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  • Managing Work and Workloads on Remote Teams with Discourse

    We’ve done things a little differently here at Discourse since we started in 2013. Instead of being co-located in one place, we’re a globally distributed team. For the most part, we’ve removed time zones from the collaboration equation by working asynchronously. This means we communicate primarily through writing via… you guessed it: Discourse. We rarely ever have meetings, save for a weekly team call, because we’ve found writing to be the simplest way to collaborate across time zones.

    Managers in our company are also highly workload conscious. If an employee is struggling to keep up with the work on their plate, we bring in extra resources to help carry the load. We truly aim to be a people-first company in this regard.

    Over the years, we’ve learned a few things about how to best work together. Today, we wanted to take a moment to share with you our simple tactics to use Discourse effectively to manage work and workloads on a distributed team.

    In summary, they are:

    Ready? Let’s go!

    Create a Todo Category

    A straightforward way to start tracking work in Discourse is creating a todo category. Inside, you’ll create topics for each todo item to be completed by you or your team. In the first post, the creator can outline the scope and desired outcome of the todo, as any good project has at least these items outlined. From there, a teammate can start working on the todo, or the team can discuss further specifics about the task at hand. This is one of the benefits of using Discourse for work: instead of having fractured bits of conversation and work in multiple places, Discourse becomes the sole place where conversations about work turn into actions.

    todo category

    Many times on the Discourse team, we’ll start a todo for a new feature. If that feature is adding elements to the user interface, our designers will jump in with ideas on how the experience should look and feel – oftentimes while an engineer is already writing code. It’s this kind of midstream, open collaboration which allows our team to move as quickly as it does. Plus, it keeps everyone interested in the loop without any extra effort.

    When a todo is completed, the teammate working on it closes the topic for it and moves on to the next item on the list.

    📣 Pro-tip: you can filter topics by either closed or open status right on the topic list using the https://example.com/latest?status=closed or ?status=open parameter on the page URL. See all closed topics on Meta as an example!

    Use Checklists and Templates

    Checklists are essential to ensure processes are completed in a specific way each time. Atul Gawande highlights just how important this can be in his book The Checklist Manifesto. While Gawande is a medical doctor and many of his examples apply to hospitals, having checklists for your business critical processes (e.g. onboardings, reporting, etc.) helps them get done the right way each time.

    Discourse has a checklist plugin available to make creating these lists super easy. When drafting a post, add [] to the beginning of a new line – that’s it! When the post is saved, it will show a clickable checkbox right in the context of the conversation. Stack up multiple checkboxes, add in headings, and you have a usable checklist for anyone to see.

    rendered checklist

    It’s one thing to create a great checklist, but it’s another to make it reusable. That’s where the Reply Template component comes in. With this component installed, simply add your checklist inside the predefined wrap block as below.

    
    [wrap=template key="template-name"]
    
    My recurring checklist
    
    - [ ] task 1
    
    - [ ] task 2
    
    [/wrap]
    
    

    When the post is saved, you’ll then see a button to click which will automatically generate a new reply or topic with the contents of the template prepopulated. When edits are made to the checklist, they’re done to the template post. From there, each new checklist will reflect the edits made.

    Track Items with Bookmarks

    Sometimes a fellow team member shares an interesting idea or proposes something to look into. One way to approach this is to track these items in some external tool, such as a note or on a task list. Instead, Discourse makes this easy right in the app with bookmarks.

    bookmarks

    To use a bookmark, all you do is click the ribbon icon at the bottom of a post. From there, a modal pops up where you can simply save the bookmark or add a timed reminder. Timed reminders send a notification to you when it’s reached the time you’ve previously set. Click on the notification and you’ll be taken straight to the bookmarked post.

    Bookmarks can be used to make a list of interesting or helpful posts to refer back to, create your task list of posts to review and reply to, or remind yourself of things to do or think about at a later point in time. You can find a full list of bookmarks under the Bookmarks tab on the user menu.

