Discussion forums varying according to niche

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Is it safe to assume that discussion forums architecture/UI should vary depending on the target audience? The forums on this site are very simple looking and I find that most technical sites seem to have more "advanced" features. Is it your view that additional "features" are garbage and one should keep it simple and usable? For example, compare these forums with ASP.NET Forums. Should a technical audience be given a different set of functionality compared to a general audience type site(typical AOL user) ? (it seems like a obvoius answer but by the looks of it you don't think so hence my interest on your views on this matter)

-- Salman webmaster, April 12, 2003


That's a good question and we ask students to address it when they work through the Discussion chapter of Internet Application Workbook. We try not to treat the issue as a matter of personal opinion but rather as something that can be measured by timing users. This is sort of a quixotic attempt to defy the old adage:
A scientist is someone who measures her results against Nature. An engineer is someone who measures her results against human needs. A computer scientist is someone who doesn't measure his results.
The forums on philip.greenspun.com have what I believe are the minimum required features: Q&A presentation (so people can see all the postings on a question without many mouse clicks), email alerts (so people don't have to check the Web page constantly for answers), the ability to serve up a "new answers" page, and the ability to serve up an "unanswered questions" page (plus a bunch of admin capabilities).

To me the only really interesting question beyond these basic features is whether or not to ask the users to rate/moderate in some way, a la Slashdot.

-- Philip Greenspun, April 12, 2003

To address Salman's followup questions...

(1) Why don't I believe in breaking up a Q&A exchange into pages? Because it is harder to move and click the mouse 5 times than to do it once and hit the space bar to scroll (if necessary).

(2) Why do people contribute content without payment? Probably because they are confused. If they were fully in sync with the 21st century they'd insist on being paid for everything so that they could buy a Cadillac Escalade and lots of gas! There will always be old people who don't adapt to contemporary morays. (You see a lot of these guys around general aviation airports wearing T-shirts that say "I'm so old I remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous"; they always have time to help out with a repair, practicing instrument approaches, or moving an airplane or whatever.)

(3) We wrote about the question of whether it makes to start more online communities in the Scaling chapter of Internet Application Workbook. In theory there ought to be no point in starting any community because AOL has a subgroup on that topic already. In practice there seems to be a limit to how large a site/community can get before members become unhappy with the anonymity. If a site has unique magnet content people will find it with Google and perhaps stay. That said, it is obviously best to be the first adequately usable community in a niche.

(4) Realistic timeframe until mature? If you had a big budget and a tasteful editor and could therefore generate a comprehensive collection of great tutorial content, a site ought to become successful within a few months of being indexed by Google.

-- Philip Greenspun, April 14, 2003

1. why don't you believe in paging the results? a bit off topic...

2. how to you get members to contribute content w/o paying them?

3. if there are already 2-3 "big" established communities, is there any point in creating another one? (e.g. ASP.NET has aspalliance, 4guysfromrolla, learnasp, dotnetjunkies that each get over 2-3 million page views monthly). According to reis and trout (marketing gurus) once a few big players are established and "1st in the mind" its almost futile to enter the market in that category...

4. realistic timeframe until your site is mature?

-- Salman webmaster, April 12, 2003

In my experience, the community that builds around a forum is most important. If you don't have the right people visiting your forum, it's irrelevant, how good or how bad your architecture or UI is. For example, the leading community for translators is still the FLEFO forum on Compuserve with a UI that dates back to the early eighties. The leading forum for SAP DB is a mailing list. If you start a competing forum with more advanced technology, you'd have to convince all members of the old forums to switch to the new one at the same time which is very unlikely to occur.

-- Carsten Kuckuk, April 14, 2003