Forums are the red headed step child of a web site

I have seen it time and time again. And yet, every time, it irritates me to no end. You are on a professional web site. You are navigating around and at some point you hit the link for their forums. And just like that you feel transported to another place. The whole site design just changes. Colors, layout, navigation… everything. Here are some examples, including the new C7Y site from php|Architect which inspired this post. (I really do love you guys on the podcast I promise =)

  • php|architect’s C7Y – main siteforums
  • Zend’s Developer Zone – main siteforums
    Zend’s forums do at least use the Zend.com header, but you can’t get to the forums from the main Zend.com site. You have to go to the Developer Zone.
  • TextPad (great windows editor) – main siteforums
    The header is kind of the same. Fonts and link colors change slightly though which is worse in some ways than a wholesale change. It looks like they just wedged in their HTML into the phpBB template.

I could continue to list some here, but you get the idea. So, what is the problem? Does most message board software make it too hard to edit their templates? Are forums an after thought and some underling is given the task to make them work and not allowed access to the main site’s templates?

Some people do better at it. MySQL for example. Theirs is still not perfect. An ad awkwardly appears in the forums in a way that makes it look like an error. However, thanks to Phorum (cha-ching), MySQL was able to make their own log in system work with their forums. Heck, even at dealnews I have not done that. Mostly because our forum logins predate our site accounts for email alerts and newsletters. I am not asking for perfection though. I would just like to feel like the company/entitiy gave some love to making their forums part of their site and not an afterthought.

So, I call for all web sites to start treating their forums like real pages. Give them the same love and attention you give that front page or any other page. And, if your message board software makes that hard, give Phorum a try.

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8 Responses to Forums are the red headed step child of a web site

  1. dudeyoudontknow says:

    Unfortunately this will never happen.

    A forum can serve a multitude of purposes. It can be a trouble support ticket area, a community gathering, a contest manager, a news post manager, etc… people have used these forum softwares for many different things.

    The forum software needs to be built to handle many different scenarios. Thus over 60% of the features you simply don’t need, but the forum software was written to include said features (often times in a terrible way), resulting in messy code that is broken down into so many different tiers and sub-tiers that template editing is no longer necessary.

    The unfortunate truth is that the code is usually very ugly (Phorum code is an example, but if you look at vBulletin then prepare to really cringe).

    The fact that the login.php has comments every 4-5 lines on average basically says it all. User authentication is not that complicated. Breaking things up into a few neatly designed classes reduces bloat and gives us developers the chance to go in and tinker with little details in the software.

  2. doughboy says:

    @dudeyoudontknow:

    Ah, so it is the software. Then people should use Phorum. We don’t stick every frickin feature in the core. That is done with modules. Our users regularly tell us that the template system is the best they have seen. See this thread: http://www.phorum.org/phorum5/read.php?63,128147

    Like this guy:
    “In my opinion, simply the best there is, period. You almost never find such a clean separation between html and code. Even admittedly easy to template forums like Vanilla are way behind.”

  3. Scott says:

    I am in the process of hacking the template for our businesses forums and it is HARD! I am using phpbb v3 and the css is SO long and the same classes are in there at least twice so you change one but it was not the right one. It’s hard work. But I am continuing to work on it because I really do want the forums to look like the main site….

  4. doughboy says:

    @Scott: Stop now and install Phorum. I guarantee you that it will be easier. Of course, I am a little biased.

  5. Sheeri says:

    Or, instead of Phorum, think about all your integration needs and use or build a CMS that will accept plugins. I’ve seen plenty of good forum sites that are plugins to the CMS framework.

    CMS’ are often crappy in their own right, but if you have this problem with forums, you’re going to have it integrating every new feature as well….streaming video, blogging, etc.

  6. doughboy says:

    Hey Sheeri, miss the podcasts. I agree with you to some extent. I am a write it from scratch kind of guy. For some reason, forums seem to be the one application that people never write themselves.

  7. Paul says:

    @Scott: It’s not that hard if all you are doing is changing colors. The toughest part about re-skinning that software is coming up with a good color scheme. Re: the duplicate classes in the CSS file. It’s CASCADING… only the last declaration counts.
    I do agree that I don’t like it when people don’t bother to change the out-of-the-box theme. A couple small tweaks can go a long way towards differentiating your site.

  8. ZZamboni says:

    For an example of very nice integration of forums (using Phorum) with the rest of the look of the site, see Cultured Code’s Things forums (http://culturedcode.com/things/forums/). It is very nicely integrated with the other sections (Blog and Wiki).

    (I am not affiliated with them, just a happy Things user).

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