I’ve been trying to get a discussion board running for three days now, without much success. Installing server software is just much harder than installing Windows software. There are always multiple complicated steps that involve permissions, accounts, database servers, dependencies (do you have the absolute latest version of perl?), superuser, and web servers. If you’re using free software, nobody wants to volunteer to make a decent setup program (or even documentation, half the time), so you’re generally on your own there. And when you’re using commercial software, the vendor would usually like to sell you a three-week integration consulting project so they can make another $50,000 copying some files and editing some configuration files. (We have a double-click SETUP program for FogBUGZ that works pretty well, but there are still people with funny configurations where it doesn’t set all the permissions correctly.)
I’m also a bit particular about what discussion software we use. The purpose of the board will be a place for CityDesk beta testers (and later, users) to ask questions, provide feedback, and share ideas. In designing a UI for anything, the very first question you always want to ask is: who is the user? Specifically: are most users casual, occasional users, or are these users who will be spending all of their time using your program? For casual users, learnability and simplicity are more important than usability and power. In that sentence, by “learnability,” I mean, the ability for novices to figure out how to get tasks done rapidly. By “usability,” I mean only the ability to do tasks in a convenient and ergonomic way without making mistakes and without needing to do repetitive tasks. A data entry system that minimizes keystrokes by prefilling things and automatically jumping from field to field is more usable for experienced users, but it’s harder to learn because it behaves unexpectedly to a novice.
Most people using the Fog Creek bulletin board will be going there to ask a question or raise an issue. Certainly in the early days, learnability and simplicity are our priority. When I looked a bunch of discussion boards, I found that most of them have their heritage in the BBS world, where the same people log on to chat for 4 hours every night. Those people love features like a geegaw that lets you put a graphical smiley in your posting, and the ability to upload snapshots of their ugly mugs to appear next to their postings, and the ability to click a button and never see postings by the blithering idiot who wrote this one again. All of these features are neat for power users but they just clutter up the interface for novices.
(Longtime Juno email users may have noticed that as time went on, the big Read and Write tabs got smaller and smaller. In the early days, where almost every Juno user was a new Juno user, it was nice to have big giant buttons for reading and writing email, the most common task. As time went on, a larger proportion of our users were experienced users, who know how to “read” and “write” and would rather have more screen real estate available for other features. It’s not uncommon for a program to start out simple and evolve to be more complicated, and you can do this without hurting “average” usability because your users are getting more experienced on average.)
I spent Wednesday and Friday playing around, installing various buggy BBS systems, some of which required a Linux server, others Windows 2000, playing with DNS to move discuss.fogcreek.com hither and yon, figuring out why DNS caches weren’t flushing, installing and reinstalling database servers, and generally getting frustrated. One of the most popular packages, Discus, actually hardcoded its own URL in so many places that it needed to be reinstalled from scratch just to change the URL. (In fact, it wasn’t enough to reinstall it… you had to redownload it. The download package already had your personal URL hardcoded throughout.) And it had a perfectly terrible UI in which there was a little treeview showing folders (so far so good)… but each folder was actually a command, not a container. A broken metaphor, worse than no metaphor at all. That had to go. Then I tried IdealBB, a decidely beta package. I wouldn’t ordinarily run software that is advertised as beta, but this thing seemed to have been through many releases and it was alleged to be very close to shipping. Michael and I actually had to roll up our sleeves and debug the thing ourselves to get it sort of running, but then there were too many ASP errors and it had a tendency to crash the server. (Too bad, because it is one of the finest looking discussion boards, visually). Finally I flirted with Manila, since we have it running anyway for our weblogs, and we’ve already written a little daemon which watches Manila and restarts it when it crashes (about once every two days). But (as far as we could tell) Manila requires membership to post a message, and in my experience that is enough to turn away 90% of the casual visitors who might otherwise use the discussion board. It would be great for small elite communities of people who all post all the time, but I don’t want anything to get in the way of a beta tester casually reporting a bug.
The system I like best, believe it or not, is Lusenet, by Philip Greenspun, because it’s just super simple. That’s what I’ve been using for the Joel on Software discussion group. There are a couple of reasons we couldn’t use that. One, it is really not ready for prime time. There are actually things you can do in Lusenet that still show you the Oracle statement they just executed, as if Philip left in some debug printfs. Second, it’s not hosted on our own servers and we run the risk of it going away, taking our valuable data with it. Third, to host it on our own servers requires AOLServer and Oracle, and we don’t have the former, and can’t afford the latter.
When I got home, grumpy from all the time I had wasted, I realized that the software I want consists of exactly one table, and I could write the thing myself in less time than in took me to install some of these packages. Which I did. Two hours of work (ASP, Microsoft Access, and VBScript) and I had banged out a system that did pretty much everything I wanted (which is not much!) Check it out at http://discuss.fogcreek.com/joelonsoftware. (If you have trouble reaching it that’s because of all my DNS messing around. You’ll have to wait a couple of days for caches to flush.)
There’s a lesson in here somewhere, but I’m already well past 1000 words. In the past I wouldn’t have cared about word counts because I didn’t know what they were, but now I’m using CityDesk which keeps a running word count in the corner of the screen. So we’ll talk about the lesson tomorrow!