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  • General discussion

  • There are several basic design issues I see with the forum layout, and because of those issues, they make web forums unnecessarily cumbersome and difficult to use. I think we can summarize this under two major themes:


    "Not Invented Here" syndrome:

    First thing about this is that this is so unlike any other web forums. Because it's so unfamiliar, it becomes unnecessarily obtuse for anyone to use. When I look at various implementation, all I can think is that the designer tried really hard to not be like other forum and in the process made something that was not very intuitive and easy to use. 


    Too much form, not enough function:

    I can't help but think that when people designed the forums, they were looking for "wow" factor and doing some of "hey, see what wicked thing I can do with this piece of code!" and providing impressive visual effects but never considered the *usability* of those features and thus people who has to use it get frustrated with what were mean to be a gee-whizzbang features, and then there's the vestiages of Clippy to be found here. Please, Clippy was fired for one reason - he ended up ____ off people as opposed to helping people. Even Office folks has acknowledged this and backed from "clever" to "straightforward". 


    With those two themes in mind, we'll get into the specifics.



    HTML layout:


    1) Too much whitespaces on the sides:



    There is a minimum and maximum width defined for the main content. If the web browser is too wide, we get more of that wasted space.

    Please don't assume that I want to read posts at 80 columns wide. Allow me and anyone else to decide how we want to size our browser, and make better use of those space. We can't be sure that everyone has same monitor size and same resolution, and generally, a layout that makes better of the additional width is better than a fixed layout because at least that way, we can enjoy the benefit of less vertical scrolling.

    Also, this seems excessive:


    Not only we have large amount of whitespace between the checkbox to the submit button, both text are bolded, of heavier weight and dwarfing the Submit button. Please don't waste vertical height like that. 


    2) Excessively tall post header:


    Because we have a profile picture, it's expected that it will be more than one line of text tall, but right now, it's taller than it should be due to the medals hanging below the name, and the timestamp on the right with large empty space in the middle. More vertical space mean more scrolling and we want less scrolling.

    3) Excessively tall thread listing:


    Note the following:

    a) the word "code" appears all by itself on 2nd line. But there's enough room on the right to make the 2nd line unnecessary! Please don't arbitrarily limit the width of thread title.

    b) Thread starter and creation timestamp as well as the latest reply are on their own separate line. No other forum software implement that way, and there's no good reason why they shouldn't be able to appear on a single line. Again, vertical scrolling = bad.

    c) The link "Last Reply" is kind of easy to miss due to how it's positioned and grouped with non-link text. In any forum implementations, "Go To Last Reply" is typically a icon to left of the thread title. 

    Please study how various forums software layout their thread lists - you should note a trend: everything appear on either one or two lines with fairly small vertical space. A page should be able to display 30 threads, instead of only 5-10 threads *without* scrolling. 

    4) Code block not framed:

    In several other forum implementation, it's common for a code snippet to be framed in a separate frame with its own scrollbars which displays at a certain height. That help cuts down on the scrolling. We need to remember that sometime we return back to the page and may want to be able to quickly scroll to the replies somewhere else - not limiting the vertical heigh of code snippets mean time wasted scrolling just to find the crucial sentence. 

    5) Quote block:


    a) Because we allow custom fonts, there are cases where it's harder than usual to read black-on-gray and we also need to consider the contrast - we're reading black-on-white then black-on-grey. That's a major gymnastics for eyes. It tends to work better when we use a slight different hue of the major color or at least simply don't change color and frame it in a box.

    b) It's not always clear what whom is being quoted and from what. The author's name is outside the quote box which is odd in contrast to how several forums software implement their quote tags (typically as a "title bar" to the quote). Also, consider providing a link pointing to an anchor earlier on the page so the reader can quickly locate the source of the quote. 

    c) This is not a technical criticism per se but I've seen cases where whole post are quoted which tends to be unnecessary waste of post. This possibly may be out of our control, but I do raise this point only because we should then be asking ourselves, "how do we encourage the poster to quote only relevant sections and not just re-parrot ad verbatim of the whole post on the bottom of the post?" Maybe it'd work to simply detect if a quote is ad verbatim and truncate it to a single link but I'm not sure that is the most desirable solution. If you can come up with a good solution, it will help usability of the forums... and less vertical scrolling!

    6) Absolutely, positively and definitely *NO* Jack-in-the-box!


    Please don't resurrect Clippy.

    It's very very annoying to have content appear out of nowhere. As an application developer, I will not deliver any thing that would do similar thing. It's far preferable that all content be visible at all time and disabled when it is not applicable. In this case, I would have had preferred to always see:

    Related Topics

    <Type in title above to see if there may be related topics>


    That way, I will be able to see and thus anticipate that there may be more content coming when I type in the title for a new thread instead of nothing then <whoosh> Clippy's in my face waving and hopping to help me out with X! Unfortunately, that tends to ____ me off and when that happen, I may lose any incentives to ask the question. 


