I’ve recently been discussing the need to upgrade the forum on a site that I maintain (I’ll not mention it by name or URL as I’m a fairly new member of the SitePoint community). It currently uses a roll-you-own system because a key requirement when it was created was for seamless integration with the site’s member login and articles (which is Java based). Naturally it’s not on a par with the forums from the big vendors.
One point that’s been raised goes along the lines of; “to grow the community we need to move to vBulletin/IPBoard/PHPBB/etc.” Naturally I ask “what are the features in those systems that we don’t currently offer that are key to a thriving community”. I’ve yet to hear back on that!
I’m not a hugely social animal and work demands keep me from spending a great deal of time in forums on the I frequent, so I’m hardly the best person provide input. Some of the features I’ve listed below are, to me, little more than clutter, noise and distraction - I like to read, post and look for new discussions. I am, however, getting on a bit, and curmudgeon is badge I’m growing fond of wearing, so please, humour me. From the list below, throw away half of the items that you think are of least use and leave those that you feel are a vital part of a forum and its community.
Font face/size/colour options
Integrate article comments into forum
Interface closely aligned to the major forums player’s layouts
Site-wide single sign-on
I’ll pitch back in shortly with my choices - don’t want to pre-empt anyone’s responses
I don’t suppose this would be a “key” feature for success, but it might be something that would fall into the category of courtesy.
It is my belief that being able to increase font size, in some cases beyond what most would consider necessary, is providing some help to those that may have vision problems. Probably a MOD is needed to go beyond the normal increase provided by most forum software.
And along those lines, config, the font size outlining the instructions to the right of your Captcha (Humans Rule OK) is actually more than a bit challenging for anyone with vision problems. Maybe even a bit challenging for the likes of older folks like me.
True, most experienced forumers/forumites would know right away what the Captcha is there for, but one never knows when a rookie might show up, especially when you are allowing guests to post.
Strictly speaking, I agree. But I do know that there are some communities I’ve joined where the forum software has annoyed me (usually by not letting me do what I want to do). I don’t tend to stick around in those places.
I don’t think any of them are honestly necessary, for a forum or community to be successful, all it really needs is the method of sending and receiving information (by starting and contributing to threads) and an audience who are passionate about the website. Everything else is just icing on a cake that people find helpful every now and again (and as such it shouldn’t detract from the important stuff… the content, the method and the users).
Here are my choices, based on my opinion and not any sort of research.
Font options. They’re handy for writing tutorials and other useful, longer content. However, in any forum I implemented, it would be impossible to set the font to blue or to underline text. This is for usability reasons since either one tends to look like a link, even if the site’s color scheme is different.
File attachment. Essential for programming-related communities. I don’t know about others.
Interface matches other layouts. This is important from a usability standpoint. Users don’t have to spend time learning how to use your forum if it’s similar to others they’re familiar with.
Private messaging. Has its place, as there are sometimes discussion topics which aren’t appropriate to share with the Internet at large.
Site-wide single signon. Any website that doesn’t do this is annoying. 'Nuff said.
Smilies. People will use them regardless. Might as well follow current expectations and use little pictures. And it does improve readability a bit.
Some options that I consider especially unimportant:
Chat. We already have enough already. Perhaps linking with an IRC channel would be fine, or using Jabber so I can use my client of choice, but yet another chat interface is too much.
Fat signatures. These can quickly become annoying if not managed carefully.
Facebook signon. When I post in a non-Facebook forum, I don’t want stuff posted all over Facebook. Facebook’s attempt to integrate with all sorts of other websites is overreaching.
Polls. I’ve rarely seen them generate useful content.