Looking for feedback: A new look at forum user experience

Mike Creuzer

Well-known member
Hey all!

I've been concerned with design, forums and online communities, themes and building engagement tools, and overall user interface and user experience for about half my life now. What started as a hobby is now a full career. But it wasn't really until covid hit that I took the time to step back and assess what it was that I was doing, not just in my career but also for the hundreds of communities that I am in many ways responsible for, in full or in part.

More recently, I've fallen out of love with the idea of themes governing the experience of forums. In fact, I almost cringe at the idea and how short sighted I was to think that themes can play such a vital role in and of themselves. And this is somewhat awkward to say considering one of the brands that my company Audentio built is ThemeHouse.com. But I had to find the true value that themes were providing. And let's face it, everyone needs a theme as its good to have branding and such, but are they actually useful? And by useful, I mean are they increasing engagement numbers? Are users registering and sticking around? Is the interface getting in the way and you have no way of knowing? Such questions can be hard to know for sure.

So, we set out to build a data integration tool between XenForo, the various add-ons we have, and Google Data Studio. We also built an AB Testing add-on to put users into 2 groups respectively in order to compare. We then setup graphs and various metrics to help answer some of these questions. While I will post more on this at a later date when some of our studies finish, suffice to say the theme had no real bearing on the success factors and KPIs (Key performance indicators) of the forums. In other words, putting a logo on the default XenForo theme was plenty to maintain the status quo.

Now of course there are other reasons, even just brand related, for having a unique theme. But what we learned was kinda shocking, and kind of at the same time kinda expected. Ultimately, the theme alone can only stand to hurt your forum, not really do much in the way of helping.

That all said, I think the experience (not just the theme) can play a vital role in increasing engagement. The experience I will define not just as the theme (colors, brand, navigation style, icons, "unique" special sauce), but that plus the platform itself, the added or unique functionality, the navigation, the content, the spacing, the user flows, the call-to-actions, the position of elements. All of these elements, working harminiously together, is the experience.

It will come as no surprise that if given the choice objectively, users prefer the experience of social media. After all its engineered to be as easy and simple as possible. But what I set out to do was to see if I can find middle ground; an experience that takes some of the must-haves from social media but also keeping the forum and small community's fundamental purpose in tact and undiluted, as social media is known for doing to content and ideas.

I'm not a great writer to be clear, but I wrote two pieces that I'd love some feedback on if anyone gets the time to. First, I look at the history of different improvements to the core UX of forums, specifically XenForo from the perspective of projects Audentio and ThemeHouse have worked on, just as a summary of success and failure, entitled Through the Ages: Content Discoverability UX on Forums. And the second, being specific implementations and improvements to this traditional UX model forums have been using for decades now, entititled How we improved the forum user experience by learning from social media.

Overall, its time we all get more serious about improving UX on forums and consider the entire UX not just the theme alone when building our communities. UX plays a huge role in seeing our communities be more successful. I think the age of small communities is coming back, and we all have a great opportunity to make sure we do right by the internet as a whole and the communities we serve.

Thanks for reading and looking forward to any feedback or thoughts on some of this work.

ETA: Added some cool images to at least roughly convey some of those UX decisions:

9. interactions.gif
5. infinite.gif
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Pardal

Active member
I have read your two texts carefully, and I cannot agree more, from my opinion we must encourage an interface more in line with current times, the inclusion of the good things of the social networks does not have to be faced with the nucleus of a forum, On the contrary, the coexistence of both is the right way, or at least, which I am waiting to see, has my support and my purchase. I will be attentive to your news.
 

whitetigergrowl

Well-known member
I'm at a crossroads. I'm not sure where forums even fit into things these days. I don't like the social media aspect of, well, social media. I mean I get it. But it's rather toxic.

On the flip side forums just seem so stale and stuck holding onto the past while trying to add some social media aspects without being social media. I visit some forums and honestly, it's clear numbers on many have taken a hit.

