My latest forum... but it's not running Discourse - here's why

(AstonJ) #1 (main site is Rails)

My shortlisted forum platforms were Discourse and Xenforo, but we decided to go with XF for two main reasons:

  • Our users preferred XF over DC (many of which were coming from another one of my sites that uses vB)
  • Features; such as being able to watch forums, topic categories (prefixes), friends activity, fully responsive design, paid subs, extensive usergroup controls and promotions etc

I set up a test install of both forums, in pretty much their default skins and asked a number of members to try them. I think because XF is in many ways a natural progression of vB, they unanimously preferred it. This is worth bearing in mind for the DC team because vB is probably the most popular forum platform out there and has been around a long time, meaning people have grown to like it having become accustomed to it over the years.

There were other reasons as well, but I think the above two raise some great questions; why did our users prefer XF? (Did they find DC confusing? Was the design/UX not to their taste? etc) And what features does DC need to make it a compelling choice against the other forum platforms? (Perhaps a question that needs to be asked of forum admins.)

I know the DC team have their vision (and that’s great!) but I really do think you need to start speaking to end users a little more. Not every forum will be have a main site that draws people to it over other forums (in which case it won’t matter too much which platform they use) - but there will be lots and lots of dog forums, car forums, and other sites that are forums first and foremost that the end user will find via Google, and they’ll proceed taking a look at a handful of them and making a decision about which to join after what they see and what feels most comfortable to them. With regards to content or the community being the greatest draw - generally (and although many forum admins may say otherwise) they are usually, more or less on a par, with the community being equally knowledgable, welcoming or attractive to the end user.

I am a fan of DC (I especially like the idea of the badge/permissions system) and hope to use it one day, but for this project I just had to go with XF. I hope this feedback is useful to the team.

490 Discourse installs, as of March 2014
First impressions of Discourse
Just launched my second Discourse forum (and made some customisations this time!)
(Anton) #2

Btw a very nice-looking design.

(Tomo Vukasović) #3

There is no forum software that fits into ALL category. I use IPB for one community and XF for other. They both work their thing nicely, but for my new “tech-geek” related community I decided to use Discourse first time ever working with any RoR environment. Idea is to change and try new things and hopefully have enough people to join new community.

(Rikki Tooley) #4

This is the key, when I transitioned my phpBB forum many of my users hated Discourse - because it was unfamiliar. Some grew to love it, a lot did not bother trying and left. Discourse is pretty unique, and everyone using it now is an early adopter. Hopefully there will come a point where existing communities will be able to cope with a transition - until then it’s probably best to keep Dc to new ones.

There is definitely room for improvement in the platform itself, especially in terms of educating new users. There’s a lot of cognitive load involved when visiting a Dc forum for the first time… a guided tutorial (like Facebook has) might be more effective than a simple FAQ topic.

(Jeff Atwood) #5

Thanks for the feedback.

As you noted,

… XF is in many ways a natural progression of vB … people have grown to like it having become accustomed to it over the years

As I wrote in our FAQ:

There is tremendous technical and sociological friction to change in any established community.

We believe Discourse works best for new discussion communities. It is definitely possible to convert existing communities to Discourse, but there needs to be broad dissatisfaction with the status quo and strong support for change from the community leaders.

This leads to what I jokingly call Atwood’s Second Law:

Discourse is indeed different – we’re trying to strip away a lot of the bad old 1999 assumptions (for example, pagination, being 100% JavaScript on the client), from crusty old forum software. Discourse is different enough that it can raise some hackles from traditionalists.

But change, true change, requires some pushing. I’ve said for a long time that if nobody cares enough about what you’re doing to tell you that they loved it or that they hated it, it’s probably not interesting enough to be good.

And look at what we see happening on the Stellar forums in the meta category:

That, to me, means we’re doing it right.

We are avoiding the Zone of Mediocrity:

The goal is to win the longer term war with a true open source solution designed for the next 10 years of the Internet, not each individual battle. It’s harmful to even consider each individual battle winnable – some people and communities have different preferences and that’s fine.

(Mittineague) #6

I think a “My first Discourse forum post” tutorial type of thing is a great idea.

OT - @AstonJ any reason this topic started in the “Uncategorised” category?

