A Look At Internet Forum Design
I enjoy hanging around forums once in a while. You might, too. They are a great way of promoting your blog, for asking questions and getting help with problems, and just to chat once in a while.
Forums are also great for adding to an existing website, to create a community around it, and to have a quicker way to publicly interact with and answer questions of users than simply posting to a blog. If you have some spare time, you can also use that time for managing the forum, and building a community of members and readers.
Before I got interested in blogs (FWebDe is actually my first), I was first interested more in forums. While they weren't hugely successful, with only about 300 members, I've learned a few things about managing an online community.
There are many tips about getting more members and monetizing forums, but design is a topic that is often ignored, or at least given less importance than on say, a blog. Anyone should know that one of the first things that potential members see is the design, and that it has to give a good first impression, and attract their attention to read more, or to register.
Usability is extremely important for forum designs, because they are highly interactive, with many different features for doing things such as creating topics and replying to posts. You could say that they are much more interactive than blogs or static websites, where users are mainly reading posts.
The General Layout
The general layout of a forum is very important, and it should be consistent throughout. It should also keep a similar basic layout to other forums, for the sake of usability. For most forums, the most common kinds of layout will be the the best anyway.
The Single-Column Layout
One think you don't see too often on regular sites is a single-column layout. Normally, there is a sidebar or two, or sometimes even three. Forums are where you usually start to see simpler single-column layouts.
A good forum layout will put a lot of focus on the posts, because the ultimate goal is generally to have users interacting with their content, and with each other. On busy forums, hundreds of posts can be added every hour. With such fast content generation, it's a good idea to put some emphasis on it. Content is King, and forums can have a lot of it.
An alternative to the single-column layout that you can see sometimes is to add a sidebar next to the board index. You can see this in use at the SitePoint forums. This can be especially useful if you have many categories, and would like to list them all in a more compact way.
A sidebar can also be used for displaying a login box, user information and forum statistics, like how it is done at TalkFreelance.
Sidebars were actually introduced in IP.Board version 3.0. Some love it, some hate it, but you should try out a sidebar, and see how that works on your forum.
The Table-Based Layout
I think that forums are one place where you could get away with using tables for layout.
Before you run away, screaming, you should notice that the common forum layout basically is a table. You have separate columns with some general information about each forum.
- The name of the forum
- A short description of what it's about
- The number of topics
- The number of posts
- Information about the latest post
And then, you have a row for each forum or category. Sometimes there is even a little icon indicating if that forum has recently been posted in.
The Front Page
Most forums usually have a (relatively) simple front page, displaying the board index with a table of forums and categories, often with board information, news and statistics closer to the footer.
One thing that you'll often see on forums is a separate front page from the board index, containing the latest news, recent topics and posts, and other information for quick access. This can be very useful if you have a huge community with new posts every few minutes.
Displaying User Information
Not so much anymore, but it is sometimes debated whether the poster's information should be displayed vertically or horizontally. They are both good options, and you should try them both out and see what you, and your users like best.
The decision mainly depends on what kinds of information you want to display next to each post. A horizontal user information area can be good if you're only displaying a bit of basic information. Information commonly displayed next to each post include:
- The user's name, with a link to their profile
- Their avatar
- Their current rank
- Their post count
- The date they registered
However, if you would like to display a bit more information without looking too cluttered, vertical is generally a better idea.
It is also a good idea to place some restrictions on user signatures. In addition to not allowing inappropriate material, filling it with tons of links is generally not looked upon kindly.
I've even seen some forums that have disabled images in signatures, leaving only a link and a bit of text. I think that this can be a good idea, because nobody really cares about the image in a person's signature. If someone is interested in their site, they'll probably just click on a link.
Another commonly used technique for displaying signatures is to only have each poster's signature to display once per page. That way, if somebody posts many times in one topic, readers aren't bothered with seeing the exact same signature over and over again.
A Few Things To Remember
When working on the design for a forum, here are a few things to think about.
Avoid Excess Clutter
This goes for any design, and also for forums. Extra clutter, including ads, news boxes and extra widgets can seriously get in the way of the content. Because the content is the main focus of a community, if you don't put that first, potential new members won't have much of a reason to register.
A common source of clutter that I see is shoutboxes. They are boxes, usually at the top of the page, that are used for members to quickly post messages to the entire forum. I'd say if you need to send a message to tons of people, consider using Twitter instead.
Readability is an important step to put your content, and your community forward. General readability rules apply: Avoid tiny text, add good amounts of spacing, ensure good contrast, and choose a good font.
One thing to remember: Don't always use dark themes. Light text on a dark background is often difficult to read, and dark text on a dark background is even worse. This is usually seen on gaming forums, which I can understand, but there is more to games than darkness.
Place the Search Box In a Prominent Location
But it's such a cool effect, you say? This one little bit of usability can have a huge impact on your community.
By hiding the search box, new users won't be able to find the information they need, and will instead start a new topic asking their question, and they can be openly yelled at for not searching first. Guests to the site will see that topic, and will see that forum as an angry, YouTube-like community, costing you many new members.
What do you think of forums? Do you frequent forums often, or do you run a forum? Do you know of any examples of great forum designs? Be sure to leave a comment.
I'll be doing a follow-up to this post, including some examples of effective forum designs. In the meantime, you can subscribe to the RSS feed, or to updates via Email, to be notified of the next posts at FWebDe.
Update: See some excellent examples of effective forum designs!