So what does that have to do with themes? Well, Facebook and Twitter and others don't have themes other than maybe some color changes or a dark mode. You get what you get and that's it. An improve UIX can be a good thing. But if it becomes too complex or feels out of place, it can turn people off too. Forums are a form of identity for many users. Kinda like how MySpace used to be.

If all forums look and act the same, they tend to lose their individual identity. So themes do help play a part in giving individualism.

Which circles me back around to forums. Many people have lost interest in them. That much is clear. I see a lot of hobbyists trying to make a go of them. But that's about it. Many end up just dead even with a lot of content.

I remember a time when having a forum could get you to moderate success at least so time and effort and money spent was more justifiable. People showed an interest. These days, even with time and money dumped into them and webhosts and advertising, you can still sit with a dead forum.

IMO even with a new UIX or theme, I'm not even sure what to think of forums anymore. And from what I'm seeing there seems to be 2 ways they are going.

1. Slow and steady wins the race. Basically keep moving forward while ignoring the changing world around you and hope that at some point things may circle back around and you'll be ready and waiting. Changes, additions, improvements, etc. will be slow to come. IMO, this isn't the right path of forums at this point. Many are starting to see forums as a relic of the 90s and first half of the 2000s. I don't think reinforcing that belief will help change minds.

2. Add more social media features and make changes to the UIX that may attract more social media focused people. Interesting idea. But I'm not sold that will work either. If I stopped visiting forums, a UIX change may not be enough to get me back. Especially if the forums struggle to stay active anyways and are still stuck in an old way of doing things.

People hate change until they adapt to it. But if the UIX ends up being too complicated or counterintuitive, forget about it. It'll turn more people away that may not look back.

At this point I'm torn on what will be the best way forward and what is needed to change things.

Some interesting ideas in the original post. But forums are at a cross roads. And I know I'm not sure what the best direction is anymore.
 

Mike Creuzer

Well-known member
I have read your two texts carefully, and I cannot agree more, from my opinion we must encourage an interface more in line with current times, the inclusion of the good things of the social networks does not have to be faced with the nucleus of a forum, On the contrary, the coexistence of both is the right way, or at least, which I am waiting to see, has my support and my purchase. I will be attentive to your news.
Appreciate your feedback very much. And indeed I agree, the two can live together. I think we can learn from social media in many ways, and I suppose I'm not trying to sell anything here product wise Im more trying to raise the point that we all as forum owners and community managers sometimes ignore whats in front of our face too often. UX is a great way to fix the trend of staying behind the times.
I really Like the new idea. Are these styles ready ?
Well, we do have a style but its private as are most of our products now. This is more to bring to light the issue, not to sell anything.
I enjoyed reading your articles. I share a lot of your opinions regarding UX and how things should move forward from this point. Your UI gifs are also really pretty :)
<3 !!
If all forums look and act the same, they tend to lose their individual identity. So themes do help play a part in giving individualism.
I think you're not wrong in general but missing my point. Its not about NOT having individual identity, you can do that plenty without needing a theme is more the point. Having a complex theme is hurting your forum, not making it stand out. So having everyone use a more standardized strong UX is far more important than arbitrarily changing things.

In fact, look at your site. Is it doing something "individual"? Why? Does it need to? Could the fact you are doing too many things be hurting you? Should you be just looking at instagram/twitter/reddit/default XF in fact and just staying with that? Would that make the internet more standardized and level the playing field a bit? Are the fact forums are so used to their administrators and owners doing cute things with their themes actually harmful to the democratized internet (forums as an example) as a whole? Some tough questions clearly.
People hate change until they adapt to it. But if the UIX ends up being too complicated or counterintuitive, forget about it. It'll turn more people away that may not look back.
I agree with you again. Forum standards are now too complex. Even using the term "thread" is wrong. I could go on and on, but we need to be thinking about UX more than we are as you are absolutely right. Ditching these trends will allow for an audience to engage more naturally and not have to "learn" what a "forum" even is. Let alone a node, a thread, a forum in the context of a place to discuss, lots of these terms just create subtle confusion. All this plays into a poor forum experience. All forums do this, as a general rule. Ive seen very few who do not.

