Discourse as an ideation platform

Erlend Sogge Heggen October 3, 2018

People sometimes ask how Discourse compares to the likes of UserVoice and other ideation platforms, where ideas get voted on and the best ideas rise to the top.

Discourse Voting -- topic list

One thing many companies find appealing with these platforms is that a vote-powered ranking of prospective features somehow relieves them of certain product management responsibilities because the customers are now taking on some of that responsibility. We believe this is solving the wrong problem.

The highest ranked idea should by no means be equated to the most needed feature, nor the most wanted. Just because 1000 customers think your car factory should start producing chocolate does not make them right nor does it make chocolate less awesome. Regardless, Discourse works fine, as-is, capturing this basic data point — people love their chocolate!

chocolate sports car

In YC’s Essentials Startup Guide, the fundamental advice to “talk to your users/customers” is mentioned a total of 7 — that’s right, seven — times.

Discourse embodies this mantra and lowers the the barrier to entry for any kind of discussion with your customers — and your team, too. Asking people what they want might provide some useful clues, but you’ll be spending a lot of time playing a game of deduction. You’ll get far richer feedback by having your users talk amongst themselves, and with your team, about a wide assortment of topics, guided by some select categories of discussion such as features, troubleshooting, UX improvements, bugs and so forth. Discourse makes it convenient for your product managers and stakeholders to work collaboratively alongside your users in a manner more resembling a bustling town square rather than a sterile research lab.

town square

The majority of public Discourse forums deal in some kind of open product development. While we do support up-voting functionality similar to UserVoice with our Voting plugin, most communities don’t need it.

Discourse Voting -- topic detail

Any product community that solicits feedback from users will commonly practice some form of complaint-driven development.

Discourse takes a holistic approach to ideation. In the Discourse model you don’t just put a spotlight on the “most wanted”, you discuss anything — exchange tips on stuff you already like, suggest things that could work slightly better, or are hard to understand or maybe even straight up broken. And unlike vote-focused idea blurbs with drive-by comments, Discourse’s sustained discussions and minimum word counts enable users and your team to collaborate on a crudely formed idea until they’re left with the outline of a reasonable, if informal, specification.

You’ll see this pattern repeating itself in many of our feature discussions here on Meta.

Other notable communities excelling at open product development include:

Eve Tech

A device shop whose main selling point is that their products are designed by their community. They employ Voting to a small extent, but the bigger story is that their entire forum is one giant roadmap discussion.

Soylent and Huel

Two similar product lines with a similar product strategy: Let users talk about any experience, good and bad, and embrace the bad (not every body takes in a liquid meal with ease) with honest discussion. Show me a focus group that would provide these companies with anywhere near the same amount of data and I’ll eat my hat!

EVE Online

It’s hard to pick among game forums as game makers are one of our biggest customer segments and they’ve been at the forefront of community-informed design for decades. Games lend themselves incredibly well to discussion about their rules, characters, aesthetic, balance, story, etcetera. A very common way of soliciting feedback from game testers is to silently watch the tester play your game and take notes. Afterwards you have a discussion about the play experience. An open forum is like that second part but scaled up 1000x.

Faster Horses or Battery Powered Scooters

You’ve probably heard this quote before:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

~ Henry Ford
(according to legend, and that’s good enough)

This anecdote neatly encapsulates Discourse’s approach to open product development. You don’t arrive at a better design by pitting hundreds of features against each other in a vote-war. All of those features are parts of a greater whole. There’s only so much to be gained by having people shout their ideas at you. What you really want is meticulous collaborative discussions with a beginning, a middle and an end. You’re not always gonna get a happy ending, but if the story is good enough someone else will eventually tell it again — this time with a twist.


Discourse 2.1 released!

Jeff Atwood September 10, 2018

Today we release Discourse 2.1, building on Discourse 2.0 from May.

We’ve chosen a new set of codenames for releases starting with 2.1 that are based on the history of human communication. This release is Bhimbetka, and the next two will be La Pasiega and Vinca.

Access to Drafts

Once you’ve written a bit of text in a post, Discourse begins to periodically save automatic drafts as you continue to type. That way you never lose anything you’ve written if the power suddenly goes out, or you get dodgy WiFi in the middle of writing a long reply. But it was an automatic and sort of hidden feature — though a magical lifesaver when you needed it! We’ve finally added a drafts tab on your profile to see all your in progress reply drafts, satisfying a very long running power user request.

Linked account control

You can now easily see, add, and revoke any available social logins directly from your account page. This is a combination convenience and security feature. Bear in mind that you can always log in as “you” with any social login, provided the site owner has configured it, and those credentials map to the same exact verified email address.

Automatic Trust Level Promotion PM

Communities need a regular influx of new users not just for fresh perspectives but also for long term sustainability. Users that sign up and stick around to read deserve a bit of extra encouragement! So we’ve added a friendly little automatic PM just-in-time nudge that goes out to those new users who’ve already started down the path toward becoming engaged community members.

Discourse Automatic Trust Level Promotion PM

Printed Backup Two Factor Authentication Codes

We added two factor authentication in Discourse 2.0, but if you lost your phone you were in a bit of a pickle as you’d need to contact an admin to turn off 2FA for your account. In this release we’ve added the ability to print backup codes, so you can smoothly recover from any 2FA issues all on your own — provided you saved those backup codes, of course!