    Own Work with Assigns

    If you’re working on a team with more than one person handling tasks, it’s helpful to know who is working on what. This is where the Assign plugin comes in handy. Assign allows the ability for staff (admins or moderators) to take or assign ownership of a specific topic. Assigning a topic to yourself says to the team, “Don’t worry about it. I’m handling this one!”

    There are two ways to assign a topic using this plugin:

    • To an Individual
    • To a Group

    Individual assignment is pretty straightforward – pick the individual from the list, and assign. Group assignments are where this becomes powerful.

    assign topic modal

    At Discourse, every employee is part of a group to define what team they’re a part of. One way we’ve used this in the past is to mention that group (i.e. @tech-advocates) to notify that team of a new todo needing to be completed by one of them. Mention notifications can get lost if there are too many of them. Instead, we now have the ability to assign a topic to a group. The group assignment notifies the group’s members in a prominent way, and from there one of the team members can assign the topic to themselves and start the work.

    When the work is done and the topic is closed, the assignment is automatically removed and cleared from the teammate’s list. Easy!

    Revisit Ideas with Topic Timers

    There are times a discussion around a particular todo stalls, such as when defining the best path to complete it is unclear. Alternatively, maybe the idea is a good one, but it’s not time to pursue it right now. When items need to be revisited at a later date, you need a good way to bring it front-and-center at the right time.

    topic timer

    Topics in Discourse can have special timers set to execute actions when the timer goes off. One of those actions is to automatically bump the topic. Bumping is an old forum term for posting in a topic solely to bring it back to the top of the list. Staff on Discourse instances can set an auto-bump timer on topics. If you want to revisit a todo in three weeks, you can set an auto-bump timer for that long, and when the timer goes off, the system will bump the topic to the top of the list. This is helpful for one-off instances where you want to return to an idea.

    What if you don’t want any open items in your todo category to slip through the cracks? That’s where auto-bump on topics in a category comes in. When you have a large number of todos, say 50 or more, you can set the Number of open topics to automatically bump daily setting in your todo category’s settings to a value greater than zero. Every day, the system will automatically bump one unclosed topic in that category to the top of the list. If the team is ready to engage with it, the conversation will resume.

    Get a Bird’s Eye View to Manage Workload

    group assignments

    Overworking for an extended period of time can lead employees to burnout. Part of the job of a manager is to make sure the employees they are leading have a healthy workload, and if something’s out of balance, to help distribute the work more evenly.

    The previously mentioned Assign plugin has a feature to assist in accomplishing this end. On the page of a group, there is an Assigned pane. In this view, each member of the group is listed and shown with the number of their assigned topics. A team leader can use this view to see what employees are carrying a higher workload (to avoid directly assigning more work to them), what kinds of work they’re doing, and if there are teammates who may be able to help carry the load more evenly.

    Work Together More Effectively

    With a few of these approaches in mind, Discourse can help your team work together more effectively. We’ve also written up an article on how the Discourse team uses Discourse you might find interesting. Or, if you’re interested in having a Discourse instance configured specifically for teamwork, check out a 30 day, 100% free trial of Discourse for Teams.

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  • Five Essential Features of an Online Community Platform

    Choosing the right community platform can be difficult. With the variety of feature sets available, it can be difficult to know what’s most important for your community. In this post, we’re going to take a look at what we think are the five most important features to consider when looking for an online platform or starting a new community.

    To summarize, they are:

    Let’s dive in!

    Signup

    Ever been through a signup process that involved giving more information than you wanted (credit card info, birthday, location, you name it), multiple trips to your email inbox, and extreme amounts of frustration? A complicated signup process is no fun for anyone and can drastically decrease the number of users signing up. For a community, you want your users to be able to read, sign up, and start posting with as few steps as possible.

    Discourse Signup Dialog

    A great signup flow might look like this:

    1. Click Sign Up
    2. Enter your info (email, username, password)
    3. Confirm your account via email
    4. You’re done!

    The fewer the steps, the easier it is for new members to contribute to the conversation and keep your community growing.

    There is a caveat to this though: the easier you make joining the community, the more vulnerable it is to spammers. Many platforms use CAPTCHAs and email confirmation to try to ward off bot spammers with decent success. In recent years, however, there has been an uptick in the number of human spammers, meaning the tools meant to stop bots (but allow humans) are no longer effective.

