How do you take your Forum – Flat or Threaded?

Picture of By Sean Richards
By Sean Richards
How do you take your Forum – Flat or Threaded?

We’ve been having a coversation with one of our schools about the forum component in Schoolbox. They wanted us to make forums threaded rather than flat.

This is certainly a topical discussion and I took this conversation to our team and technical lead James Leckie to discuss further.

There are two clear sides to this debate. Those for and against threaded forums. Originally Schoolbox had threaded forums however we decided along the way to remove them due to the numerous issues teachers experienced using them practically in the classroom.

Most modern forums (used by kids and students), for example The Battle dot net are now based on the flat model. Where a thread is opened and then the conversation builds top-down as a single thread. You can still quote and reply to specifiy text from a previous post etc, you may highlight the forum manager’s posts, but in essence it’s the flat model. The benefits to this are that you always know where the most recent post is, at the bottom of the thread.

Whilst threaded forums look good on the surface due to having more functionality, in practice these are far less user friendly in operation. The notion of threaded posts means that it becomes impossible to locate the most recent post as it’s 10 levels deep on page 2 of 5.  They are convoluted in their very nature.

A famous software developer named Joel Spolsky said that “Branched discussions are disjointed to follow and distracting. Branching makes discussions get off track, and reading a thread that is branched is discombobulating and unnatural. Better to force people to start a new topic if they want to get off topic”.

Two of the oldest and most popular discussion boards on the web, phpBB and vBulletin, avoid threaded views. The phpBB developers won’t add threading. vBulletin offers threaded views, but they are off by default and areoften disabled completely by administrators.

In comparing flat vs threaded forums, I’m keen to know if you think threaded forums would be better or if flat forums are the best way of housing a discussion forum?

Considering the following points, we’re intested in your opinion on how we could improve a flat forum to make them even more user friendly?

Do we need:

  • Better controls to jump to the most recent post
  • To highlight teacher comments better
  • Imporve notifications to students of forum activity
  • Add @name functionality to improve communication

Let us know your thoughts on this topic?