During April, we trialled using Vanilla on a community site, instead of what we had been using, the XOOPS forum module. I’d like to move the entire site over from XOOPS to Drupal which I prefer. That aside, it’s been interesting to see what users thought of Vanilla during that month.
First, some background. I’ve had my eye on Vanilla for some time now because it approaches the idea of a forum from a completely different angle. Forget how “normal” forums are done – Vanilla strips it back to what’s important: the conversations. Not the smileys, the bandwidth-hogging signatures, the mailbox, the forum categories. It pushes discussions to the forefront and uses subtle AJAX to make the experience of communicating with others fast and simple.
Vanilla is edging closer to version 1.0 thanks to creator Mark’s hard and tireless work. More and more people are contributing add-ons as version 1.0 will stay true to its name and won’t come with any special features by default, unlike earlier versions.
While we were interested in feedback from people on what they found easy/hard about using Vanilla and its features, we noticed that most people found it difficult to distinguish what was and wasn’t a part of the forum system and how difficult they found it to separate out feedback on the design vs functionality. Some immediately said the new forum was hard to use and confusing. Once a few weeks went by, users who initially complained about the confusing nature of the forum grew to love it and said they wouldn’t dream of going back.
Complaints seemed to revolve around one of the following areas:
- I miss smileys! There was much debate over whether smileys were needed (as they can be overused/abused) and in the end, the majority decided against adding the smiley add-on to Vanilla. People liked keeping it simple.
- I miss my inbox! Vanilla doesn’t have private messaging inboxes, unlike most other forum software. It does however have “whispers”. You can whisper a comment to another user within a discussion topic if it’s off-topic (it shows up with a different background color) or you can start a new discussion topic and whisper it to someone. What’s the advantage? Context. You can have an entire conversation with someone, not dissimilar to Gmail, where you can see all the old messages at a glance. People can go off on a tangent without ruining the conversation for everyone else as the whispers are hidden from others view.
- It’s hard to add a photo, make something bold etc. This seems to have been a problem no matter the forum I’ve been involved with. Inline WYSIWYG editors are often slow-loading, cause cross-browser problems and encourage over-the-top formatting of comments. Most users still struggle with HTML tags (especially links and images). Markdown is being used currently, but it’s been frustrating for some users to get their head around how to use markdown formatting. They’re used to highlighting and pressing buttons. I’m hoping that a nice add-on for Vanilla will soon make this a problem of the past.
- It looks boring. It looks too plain, not enough color Vanilla is pretty plain when you install it (see the Vanilla community forum for a default example) and while I’m a big advocate of simplicity, I found that by just adding in some more subtle coloring to the forum style, users perceptions of the forum were heavily influenced.
What they liked:
- Whispering – once they understood how it worked, they loved it.
- Bookmarking – an easy way to track forum topics you’re interested in – without getting a tonne of email notifications.
- AJAX – Ok, so none of them mentioned AJAX (I don’t expect any of them would have heard of it) but they said things like “the way the page doesn’t refresh all the time” or “it’s faster” were common comments.
- Blocking – you can hide categories you’re not interested in following, hide users (if you think their comments are pointless/spammy), block images, block all styling (no bold, italics etc).
- Clean look
It’s been an interesting experience switching forum software and I’m looking forward to upgrading to 1.0 shortly and solving some of the complaints!