I also believe tha familiarity is a major influence of preference. eg.
every time a reskin of our vB forum happened there were some that liked it as well as a large number of complaints, though after time most got used to the change.

But perhaps comparing Discourse to other forums is a bit “apples to oranges”? Some features follow the lead from features found in non-forums i.e. Facebook, Twitter. etc.

(Rikki Tooley) #7

This, exactly. Infinite scrolling, dynamic updating and notifications are mainstays of social networks, not forum software, leading to confused habits among users… ironically enough, forums and bulletin boards were one of the original forms of social networking. With Discourse we come full circle :smile:


Interestingly, this is exactly why we decided NOT to go with XF. vB has become cumbersome and antiquated and I felt that a move to XF would take with it a whole lot of the old behaviours that were defined due to the restrictions that vB placed on us.

(Sam Saffron) #9

We have some of these features, our design is responsive, you can watch categories.

Paid subs is something @eviltrout is real keen on. Friend lists is something we avoided for now.

I do find it kind of depressing that the “state of comfort” in forum design is so white space heavy, its kind of sad.

Discourse takes an orthogonal approach to the above.

That said I do see us competing feature by feature with the traditional forums once we have a more complete extensibility story and more plugins. We are going to spend a some time solidifying the plugin story post v1, work on tagger and so on. A lot of what you are describing fits into plugins quite snugly.

The Right Gutter - Other Uses and Mental Tricks
(Bcguy) #10

wow - XF feels like I’ve been transported back to 2001. That design is so old school. I am so glad DC has avoided that look and feel.

I do, however, like the ads that you can put up for people who aren’t logged in. Very helpful.

(AstonJ) #11

Thanks Anton!

Welcome to Ruby and Rails, and Discourse! :smile:

This is pretty much my thinking as well right now - I am itching to try Discourse on a new site. I have one or two in mind, although, one I was intending to merge another (vB) forum into… and that might not be possible as I don’t think DC has any vB importers yet.

I think it’s great that you are ploughing ahead with your vision of what a community platform should be for the next decade or two. However I do think it’s worth looking into why someone might still prefer vB (or XF) over DC.

vB didn’t become the industry standard without good reason - there was/is something about it that led to forums using it becoming more popular than other forums in the same niche that were using different platforms. I think on the now defunct ‘Big Boards’ site, around 80% (don’t quote me on that!) were using vB. So although we know it is now heavily outdated, there is still a certain something about it that end-users like, and I think that DC may need to observe or mimic that, or offer something that is just as compelling. (Or risk users continuing to favour vB or XF?)

I think perhaps in some instances, it’s just little things here and there - such as the tabs on the forum homepage. We have ‘Latest’ (which makes sense) and then ‘new’ and ‘unread’. I think the latter two may be confusing people - should ‘unread’ replace ‘new’ (and show all threads with unread posts) and unread changed to ‘watched’ to show threads that the user is watching (i.e threads the user has replied to). I think this may be just one reason why some are feeling a little lost, and because it is so prominent, it has more of a lasting impact.

I wasn’t sure it fit well into any of the other categories… which do you suggest?

It think that’s true to an extent (although for us, we experienced the exact opposite), but as I mentioned above, I think we need to recognise that there was a reason why vB became the industry standard in the first place, it had, indeed still does, a certain something that users just like.

I agree that it’s nice to see forums get great features :slight_smile: though I am personally still not convinced about the infinite scroll - I am just not sure I like it yet. I do on thread listing pages, but not so keen on thread view pages. Maybe a pseudo nav might help? (Clicking on a page number, or percentage jumps to that part of the thread.)

Interesting. What did your users think of the move? How long was the forum running vB? Have you got a link, I’d be interested in reading the threads following the migration…

Must admit I chuckled at your post Sam, given DC probably has more white space than any other forum platform around.

Having said that, we did try to close the gap for guest view but didn’t get around to it due to time and being unfamiliar with XF (this is our first XF forum). To logged in members it looks more like this: (Many users have sigs too)


Our post bits are designed to give the poster a sense of ownership, for them to stand out and not just get lost in a wall of text. However, I appreciate each designer/owner has their own taste and preference. I would simply advise they seek feedback from their users …and ask them which design they would prefer - they are the ones who hang out at the site most of the time after all.