    7) Why control tip?



    Not only it blocks the access to my sidebar it's wasted space since the same text could have been on the top of the textbox instead of being in a control tip -- anyone remember how annoying it was whenever you installed a program in Windows XP, you'd click Start and a balloon would say "New program has been installed" but you can't click "All Program" because it's under the balloon and you have to wait for that balloon to go away? Well, this balloon does not go away properly, and given that you could have actually taken the text from the control tip and made it the title of the textbox. Here, this was too clever for its own good. Simple, static text wins here. Chuck the controltip please.


    8) Why sidebar?


    This is on the side to right of the main content. If you've looked at other forum software, you'll notice none of those software does that way. Typically those are on a "User CP", "Member Profile Page", or maybe even a "Options" button that then dropdown. To drive home why that is a waste, let's see what we have below my sidebar:


    That's lot of wasted space, and thus is a reason why we don't like sidebars, especially small one that could have been buried in a dropdown menu.




    1) BBCode. Or, lack thereof

    Arguably one unique aspect of the forum is we have a rich text editor. Yet when it comes to writing in formatting and adding non-textual content, it's unnecessarily hard. On a web forum, it was much faster to just type in bbcode. Want a code tag? Easy! [code]printf "Hello, world!";[/code]! Consider further that posters are likely to be already familiar with BBCode used by various forums software. Please, don't force them to learn a new way to do everything that they have been able to port from one forum software to other. 


    2) Where's the preview?

    A standard feature of any web forum is to be able to preview your content before you actually post it. Obviously, you've gone to extra efforts to make the textbox WYSIWYG, but when we have to type in HTML, we have no way of knowing whether this will in fact work. Did I forget to close a tag? I have no way of knowing until after posting. Pretty inconvenient.


    EDIT: and to make the point, I did not know that my pictures would break until after posting. The editor really is not WYSIWYG and preview would have had alerted me to that issue.


    3) Threads with new posts not differentiated

    Unwritten standard in web forums is that whenever a thread get a new post that I've yet to read, the text get bolded when I'm viewing the equivalent of "My Forum Threads". That is not what happens in a MSDN forums, which bold only when I've never ever read a thread and will never re-bold, which made it quite confusing to locate which had new unread content added since my last visit. I had to read timestamps but that's slower than looking at the list and filtering out bolded text from non-bolded text. 




    1) 800-lbs gorillas for web pages?

    I can imagine at Redmond, FiOS and giganet network flow like water. However considerations do need to be given to those who may have poor bandwidth or latency. Even though I had a broadband connection, the wait time for the page to load completely was too slow and even worse first time when I didn't have the benefit of cache. In my book that is unacceptable. This is especially true when we want to visit "My Threads", "My Forum Threads" or any other thread listings - those pages are exactly where it must be fast, fast, fast which mean less fancy-pant javascript and other expensive objects on those pages.

    I've observed that on the first visit (without cache), several first pages visit are excessively slow which makes me shudder to think about clearing my cache, visiting the forums from another computer, along other possibilities. The page should be able to load fast regardless of the circumstances.


    2) No images, please.

    Several web forums offer an option for user to not download and display images. Please give us an option to omit images and thus cut down on page sizes. To be clear, I'm not referring to images as part of a post content but rather images such as avatars, profile pictures and so forth. They're usually just adding more space and bandwidth for little purpose. There's a checkbox to not display leaderboard and statistics. Not enough.


    3) Minimal View?

    Several web forums provide an alternative view that is minimalistic, removing all froo-froo and gimmicks. Why not MSDN forums, too? You need to take in consideration of people who may actually NEED a minimalistic viewing for different reasons from low-vision needs to economizing on bandwidth. If there is actually one available, then I didn't find it and thus it was not obvious enough.



    If I had the luxury of choosing between the software that MSDN forums uses and phpBB, I'd choose phpBB in a heartbeat. To underscore this point, I actually generally consider phpBB to be one of worse forum implementation, but the folks behind phpBB had enough sense to adopt what was successful traits from other forum software and keep to them so it's still usable. Here, it's as if we couldn't afford to look too much like any one of forum software, be it vBulletin or Stack Overflow, no no, we had to reinvent the wheel. But this is not a wheel. It's a block of stone and thus a poor excuse for a wheel. 

    Please understand and hear this: There is no shame in adopting the successful features of others' software. There is no shame in buying a license from a 3rd party vendor who does this much better by virtue of being in this business for long time and knowing what works and what doesn't. However you do it, please don't feel compelled that you must bake a cake with bacon and apples just because someone else already used eggs and flour to do it. It's the icing, not eggs and flour, that matter the most but you can't have a cake at all without flour'n'eggs. I do sincerely hope that the team behind the MSDN forums will actually go and visit one of many wonderful web forums and see why they succeed even with less features and functionality. Learn from the web forums such as vBulletin, Invision Power Board, Stack Overflow, and possibly many more - you'll see that they have more in common with each other than they do with your MSDN and put yourself in the shoes of the poster coming from those place.