Even my example https://synner.com/ where I implement most of what I discuss in my article does some of this as well, but we couldnt reasonably change every single phrase in the platform. So this was the closest I was willing to go I think for now in this direciton.
 

BassMan

Well-known member
Hi Mike,

how nice written. I really enjoyed the reading and yes, I don't understand why styles are so important. Ok, it's nice to have a good-looking forum, no doubt, but what I've always cared about more is the UX. That part is the hardest. Not sure if you need a highly complex theme to stand out.

I really like your ideas that you've shown us above. IMO, the forum search engine is really important (although many users don't use it; well, it depends, I have both experiences), prefixes are getting more attention and filters as well. I'm still a fan of the forum list as a landing page. I don't like the What's new as a landing page (like social networks), I think you can get lost quickly and it is more difficult to maintain transparency of the content if you have many nodes.

All that said, for a successful community you also need good and valuable content and also forum staff.

The mobile experience is another world for forums. Responsive design is ok, but I think XenForo should have a native app.

Ok, I'm not good at writing...

Wish you all the best.
 

sbj

Well-known member
Hey,

I don't want to pretend that I have the solution for the "forums being outdated" problem. Especially when it comes to UI. I have ideas of course but I want to focus on your ideas.

But first, since you acknowledged it yourself, I can say it out loud. There is a good reason why I never bought a theme in all of my years for my forum from any theme provider. A custom theme or a stock theme just gets in your way. Because any modification to the default architecture brings problems with addons. It is really annoying for both the owner and the theme developer to fix issues. It creates more problems than its worth.

About the user experience. Before going into it, no matter what I say or what you say or what anyone says, it does not matter. This discussion is great and good but none of our opinions matter. What matters is what the devs of XF implement. That's what determines everything. Of course I know that they listen but at the end of the day, they have their own plans and ideas and pace and will act according to that. The forum system is just too complex for us to develop into our own branches. We must abide by the architecture/UI presented by the developers. So, there is nothing we can do about it. Yes, we can discuss it here or somewhere else but that's about it.

I really really love that you took the initiative and did an AB testing. This is actually something XF should do (maybe they do, but we don't get to see it). Because data driven case studies actually help to solve the problems or at least to identify them. This is really underappreciated I think. Thanks.

The first article is like an overview about what you did in the past and like how the current situation is. The more interesting article is the 2nd one. There you talk about the solutions you come up with.

The ideas you guys come up with is nothing new actually. I couldn't see something innovative.
Native app? Yeah, of course.
The feeds list? Is basically a "whats new" but better implemented. There are other good addons which does it, like this.
Universal create button? Dont we have that already?
A hot feed? A.k.a. reddit.
Infinite scroll can be trouble but also very useful. I think it is a must in the age of mobile experience since "swiping" is a thing.
Real time loading is of course nice (also Xon has an addon for that).
Filtering. We do have it but it is very hidden and not well implemented. One area XF needs a huge improvement on. Filtering is a must. Not just content filtering but also content type filterings.
Unread content indicator is actually a XenFor OG implementation since XF1, no?
Improved mobile navigation. One area I know nothing of. I believe that is an area which needs a huge improvement.

At the end, as we see, to have a better user experience we have to rely on addons. All of these improvements are possible IF we buy addons. But all of these things should be in the core but they aren't. So, I am not sure what is there to say more than that. Yes, we all know we need more improvements. But what can I do as a single XF owner? What can any of us do? Just pray and wait.

Thanks for bringing this up though and for the stuff you guys do. This place has seen so many developers come and go and you guys are here for so long now and push things forward. Although that also has negative aspects because you guys heavily modify the core which brings problems with other addons. But maybe that is the price of trying. It is easy for me to criticize this from my seat of course but I appreciate what you guys do nevertheless.
 

duderuud

Well-known member
Interesting thread and just read your Medium post.
As a die hard "oldie" I find it hard to see a forum work as Twitter/FB. Looked at synner for a bit and I find it...confusing.
Nevertheless...it's interesting. Because in the end of the day, it doesn't matter one bit what I think. It's all about the users.

