getting started was that most search engine crawlers don’t process javascript. Take a look at the source for this page, and read what is in the “noscript” tags. That is what most search engines see. No profile links, just the content.

Of course, there is a bit of a trick to working with Google, since Googlebot does run javascript, but if you spoof Googlebot as your useragent, you will see that Google also gets a search-friendly page.

(Jeff Atwood) #15

OK, we spec’ed out the feature.

(Chris Beach) #16

Firstly, I just want to say - Discourse is far and away the best forum software available on the market. Released as open-source software, it is a monumental gift to the world. I share the following notes purely in case they help finesse the already-excellent UX.

A new non-technical forum member asked me to meet her today to go through the features of the forum. It was an illuminating session, to say the least.

Gave me pause for thought - how much I take for granted my familiarity with this software.

For ease, I’ll refer to her as Jane (not her real name). She took a lot of time out of her day to sit down and ask questions, which I’m very grateful for.

Kerb Appeal

  • Firstly, a nod to @codinghorror’s suggestion of a large dismissible banner image. Jane commented that the first thing you saw when looking at the forum was a “business-like” table of text. It wasn’t friendly or welcoming, and there was just too much data to take in. It would have put her off joining, had she not been specifically introduced to the site.

  • :expressionless:Lots of white, not much colour.” [I couldn’t stop myself being an “unprofessional usability tester” here and I pointed out how selective use of colour (e.g. bright blue reply button) helped the important features stand out while the little-used features faded into the background]

  • :thinking: Jane wasn’t aware of the benefits of social login, and chose email / password flow out of familiarity. She was happy to use social login after I explained it.


  • :thumbsup: Loved the introduction feature where a spotlight is put on the first notification.

  • :confounded: The complexity of the welcome private message was intimidating and Jane gave up trying to understand it “when it started talking in Latin.” And “what on earth is BBCode, HTML and Markdown and why would I care?”

  • :confused: Confusion between what’s a topic and what’s a private message - they “all look the same,” and “I don’t know what’s going out to whom?”


  • :thumbsup: The new topic workflow was excellent and immediately easy to use. There was a nervousness, though (“is this gonna go out to thousands of people”).

  • :fearful: “What if I mess something up” was a common theme to her questions here. I explained and demo’ed the edit and delete functions - however these were hidden behind the “…” on my forum I think.

  • :confused: The markup around links was very unnatural to Jane.

  • :thinking: Once demonstrated, loved the social sharing features, but concerned “how did it know who I was on Facebook? I haven’t signed in using Facebook.” I explained how websites work with cookies etc.

  • :thinking: regarding the “likes” feature: "Hearts? Is this like some kind of dating feature? Should I be careful who I use it with?" I explained how the like button helps avoid superfluous “me too” and “thanks” replies and that made sense to Jane.

User Preferences

Wow - so much confusion. Jane was trying to understand things on the site methodically, going through each thing she read. The user prefs page made very uncomfortable reading for us both - especially as I couldn’t fully explain one or two of the preferences. “Hah! and you run this site?!”

  • :confounded: What’s a “user card” background? What’s “user card badge”? What exactly is the meaning of “Include previous replies at the bottom of emails”? What emails are we talking about? and what’s the exact meaning of “Include an excerpt of replied to post in emails”?

  • :thinking: How do I get a summary email every day? (I don’t believe you can, as the email won’t be sent if you’ve visited)

  • :thinking: What’s “mailing list mode”?

  • :thinking: What are “desktop notifications” and why would I want to disable them?

  • :thinking: What’s the meaning of “Consider topics new when:…”, “Automatically track topics I enter”, “When I post in a topic, set that topic to” [default “tracking”]

  • :thinking: What’s “Open all external links in a new tab”? “Enable quote reply for highlighted text”? “Show new / updated topic count on browser icon”?

  • :thumbsup: After an explanation and demo of setting categories to Watched, Tracked etc, Jane was impressed with this feature. I needed to explain the difference between watched and tracked.

  • :thinking: What’s “Automatically unpin topics when I reach the bottom.”?

  • :thumbsup: the extra info I’d added to the welcome message explaining profile photos had helped Jane independently add her profile photo.

Split user preferences menu into sections
Topic List Previews
(Jeff Atwood) #17

These kinds of experiments are always very very eye opening. Thanks for sharing.

We did a lot of this new user testing around the new user welcome bot (still not ready, being worked on) and made some similar discoveries that we already adjusted for in 1.7 – such as the highlight over the first notification.

I agree totally that

hit ‘em with that wall o’ text, Vanilla!

… isn’t a good strategy. This PM was downsized massively in 1.7 final, linking to the blog post we made rather than the full “helpful tips”. I also objected to this copy being repeated a zillion times in every Discourse database for every new user… If you have an older install you need to reset the copy to default for it to take effect. cc @erlend_sh

The most direct analog for Discourse is an email inbox, so … what’s the first thing you see in email? I am not anti-banner but I am not sure I agree with this.

As noted in another topic, user pref UI has gotten out of control and will be redesigned with subtabs in 1.8. Users shouldn’t really need to dig so very deeply into prefs on their first or second visit though.

:bell: I wonder if a global site-wide “hide the editor preview pane” setting would help some of the less computer savvy audiences? It’s less “stuff” on the screen when composing replies and topics at the mild cost of favoring generic unformatted plain text.

(Andrew Waugh) #18

Some of our users found the navigation of the prefs a bit challenging (some still do).

I know of a couple who are getting digests of absolutely everything, but don’t want to go and mute categories for fear of messing something up.

(Angus McLeod) #19

The key thing underlying this discussion that hasn’t been explicitly mentioned yet is that ‘good’ UI/UX is really dependent on the kind of user you are trying to engage with and what they are using it for.

Perhaps the best example of this general point is SnapChat, beloved by millions of teenagers and a confusing muddle for everyone else.

I personally think this means that the goal of Discourse’s design should be to be as flexible as possible, to allow specific forums to adapt it to their particular users and the use case they are targeting, while providing a solid foundation for civilized discussion for all use cases.

The way I like to think about it is that Discourse is like John Rawls’ “Basic Structure”, upon which pluralism can flourish.

Justice as fairness aims to describe a just arrangement of the major political and social institutions of a liberal society: the political constitution, the legal system, the economy, the family, and so on. Rawls calls the arrangement of these institutions a society’s basic structure. The basic structure is the location of justice because these institutions distribute the main benefits and burdens of social life: who will receive social recognition, who will have which basic rights, who will have opportunities to get what kind of work, what the distribution of income and wealth will be, and so on.

I think this means that to adapt Discourse’s design to the improve the user experience of any one particular forum would be a mistake.