Innovative Forum View

One thing you’ll immediately notice when you’re shopping for bulletin board (or forum) software is that they all look alike. It’s always two columns of which the left contains data about the author (name, number of posts, avatar and some icons) and the right the message itself:

KeyTopic message view

vB changed their look a bit with version 3, but it’s not a very space effective one:

vBulletin 3 message view

Two guys I know, “Marten Veldthuis”:http://www.standardbehaviour.com/log/ and “Mark IJbema”:http://www.markijbema.nl, have been working on a new way of displaying messages in a forum that I find very interesting. To understand why I think it’s a neat solution, you have to understand the importance of avatars.

Avatars are the little icons some users choose to display with each of their posts, for example, one I use regulary:

When I was first asked to add this avatar feature to YaBB (which is way and way back) I hesitated. What’s it good for, I asked myself. But soon I realized its significance. Humans are visual oriented. They prefer recognizing visual shapes over reading a piece of text. This is the significance of avatars: they become the way to identify who’s talking. If you’ve ever been on a forum where two people had the same avatar you’ll know it already: you confuse them all the time. So, the avatar is vital.

What Marten and Mark did is integrate this visual recognition thing into the message itself. It’s no longer just a little image, it’s a message colour scheme with a background image. This, and dumping a lot of irrelevant data, results in their new way of displaying forum topics:

New forum view

It’s a work in progress, but already it looks stylish and like an improvement. They will also take my “post formatting post”:http://www.zefhemel.com/archives/2004/09/20/post-formatting to heart, so they will use wiki-like codes (using Markdown and Textile) to write posts in. I also pointed them to “Joel’s article about the social interface to his forum”:http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/BuildingCommunitieswithSo.html. I hope they’ll pick to implement a couple of the ideas in that too. If they do, this could turn into a new approach to forum software. Finally.

Marten discusses the new design in his post “An innovative approach to displaying a forum”:http://www.standardbehaviour.com/archive/view/innovative-approach-to-forum-display on his weblog. They will develop the software using Ruby on rails (which is a Ruby webdevelopment toolkit). So, unless they release it as open source (so you can port it to, for example, PHP), not that many people will be able to take advantage of it. Not many webhosts support Ruby today.