It also depends on your niche. Most of our users are a bit older and not that much into social media. So I don't know how most of them would fewl about an UX like synner.

Still would like to try it out on our development server 😉
 

whitetigergrowl

Well-known member
Appreciate your feedback very much. And indeed I agree, the two can live together. I think we can learn from social media in many ways, and I suppose I'm not trying to sell anything here product wise Im more trying to raise the point that we all as forum owners and community managers sometimes ignore whats in front of our face too often. UX is a great way to fix the trend of staying behind the times.

Well, we do have a style but its private as are most of our products now. This is more to bring to light the issue, not to sell anything.

<3 !!

I think you're not wrong in general but missing my point. Its not about NOT having individual identity, you can do that plenty without needing a theme is more the point. Having a complex theme is hurting your forum, not making it stand out. So having everyone use a more standardized strong UX is far more important than arbitrarily changing things.

In fact, look at your site. Is it doing something "individual"? Why? Does it need to? Could the fact you are doing too many things be hurting you? Should you be just looking at instagram/twitter/reddit/default XF in fact and just staying with that? Would that make the internet more standardized and level the playing field a bit? Are the fact forums are so used to their administrators and owners doing cute things with their themes actually harmful to the democratized internet (forums as an example) as a whole? Some tough questions clearly.

I agree with you again. Forum standards are now too complex. Even using the term "thread" is wrong. I could go on and on, but we need to be thinking about UX more than we are as you are absolutely right. Ditching these trends will allow for an audience to engage more naturally and not have to "learn" what a "forum" even is. Let alone a node, a thread, a forum in the context of a place to discuss, lots of these terms just create subtle confusion. All this plays into a poor forum experience. All forums do this, as a general rule. Ive seen very few who do not.

Even my example https://synner.com/ where I implement most of what I discuss in my article does some of this as well, but we couldnt reasonably change every single phrase in the platform. So this was the closest I was willing to go I think for now in this direciton.

The main problem with forums I feel is the actual lack of community. Why have user profiles since most are DOA. Most people don't do anything with them and forums don't offer any incentive or reason to. Threads and posts? People can lose interest in them quick unless its a hot topic. They might post something of interest but then hardly anyone responds or if they do, it's useless crap. So it's easy to lose interest.

I can have the coolest skin and UIX and have one topic or multiple topics. But without a proper and easy outlet for everyone to mingle and get to know each other, you'll get lost in the shuffle. Forums are so impersonal. So what if I put an avatar of Spongebob and a signature of the Transformers? Most people don't utilize status updates because there's no real incentive to use them. Same with forum profiles. Most don't come on the forum and the first thing they do is pimp out the profile.

Forums make the person secondary or even third and the content is more front and center.

So I might go to a forum with lots of Marvel content, but I don't really feel a part of that community as I get lost in the shuffle and mess of threads and posts. There's really no way to individualize everyone. That's what makes social media so much more popular. Content is still there, but you become the voice of it. The face of what you post or say.

A UIX change may help. But again, who wants to get sucked down the rabbit hole of options, features, etc etc. Or a layout that causes me to take 5 steps just to make a thread or post or to do anything with my profile that no one will see anyways because it's buried behind everything else?

IMO forums need to re-evaluate how they want to proceed into the future before getting stuck too much into the past. IMO forums should be the future. Instead they seem relegated to an old framework.

IMO forums need to be re-evaluted.
 

nopitter

New member
..., but I don't really feel a part of that community as I get lost in the shuffle and mess of threads and posts. There's really no way to individualize everyone. That's what makes social media so much more popular. Content is still there, but you become the voice of it. The face of what you post or say

Good point! I did never see that aspect to become important. Thanks. Have to think about it.

