Discussion Board tools

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... part of the technology for communities project,
started off by the authors of [Digital Habitats], Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith.


Web-based discussion boards, also known as forums, are a classic tool that allows groups to conduct asynchronous, written conversations online. Participants can visit the conversation space and see a whole discussion as a series of posts. They can contribute to the conversation by posting a new message. Their message includes a date stamp and author information. (Discussion boards are also called bulletin boards or online forums).

Uses in communities of practice

The use of discussion boards is very common for communities of practice. This is especially true of communities oriented to open-ended conversations, but discussion boards are also used for a variety of activities, such as question-answer transactions, socializing, self-organization, projects, even announcements.

A web-based discussion board is useful when a community has more simultaneous topics than will work with an email list. The need to learn to use an additional interface is justified by additional functionality, including ease of visualizing multiple simultaneous asynchronous conversations.

Whereas Blogging tools focus on the voice of a member, discussion boards focus on topics of communal interest.

Key features

1. Message posting features

  • Reply or start thread: Participants have a choice to reply to a specific post or start a new thread.
    • We have found this feature essential for conversations of any complexity. If it is not present and people do not visit the space very regularly, their contribution may be separated from the idea they respond to by several messages and it is very difficult to follow the various threads of the conversation.
  • Attachments: One or more document or multi-media file can be uploaded with a posting.
    • Increasingly indispensable as people want to include pictures and other files in their conversations.
    • Essential when the system does not have a library space for shared files.
  • Inline images: Show images in postings. Note that this is a specific type of upload in that the image is displayed with the message, not simply stored with the message as a link for download.
    • Quickly adds a visual component to online communication. Allows inclusion of sketches, photos, etc. Can be tremendously useful in diverse groups where "an image is worth a 1000 words."
    • Beware of sizing:
      • Some systems have file size limitations or display only limited size images.
      • Upload can be long.
      • And large images can sometimes expand the window and force readers to scroll horizontally to see the text in the rest of the discussion.
    • This feature may therefore require users to know how to resize their pictures or a system able to automatically resize to best fit the interface.
  • Crosslinks: discussions and/or individual posts each have a distinct URL so that one can include a link to them in a post to easily reference specific posts or material, internally or externally.
    • Important in more complex spaces and for more complex communities where the weaving and linking of ideas/information/posts can increase the sense-making processes.
    • It is often not easy for users to figure out how to do this, even when it is present. This may require some coaching. The interface needs to make it easy for any user to crosslink, for instance by allowing users to do this by clicking on the target.
    • Some system recognize cross links and render them a distinctive way, for instance with a special font or with the title of the post or name of the author.
  • Message type labels: The author can classify a post as a statement, response, question, agreement, disagreement, etc. Each type is often displayed with an icon.
    • Makes it easier to see the flow of the conversation at a glance.
    • Allows analysis of conversations in terms of these types (e.g., “there is a lot of disagreement in this community”).
  • Private responses: Can specify a response to be private to the author of the original message
    • Rare feature
    • Encourages candid responses and private side conversations
    • Some people do not like to encourage private conversations
    • Can also be done with e-mail or IM.

2. Message editing features

  • Context is visible when replying : When editing a response is done in a separate box, it is useful to see at least the message one is responding to.
    • It is easy to forget the details of the content of the post one is responding to.
  • WYSIWYG formatting What you see is what you get. The editor for message shows the message the way it will appear. Usually allows easy use of things like bullets, bolding, color, and links.
    • Use of formatting can enhance clarity, expressiveness, and sense-making.
    • Different people can have text in different colors allowing interesting summary formats.
  • Preview one's own postings See your posting before sending it in.
    • Very useful when people are not confident with written text or with the process of posting.
  • Spell check: Can be in-line or on-demand before posting
    • Very appreciated by participants who are not confident with spelling or who are not native speakers of the language of the conversation.
    • When there is no spell checking facility these participants often compose their message in a different editor first.
  • Save response as draft If one is interrupted in the middle of writing a post, what has been written so far can be saved in a draft that one can come back later and finish.
    • Useful for interruptions, but also for saving a list of postings to come back to.
  • Edit (change) posted message: The author of a message can edit content after posting. In some systems, this is only possible for a limited time. In some systems, editing is marked and dated.
    • Being able to edit a message right after posting is essential.
    • Some users are frustrated when they cannot edit something they posted a while back, but if one can change old posts, then it may make subsequent posts irrelevant.

