As @jackdoh said, there’s too much clutter. It’s not just the way the posts read (which I think @codinghorror did a good job of covering on his blog), it’s also trying to use it. I go onto a typical forum in 2013, after hunting around for the button to register an account and jumping through the ensuing hoops, I have to find how to make a new post. Look at this:
There isn’t actually a way to post a message here. I have to find which subforum to post it (as an aside, nearly every forum cultivates an ecosystem where people get pissed off if someone posts in the wrong forum), and post from there (as another aside, even in discourse I find myself clicking “new” at the top instead of "create topic way over on the right).
Once there, here I am at last faced with a familiar form (ignoring all the unnecessary and cryptic buttons as I have been trained to do):
But what’s this, further down:
Tags? I now have to stop and perhaps spend more time coming up with tags when I really just want to ask about why my mouse doesn’t work properly or whatever (and what are the tags even for? Are there some advanced PHPBB users who only look for posts with specific tags? Do they provide some arcane method of finding posts that wouldn’t otherwise work with the (truly terrible) search?
Then there are advanced options, which although advanced, show every single time. Do I want to post a poll? Why isn’t this just an option in the already stacked editing toolbar? Why can’t I subscribe to just posts that are relevant to what I’ve written, rather than all the tangents? Do I really want to waste my time loading a preview?
And then, once you’re able to submit (an apt term in this case), you spin the wheel of fortune as to whether it will go through. Maybe the post is too long. Maybe it’s too short. And so on. You’d think, in the wealth of information, including this stuff:
there’d be something to actually inform you about these secret rules. But there are plenty of other bizarre enforced rules. I can’t search for “Mac” because it’s too short, despite the fact that it’s completely appropriate to do so. I can’t post replies in quick sucession, even though I’ve been composing them in separate tabs. (Aside: this is one of the things that frustrates me greatly about Stackoverflow. I can’t simply edit someone’s “there” typo to make their sentence grammatically correct, I can’t change my mind about voting an answer after having put their idea into practice, and I can’t simply put “thanks” as a comment).
Then there’s this:
Yeah. I don’t know who half that stuff is for, or what the difference between a profile picture and an avatar is.
There are other problems endemic to most forums that I’d argue are as a direct result of their design. “Threadjacking” I believe is the parlance for when the original topic is taken on a tangent, with the original meaning lost. Trying to work out the context for a reply can be overwhelming, often requiring reading through many pages of posts to find pertinent information.
Let me illustrate:
A perfectly reasonable question. Let me look through the 512 replies to find out.
Apple’s forums are actually pretty good in this case, as they provide links at the start of the post to anything the original author considers “helpful”. They also provide links to show who was replying to what. Further down:
Read any significantly long forum thread and the inherent problems with the system as a whole become apparent. Really, who is going to read through 512 replies? Why aren’t they subtopics? And so on.
It’s been touched upon that PHPBB forums are ugly, but I think this needs saying more. I’ve been unable to find anyone who can take a PHPBB install and make it look appealing. That’s “appealing” as in “worthy of a website” in the 2010s. Case in point, here are how some of the sites from PHPBB’s own showcase look:
That last one is Pixelmator, who have managed to make PHPBB look at least reasonable by simply removing most of it. And even then it’s visually, a wall of text. And this from a company that makes “a popular commercial image editing software for Mac OS X users.” What hope do regular sites have?