Peter
 

Max Fridman

Active member
The ideas you guys come up with is nothing new actually. I couldn't see something innovative.
Native app? Yeah, of course.
The feeds list? Is basically a "whats new" but better implemented. There are other good addons which does it, like this.
Universal create button? Dont we have that already?
A hot feed? A.k.a. reddit.
Infinite scroll can be trouble but also very useful. I think it is a must in the age of mobile experience since "swiping" is a thing.
Real time loading is of course nice (also Xon has an addon for that).
Filtering. We do have it but it is very hidden and not well implemented. One area XF needs a huge improvement on. Filtering is a must. Not just content filtering but also content type filterings.
Unread content indicator is actually a XenFor OG implementation since XF1, no?
Improved mobile navigation. One area I know nothing of. I believe that is an area which needs a huge improvement.

I quote you on this because is relevant and worth to dig on it, UX experience is not only what you do but the way you do it.
  • The feeds list, the menù concept is better from an UX point of view, the addon you linked is functionally "good" but horrible in the UX.
  • Universal create button, we have one, but is implemented poorly, if you have a lot of forums and subforums you can't collapse them or have a nice view of them to quickly scan and choose the right one.
  • Hot Feed, we don't actually have one, reddit is good a lot of people know how to use reddit so their UX is "familiar".
  • Infinite Scrolling, really good, we scroll all the time (for the sake of clarity, the swipe gesture goes sideways, scrolling is up and down).
  • Filters, on OG Xenforo, we have HASHTAGS but they are poorly implemented. A lot of sites are going for the "hub" concept where you collect a lot of hashtagged stuff (example: Event Topics or Coloumns collections).
Mobile navigation with the sidebar is actually really bad, we ditched it totally in our theme. Everything said by Mike and you here is right basically.

At the end, as we see, to have a better user experience we have to rely on addons. All of these improvements are possible IF we buy addons. But all of these things should be in the core but they aren't. So, I am not sure what is there to say more than that. Yes, we all know we need more improvements. But what can I do as a single XF owner? What can any of us do? Just pray and wait.

Exactly.
 

sbj

Well-known member
I quote you on this because is relevant and worth to dig on it, UX experience is not only what you do but the way you do it.
Sure, you are right. But I couldnt see anything new to the table like the articles and this thread claimed to be. Or maybe it did that impression on me.

The feeds list, the menù concept is better from an UX point of view, the addon you linked is functionally "good" but horrible in the UX.
I disagree. This kind of addon is very very popular among all sites since vB.

Nobody wants to see just a forum list. They want to see the content minimized. Basically the new posts page embedded on forum list. That's how reddit does it too. Bunch of threads after threads and if you are interested you go inside the thread. And as user experience this is good because your landing page automatically delivers the content you have on your site without that garbage twitter/facebook way. Like articles view. It's precise and is spot on and doesn't confuse people. You just see headlines after headlines without needing to make a single click. Visiting the main page is good enough. Can't be better experience than that as UI cause your users are not required to do anything, they are fed.
 

sixlxvi

Well-known member
@Mike Creuzer - this is good stuff. I’ve been experimenting with similar ideas for a few months now. I also just shared a styling tool I use so maybe others will start trying new things.

Personally, I’m actually a fan of the classic forum layout and I wish it didn’t (kind of) due out. But I know it’s not really realistic to expect the masses to prefer it over lists of new content like Reddit and Dev.to.

In addition to the concepts you’re talking about, I really enjoy using XF as a general CMS that doesn’t necessarily appear as a forum at all. A lot of the core functionality—with enough finesse—can be manipulated to be used as a handy backend for all sorts of non-forum websites, and that’s what I’m interested in right now. I think I can make something that is unrecognizable as XF while using XF’s core to my advantage.

Here’s a cool example of a site that kind of leans in this direction albeit not nearly as extreme as we’re talking in this thread: https://www.oeck.com/community/

Edit: Another relevant thread: https://xenforo.com/community/threads/using-forums-for-client-communications.188588/

Edit 2: I have a lot of cool ideas in mind that I'm not experienced enough yet to create. But I'm finding learning by trial and error on my private dev site to be a fun and relaxing side hobby. Hopefully I'll have something impressive eventually.
 
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