    So don't try too hard to be clever and original. I'd rather that you were practical and stick to it. 

    Saturday, September 18, 2010 11:45 PM

All replies

  • Yes, yes and yes to all. I wholeheartedly agree. If you want to see what I believe is a good, user-friendly web forum to use, take a look at Windows Secrets Lounge forums at WSL.

    I find it totally incomprehensible that Microsoft has tried to reinvent something that has already been invented. Round wheels are perfect and don't need redesigning.

    And please scrap the gongs: they are a bane.

    Terry Farrell - Word MVP

    Sunday, September 19, 2010 9:33 AM
  • Interface

    3) Threads with new posts not differentiated

    Unwritten standard in web forums is that whenever a thread get a new post that I've yet to read, the text get bolded when I'm viewing the equivalent of "My Forum Threads". That is not what happens in a MSDN forums, which bold only when I've never ever read a thread and will never re-bold, which made it quite confusing to locate which had new unread content added since my last visit. I had to read timestamps but that's slower than looking at the list and filtering out bolded text from non-bolded text. 


    I think you provided an excellent summary of the shortcomings of the forum's design. I disagree slightly on the one point I quoted above. Threads with new posts since you last viewed them are distinguished by the thread title being in italics. Obviously, this doesn't stand out very well or you would have noticed it.

    Unfortunately there are also more severe usability problems with the forum which appear to result from coding errors rather than poor design, such as the way editing a post that contains a code block completely messes up the formatting of the post with large amounts of extra white space inserted between lines.

    Sunday, September 19, 2010 11:36 AM
  • Excellent analysis.  I particularly agree with the comments on the Interface.  The same applies to the Microsoft Answers forums.
    Corrine, Microsoft MVP (Consumer Security). This posting is provided "AS IS" without warranty, and confers no rights.
    Sunday, September 19, 2010 3:00 PM
  • Excellent summary of valid issues. 
    Jane Edwards
    MVP Consumer Security
    Malware Removal Forums
    Sunday, September 19, 2010 9:32 PM
  • I agree on all points. I'm also seeing other weird behavior. Once I replied to a message, half the text went off screen and the whole thing became unusable.

    It's pitiful that Microsoft can't offer a forum that can actually be used. Even a one man software developer can offer usable forums. Why can't Microsoft?

    If Answers is as bad as this, I certainly won't be posting any answers there. 

    Diane Ross, Mac Office MVP
    Sunday, September 19, 2010 9:52 PM
  • I couldn't agree more. I hope you'll post will get the attention it deserves and that things will improve :-\



    --- Office:Mac MVP http://www.cortig.net/wordpress/ --- http://www.mvps.org - http://mvp.support.microsoft.com MVPs are not MS employees - Les MVP ne travaillent pas pour MS Remove "NoSpam" to e-mail me - Retirez "NoSpam" pour m'écrire
    Sunday, September 19, 2010 10:35 PM
  • By and large I agree with everything you have written, but of particular note ...
    > 1) Too much whitespaces on the sides:
    Oh, how I agree with this one! It is the case at every width I have tried - on wide screens, on portrait screens, and on mobile devices. As a portrait-format screen user, vertical wasted space (of which there is, certainly, some) is of less concern to me than horizontal wasted space - the fixed width bar to the right takes up about 40% of my screen width and is mostly empty.
    > a) Because we allow custom fonts, ....
    I really wish 'we' didn't - I see big fonts, very big fonts, small fonts, very small fonts, coloured fonts - not one of which serves to help the purpose of the forum - asking and answering of relevant questions, in case anyone has forgotten. Web pages should be configurable by the viewer (I'll grant some knowledge is still needed to do this properly, but things are improving) and that is impossible with the current implementation. I ignore anything that's difficult to read, and I doubt I'm alone in that.
    > Performance:
    What can I say? Microsoft's web pages are all slow; always have been. I presume the new 'lean' view option of MSDN pages is a response to this - what a shame the forums cannot be similarly shown.
    (from 'Blackwood's response)
    > such as the way editing a post that contains a code block completely messes up the formatting of the post with large amounts of extra white space inserted between lines.
    I didn't know what caused this but it is somewhat of an irritant
    One final point that I make whenever I can is that the fact that the forums (and other Microsoft pages) absolutely must work in all major browsers. Somewhat grudgingly, they seem to have made an effort to make them work in Firefox but it rather seems as though they don't even test in any others. This is nothing short of arrogance, saying, in effect: "if you won't use our browser, we won't help you with problems you have with any other of our software products".


    Tuesday, September 21, 2010 5:50 PM