"You have no unread topics" is a lie
(Rikki Tooley) #12

I agree that this could be the case on default Discourse, however you just need to look at @vikhyat/ @radq 's customisations on Hummingbird’s Discourse to see what’s possible. Check out the topic and profile pages especially.


Good question, I’ll let you know! This is where we’re currently at.

The forum has been running on vB for around 15 years. We’re pretty large and established.

(Steve) #14

Ha your blog post lead me to here yesterday, I love this software and have already set up a test environment. Very keen to move two busy vbulletin forums that are starting to suffer.

(AstonJ) #15

Looks good :slight_smile: very recognisable as DC (I’d love to see some that look as different to the stock skin as Breedia’s does to the XF skin)

Awesome, I love the SP redesign, and I completely agree with your points about community moderation. I do have a niggling concern though, will we see a kind of mob mentality ruling our forums - where cliques just look out for each other? I hope that doesn’t happen, and that there are some sort of measures in place to combat it.

Will you be sharing your vB importer? What sort of plug-ins have you developed and how have you found working with DC?

And good luck! I look forward to seeing it when it goes live :smile:

(AstonJ) #16

In what way are they suffering Steve?

(Jeff Atwood) #17

Nobody sane actually “likes” vBulletin today. You might say they got used to it. In 1999, those early web design decisions might have made sense for the people, devices, and conversations on the early web – but in a world of users that grew up on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr… and iPhones and iPads… vBulletin makes about as much sense as a fax machine.

Do people still use fax machines today? Sure. Are there some people who prefer fax machines to learning email and photo attachments? Probably.

And for the record XenForo is a lot better than vBulletin, it is arguably the best traditionalist forum software. Still not open source, and written in crusty old legacy PHP and MySQL, but it’s at least decent unlike vBulletin.

(Tomo Vukasović) #18

I have been your forum member since 2005. Learned lots of good things, but at some point I felt that it is not really place for me. I am not sure why I stopped. It could be that forum was more newbie oriented at the time, but at the end I can say that Sitepoint mods/advisers are the reason why I stayed for so many years. It wasn’t the actual forum design, look. It was the people who were kind and helpful even to the most retarded questions on the planet.

To truly make this statement one have to try each software under various environments. I have one community that is so particular that no other forum software can deliver what IPB does and same thing with XF, Discourse etc. Little things that Discourse does better could be achieved by other forum in same way that discourse is planning to achieve what other forums have.

(Andy Crichton) #19

I am very keen to implement Discourse as we have a forum (more like Q&A) that is small enough to change over before it gets bigger, which it will, with the strategy we are implementing. By the by, but my view is that there is a place for slick and minimal, and other times, less can sometimes be less!

e.g. Usability studies have shown that where e-commerce cart forms are “dumbed down” with tabs that open drop down fields perform worse than bigger old fashioned forms where everything is on display. The inference being show the user upfront what they are expected to fill in.

Same principle with CTA’s. You cannot assume readers know what to do next, you got to tell them. Click here, sign here, do this do that.

So with discourse, I wouldn’t change a thing below the header area, the hierarchy is great, but first timers and less inquisitive I think would stumble at the first hurdle. i.e. They arrive, shoot what do I do now? This doesn’t look like a forum I ever went on before!

The first thing I would ask the person running our forum to do would be to change the header area, so CATEGORIES were open and the Search was prominent standout.

These are the two navigation methods that us dinosaurs recognise and also having the search prominent, you show users straight away what in my mind is the amazing aspect of this forum, how easy it is to find stuff with the search engine.

Once you are where you want to be, I think a user would then feel somewhat in control and start to click buttons to see how to reply and how to open threads up.

I just need to find a smart cooky to employ to install this for me on and change the css a bit and I would be happy to report back

(Michael Downey) #20

There are also those of us who would (and did) leave a bank (or any vendor) who insists on use of fax machines, because they’re so outdated and we gave them up decades ago.

Sure, I’m a modernist and want to tie my fortunes to those who adapt with the times. Does that mean that there won’t still be those who are stuck in the past status quo because it’s comfortable? Of course not, those folks will always be around and for some communities (particularly not tech ones) that’s probably OK.

Experimenting and trying new things is one of the best ways for a community to keep attracting new people and energy. If it doesn’t, it’s surely going to suffer attrition.