Discourse Two Factor Auth Backup Codes

Improved PM Participants UI

We’ve cleaned up the PM interface to more clearly show which people are on the PM, and how to add or remove PM participants. Remember, you can always remove yourself from any PM you don’t wish to be on, of course!

Discourse PM participants UI

Reply Without Bumping and Category Auto-Bumping

One request that historically came up a lot is the ability to post to a topic without bumping it — that is, add a new reply that does not cause the topic to show up in the list of topics that have recent replies, as it normally would. Now you can! Just select the “toggle topic bump” option when replying.

Discourse reply without bumping the topic

Speaking of bumps, we added a category preference to automatically bump a certain number of open topics every so often in a category. This is great for to-do or support style categories, where open topics mean something isn’t yet handled, and needs a bit more attention.

Multiple color schemes

We’ve offered the default “dark” and “light” themes for quite some time. In conjunction with our color scheme contest, we’ve added a variety of different color schemes to choose from. Launch the setup wizard any time and pick from 6 delightful new color schemes, in addition to our classic dark and light options.

And More!

These are just the highlights of 2.1 — we didn’t even mention Emoji 11 support, auto-expiring API keys for enhanced security, a big increase in performance for rare megatopics, or a significant reduction in the size of a key email log table. See the full release notes for complete details.

Easy One Click Upgrade

If you are on our hosting, you’re already upgraded. Otherwise, upgrading is as easy as clicking the Update button linked from your Discourse dashboard.

Discourse Admin Dashboard, version upgrade notice

We have a public exploit bounty program at Hacker One as a part of our security policy. We strive mightily to be secure by default, and we rapidly follow up on any security concerns. There are several important security fixes in 2.1, so we urge everyone to upgrade to it as soon as possible.

If you don’t have a Discourse to upgrade, why not? Install it yourself in under 30 minutes, or get a free 14 day hosting trial!

Thank You

As always, we must first thank our customers for their direct financial support, without which there would be no Discourse project at all.

Open source projects are only truly alive when they receive regular outside code contributions. Thanks for the pull request contributions in this release from:

David Lee
Nick Shearer

We had a remarkable number of translators who contributed their time and effort translating Discourse into dozens of languages for this release. It’s because of you that so many people around the world can benefit from great free, open source discussion software, and we appreciate your hard work.

Thanks to the greater Discourse community for posting support / bug request / feedback topics on meta.discourse — your feedback makes Discourse better, not only for your community, but all of us together.

Check out the releases category to see what’s coming up on our roadmap for Discourse 2.2, 2.3, and beyond!


Launching a Successful Discourse Community

Jeff Atwood August 6, 2018

While we’ve offered general tips for building a Discourse community, we also get a lot of questions about what specifically you can do to help launch a successful Discourse community.

What is the “elevator pitch” for your community?

The very first thing people will ask — what is this place? How would you describe your community to someone you just met in a 60 second elevator ride? Make sure that’s visible on your home page, as a banner or pinned topic.

Build some interesting discussions to launch with

group of people working

  • What comes up often in your internal emails? Are there common themes that tend to come up again and again with your fans, customers, users, patrons, teammates, coworkers, subscribers? Try moving those discussions out of private email silos into your public (or private) discussion area.

  • If you find an interesting article on the web you want to discuss, quickly start a new topic by pasting a link into the topic title. Try it!

  • Have some open-ended getting to know you topics for people to share their opinions, experiences, stories, or pictures. An “introduce yourself” topic is always fun, and you should go first!

  • Where have you seen interesting, thoughtful discussions recently? Can you bring the spirit of those discussions to your site? Imagine what a model user you would love to see on your site would do – and then try doing that yourself. Invite friends or coworkers to post example topics and reply to them so visitors can browse the existing conversations to discover what your community is about.

Get the right people in the room

social media notifications

  • Send personal invitations to your staff, power users, or friends, to log in early and reply to your initial topics to generate activity. Send one-click email invites via your Discourse invite page (it’s on your user profile page). You can also send bulk invites to many email addresses at once.

  • Generously like any and every post you enjoy! What type of content gets liked is a major part of your community’s culture. Set an example by frequently liking posts in the early days of your forum. Seeing liked posts also encourages people to reciprocate in kind, and come back for more.

  • Actively seek the help of power users and early adopters in your community. There’s a built in feedback category titled “site feedback” for discussing organization and governance. Let your most avid users have a say in what your community does, how the site works, and what your community becomes.

How do people find your community?

navigation diagram and arrows

  • Where can you place links to your community so that people (and web search engines) will naturally discover it? In the header or footer of your website? Where else?

  • Promote your community. Add a note to your mailing lists or email newsletters, put up a notice on your website, or make a blog entry about your new community. Consider running a contest of some kind.

  • What rewards, perks, contests, or incentives can you give people for signing up, for posting, for replying? Check your user directory at /users to see engagement statistics, and shower your best users with attention to encourage them.

For additional advice, see our blog post on how to build engaging Discourse communities.

Good luck! And don’t forget the most important ingredient of all — time. Building a community takes patience and persistence. Plan to stick around for weeks, months, even years!


For more blog posts, visit the archives