DesignProgramming & Design

Forum Theme Designs Ruin Online Communities

Web designs for online communities, forums, and blogs can come in all shapes and sizes. However, even the best theme designers have been getting it wrong since the first forums came online. The templates most forums use may look flashy, but they’re not helping communities grow – they are not designed for that.

Once upon a time, the first forums came online. They were mostly meant for professors, niche enthusiasts, computer nerds, and other rare folk who had access to a computer and internet connection. In fact, some of the very original discussion boards and communities operated over LAN – and generally unavailable to people using the internet. Things were great, but like every good thing these days, it just had to come to an end.

Queue dramatic music, because in walks the famed forum designer. He’s slick, she’s fancy, and they’re here to make your forum great! Or so they say… You see, most forum theme artists do in fact create wonderful digital creations that may be custom for one website, or delivered in mass for the many forum owners. And yet they all seem to look so similar. Sure, perhaps a premium theme has some cooler JavaScript or more interesting graphics, but the functionality doesn’t improve too drastically from your run of the mill theme.

“In 3 seconds, scroll down,” is what a GPS would blurt out if you were to ask it for directions to the nearest forum section. It may also tell you to ‘click here’, or ‘view the threads / discussions’, or ‘click a discussion title to view the content’, and ‘scroll down to see replies’. Do you see the problem? Let me break it down for you.

Why is it that almost every forum theme (premium or free) follows the same format? You visit the main page, let it load, and scroll down to see more content if you wish. There’s a navigation bar on the top that generally looks similar to every other site. The website has some main colors and a logo, but other than that – not much differs. Sure, maybe one forum has more sections, or less posts than the other… And yet they all have a main homepage consisting of forum sections or categories, with sub-forums listed as well. They display the number of discussions or replies, and maybe the most recent contributor’s username. This is what forum designers do… recreate the same forum landing page format over and over again, with some CSS / HTML changes to make them unique.

But are these forum themes truly unique just because they have some fancy styling? When you go to your favorite social network, do you see a list of topics or categories, or are you immediately hooked in by interesting content? If you go to your beloved news website, are they presenting you with a grid of categories before you can see the headlines? No. All of these sites see the benefit of immediately providing content you can interact with and hardly ever really asking you what specific type of content or category you want to see.

So, why is it that forum designers are so content on recreating this awful format for all of eternity? Isn’t it time that online communities and forums get with the times and realize that websites need to jump straight to the chase? With mobile devices, spontaneous tab swapping, and quick distractions, there is hardly any reason to force a site visitor to pick a category before seeing actual content… and then picking a discussion in that category before seeing actual content. Just show them the discussions! Preview some excerpts or at least display more than just one recent thread title if you are stuck displaying all of your forum sections. We need to rid our minds of the concept of forums and start to design our websites the way they should – less like the way forums have been for three decades and more like what the internet wants …like the social networks, news websites, and other online destinations that truly focus on content and community.

If I haven’t sold you on the idea that forum theme designers are ruining your community, then consider this: Do you begin a conversation by ever saying, “what should we talk about?”, or do you jump into something. When you’re told to share one fact about yourself, do you tell the group an entire list of possible “fact topics” and have them choose one before you share your fact? No, you most likely do neither of these things. That right there is the core of my issue with forum designs. They are specifically set up to force a user to choose what they want to read/engage in. This is unnatural. Your website community should function just like many people do in real life. Sometimes you have to take a risk by starting a conversation with a topic you have no idea the other person is interested in. When someone asks you to tell them something cool about yourself, you shouldn’t blankly stare at them and list a bunch of topics you could possible discuss. Don’t do it in real life, and don’t do it on your forums either.

It’s time for forum designs to change, and unfortunately it’s going to require an entire shift in thinking from the forum theme community. Many forum owners are unable or unwilling to create their own templates. We need a revolution, and we need it quick. Forums are dying a slow and painful death, and the designs aren’t helping them. If you are a designer reading this, we just ask you to consider the following:

If you want to achieve true success, you must abandon the entire concept of what a forum should look like, and design to support a community – one based on spontaneous discussions, realistic risks of shared interests or lack thereof, and stop designing every forum theme to be the same format. Chase the opportunity of bringing back online communities to a world dominated by superficial social networks. Abandon the Craigslist style of listing categories and make changes to your work. Allow each website to shine and stand out with their content. Let communities thrive and flourish as forums are transformed into a platform that always showcases what members currently are intrigued by. Do not let forums die because nobody can get with the times. Be the solution we need.

Sincerely,

The webmasters and entrepreneurs at Forum Promotion, of the internet, and of the world.

Chief Operating Officer at a website & app development company, American football & rugby enthusiast, traveler, obsessed with space, run on se...

JoelR

Familiar Face
Mar 13, 2019
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1. Whoever is in charge of the homepage needs to update it. I honestly thought the last article was the one from July 14 2019, which is three months behind.

2. Any forum theme is going to be a variant of the default theme. The theme will be evolutionary and incremental and only a couple of steps away. It won't be revolutionary or a brand new re-imaging. You really need the underlying software to be different (eg. Discourse or Invision Community's fluid view).

In general though, I agree with you that the forum index page is now one of the worst UIX choices that can hold back new sites. Modern users expect to immediately view the discussion and content, not need to navigate through categories and sub-boards. This is why I'm relentless on cutting back on forum bloat.