The UX of Forums

Forums have led a strange existence on the web for a long time.  I have seen the evolution from AOL and bulletin boards to more sophisticated technologies with lots of features.  The problem is, I feel that forums have not evolved and become more useful.  My favorite type of forum is Experts Exchange.  By using a clever system of points and rankings they have encouraged a generation of technical people to help each other.  I only wish that they could open source their structure so that other kinds of exchanges could be created.  Example: Home improvement.  You ask a question and get an answer.  Same points systems.

The jQuery team has been discussing different forum options as the mailing list seems to have reached its maximum scale.  At Marketo, we are customizing a forum software to build an online help and community system.

Interestingly, in both cases, I am suggesting that we remove 90% of the features.  ALl of the polls and avatars and rankings get in the way of communicating.  For jQuery I suggested adding a “resolved/unresolved” flag so that it makes it easier to find unanswered questions.  (This is how Experts-Exchange does it).  Athough I would love to see the whole points thing come to life, I think it would be difficult to mirror the system on EE.  It would be better to go shallow and just focus on the primary pain point.

With Marketo, I feel like simple is good.  It’s almost a cross between a blog and a forum.  A blog is primarily a “journal” technology.  Whereas in a community, learnings are persistent and not time oriented.  Plus a blog is usually a star-burst configuration, where the author is central to the whole thing.  If you want cross-communications you need to allow members to start their own independent threads.

I think it would be a great product to sell something like EE as a forum software.  I hope someone over there is listening.

5 Replies to “The UX of Forums”

  1. Jive Software has had a lot of success with its forums/blog/wiki software. Their customers use the tools internally and externally. You might want to take a look at it when developing your tools at Marketo.

  2. @Robert: I checked out the Yahoo site. Some significant differences, but I want to give it a more thorough looking.

    @Ben: I saw Jive’s stuff. Looks nice, but pretty expensive. We are going to stay open source as much as possible.

  3. “All of the polls and avatars and rankings get in the way of communicating.”

    I’m not sure I agree with that. If the goal is to create an ongoing participatory community, then participants need to be given some reasons to want to participate (other than $). Those ‘optional’ features have community-building benefit. For example:

    – Avatars allow users to customize their account and present a thumbnail identity to the community. They increase the emotional connection to the site.

    – Rankings are both a quick way of recognizing that not all answers are equally valid, and also a form of compensation to participants — getting a high ranking is an ego boost that reinforces the desire to continue participating after your own particular question has been answered.

    Take a look at some of Kathy Sierra’s writings about community, I think you’ll find it helpful as you work towards building a user forum for Marketo.

  4. I would agree with the comment above with using Jive software. The main objective is to get information to the user, customer, teammate, etc… in a fast and easy format. Internally, where I work we are using Confluence Wiki for all team, project, release, etc. information and it’s working really well. We basically put everything on the Wiki including sometimes emails and IM conversations. We’ve also talked about putting up a forum for our end customers, but then Management, Marketing, and other departments get involved and the idea goes no where. Personally, my favorite forum (Craigslist forums) is very simple but effective.

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