3. Message display features

  • Threaded and/or linear stream Ability to use either format, depending on need and preferences.
    • Threaded vs. linear is a legacy issue. People who are used to a format tend to prefer it so giving users the flexibility to view posts as they prefer can be an advantage.
    • Threads are important when a discussion becomes long or involves many people. Then it is useful to be able to respond to a specific post up in the discussion rather than to the last one because there may be too much material in between. But threads do create a tendency for the discussion to split up because they lose chronology and a sense that everyone is on the same page. That is why it is also important to set discussion to a streaming mode.
  • Sort messages dynamically: Can sort postings on the fly by criteria such as thread, chronology, or author.
    • An elegant solution to the dilemma of how to present the conversation.
    • Put the reader in control while reading.
  • Outline Displays message headers only, not full text posting.
    • Essential for long discussions so that one can see the whole outline of the conversation at a glance. Not so important for short conversations of 20 postings or less.
  • See multiple messages : Some systems show an outline of the conversation and only allow the reader to open one message at a time. Other systems open a series of messages at once.
    • We have found that it can be really frustrating to have to open every message one wants to read, especially for complex or deep conversations where it is necessary to be able to read the whole thing to understand the flow.
  • Hide old messages Ability to hide read messages.
    • Useful if there is no good outline feature.
  • Photos with messages A picture of the author appears with each posting.
    • This simple feature brings a human touch to the discussion and allows one to quickly identify the author.
    • It is not without its downsides, however. It may put more emphasis on people's appearance. In low bandwidth situations helpful to be able to turn off this feature.
    • It simplifies things when users can upload their own images, and ideally without having to resize them (i.e. system es to a default size).
  • Automatic Translation Built in translation that either automates translation in set languages, or queues posts for manual translation.
    • Allows user to choose which language they view posts in.
    • Automated translation tools are still very rudimentary. Manual translation is a lot of work for active discussions.
  • Reading information: Includes information about reading with the post
    • Some systems show the number of times a post has been read. This information gives a reader some sense of the "popularity" of, or interest in a post. Theoretically people will slow down and read posts that get a lot of "reads." It is a useful feature for communities that you seldom visit.
    • Some system can display a list of the people who have read a post. This helps understand the effect of the message on the community by comparing who has read it and who has responded.

4. Navigation features

These features make it easier to find your way within and across discussions. They are useful when conversations become long and the space of conversations complex.

  • Shows new messages Usually a flag on unread messages. The flag is removed when a person has seen the message.
    • Important that the "new" indicators reflect individual reading, not merely recent entries, especially when people do not visit the space regularly or when discussion become long.
    • Some "new" flags disappear as soon as a message has been fully displayed (and therefore assumed read). In other systems the "new" indicators disappear at the end of a session, when the person logs out. We have found the latter less effective.
  • Mark a message: Ability to add a notation to a post to enable user to come back and find that post later.
    • Useful to "mark" key posts for later use or for summarization tasks.
      • Mark as unread: ability to force a message to remain marked as "unread"
      • Bookmark a message: put a mark on a message
      • Message center: send a post to a special location where bookmarks are collected
    • In some system, users can categorize their marked posts and view them on a separate page.
  • Folders: for grouping discussions and related objects, including subfolders
    • Folders can be used to group related things under topics or for subgroups.
    • When a conversation space becomes complex, it is essential to be able to create folders and subfolders to group discussions under categories. Otherwise, navigation is too difficult.
    • When there are many levels of depth in the organization of folders, it is useful to have an index that allows a person to see the whole map of discussions with indication of where activity is happening (see Index below).
  • Index: A specialized type of site map that shows all the discussions in the space
    • When there are multiple levels of depth of folders, one can only see one level at a time in normal mode. An index shows all levels at once.
    • Good to include information about activity and new material with each discussion
    • Some people love an index because it shows the whole space at a glance to organize one’s visit; some people hate it because it can get quite big.
  • Horizontal navigation: embed navigation in the nav bar.
    • Moving up and down levels can be frustrating; it is convenient to be able to jump to another conversation directly
    • Can require a lot of maintenance if the space is very dynamic

5. E-mail integration features

Some people live in e-mail and would never participate in a conversation if they had to take the step of going to the web space. Therefore e-mail integration can be an essential feature. This is also useful for limited bandwidth and travel situations.

  • E-mail reading of messages: Users receive messages posted on web forum by e-mail. Can be full text, just headlines w/ links, single post or digest.
    • It is a good idea to offer choice (each message, or scheduled digests) as people have different needs.
    • It is also useful to allow users to choose whether reading a message or digest by e-mail removes or leaves the "new" flag..
  • E-mail posting of messages Users are able to respond to email-delivered messages and the response is placed in the appropriate message thread on the web forum. Some systems allow response to specific posts within digests. Most only enable email participation in individual posts.
    • Email posting sometimes has the downside of "garbage" left in a posting when user hits "reply" in their own email system and their system includes the original in the reply. To avoid this, some system include a special reply button that opens a “clean” e-mail.
    • Sometimes users reply out of context when responding to individual emails because they focus on the last message rather than the whole discussion.
    • This is hugely useful for those who need to reply offline and upload responses at one time because of traveling or limited bandwidth.

6. Administrative features

  • User preferences set default fonts, formatting baselines, notification options and personal profiles.
    • One page where all one's preferences can be set is convenient.
  • Move messages/discussions Participants and/or hosts can move messages to another discussion or (even better) to a specific place within a discussion (i.e., as a response to a specific post).
    • This is more important than it may seem. Participants are not always sure where to post something, especially in early stages. They may post something in the wrong discussion, or at the end of a discussion when they meant to respond to a specific post (in threaded mode).
    • Moderators also need this ability to move things to their proper place.
  • Ability to allow/disallow posting in a message topic: Ability to set a discussion topic so that members can read, but not post to the topic.
    • Typically used to stop a discussion or to create a discussion that is for announcements from the moderator, rather than for discussion.
  • Change a posting's author or other characteristics Ability to edit a posting's authorship.
    • Sometimes a designated moderator needs to post something on behalf of someone else and then mark the posting as if it were written by that person.
  • Mark FAQ's : send a question and associated replies to a list of frequently asked question
    • Useful if the community wants to accumulate FAQ's across conversations.

Related material

With other tools

  • A discussion board is a good foundation tool, serving as a launch pad or home base for many other tools that might be useful to a community.