    Discourse takes a different approach with a built-in trust level system. These trust levels restrict access to features spammers love (posting links, images) for all new users until they’ve built up trust by interacting with the community in healthy ways while enabling the signup process to stay simple and low friction.

    The beauty of an online community is the ability to jump into conversations at any point and see the history of what’s already been discussed. When a conversation has taken place recently, it’s relatively low effort to chime in with your own thoughts. But what if the discussion happened months – or even years – ago? This is where search comes in.

    Search enables community members to:

    • find relevant discussions and answers
    • located anywhere in your community
    • from any time they were created.

    On meta.discourse.org, we have discussions ranging from early 2013 to now, and anyone can add their voice to these topics. However, without powerful search, it would be nearly impossible to find these older discussions to keep them updated and relevant.

    Meta search box

    A high-quality search feature has these characteristics:

    • Accessibility from anywhere in the community: Who wants to completely leave their post in progress just to find a link to a relevant topic? Search should keep you in the context of what you’re currently doing, at least to start.
    • Fast: If a search takes longer than an instant to return results, people won’t use it.
    • Accurate: There’s nothing more frustrating than putting together an exact search query and getting unexpected, inaccurate results.
    • Advanced query capabilities: Your community’s power users will appreciate the ability to narrow down results with a variety of filters to more easily find what they’re looking for.

    Moderation

    Public communities are often plagued with trolls and spam. If toxic content goes undealt with, your members are the ones who deal with the consequences. This is why high quality moderation tools are essential to any community platform.

    Moderation features allow a set of users (called, wait for it… moderators) to act on behalf of the community in order to keep the quality of discussion high. Most often, moderators can edit and delete posts seen to be violating the community’s guidelines.

    It’s one thing for an admin or moderator to be able to delete or edit posts when your community is small, but how does that scale when your forum has thousands of users? This is where moderation tools can go to the next level – community-led moderation. Instead of solely relying on staff to find, review and handle suspect posts, users can report offending content to a team of moderators who can then choose the appropriate course of action.

    Flagging posts

    Some platforms have a basic implementation of community moderation where a flagged post can either be deleted or restored. Other tools, like Discourse, have implemented a review queue, where posts flagged by the community (or by a service like Akismet) are queued and prioritized for easy discussion and action.

    Analytics

    How do you know if your community is growing or if it’s healthy? Analytics are one way to measure both of these critical aspects, at least in some regard. Nearly every website uses tools like Google Analytics to see how many visitors the site gets, what they’re doing, and where they are coming from. This is a great starting point for overall metrics, but to truly understand what’s going on in your community, you need deeper analytics designed for that purpose.

    Analytics dashboard

    Quality community analytics can show if your group is growing or shrinking, what people are engaging the most (so you can nurture your relationships with them), and what kind of stickiness your community has (so you know if users have a tendency to visit again or drop off). Discourse itself has reporting capabilities designed by community managers with decades of industry experience built right in. Right in the software you have access to the metrics you need to determine the best course of action to manage your community. Alternatively, if your community spans multiple channels, software like Orbit exists to tie interactions from all your platforms together in one place.

    Data Ownership

    Let’s be honest – stuff happens. Companies change ownership. Communities shut down only to start up again some time later. Software comes and goes. It can be terrifying to trust your data to a company that keeps it locked behind extremely high fees or makes you jump through hoops to get access. This is your community – you’ve invested the time, money, and effort into building it, why should you have to do work to get your data?

    Backups page

    In light of this reality, a critical feature of any community software is data ownership – where you own the data, meaning you can get access to it at any time, no questions asked. With Discourse, you can grab a full backup of your community whenever you want. Not only that, but you’re free to move your Discourse site wherever you like, whether that’s on to a self-hosted instance or hosted with us.

    This kind of flexibility and ownership is essential for community managers. If your current platform or community effort doesn’t work out, you want the ability to move somewhere that has the features you need.

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  • Skittish: A Playful, Audio-First Space for Virtual Events and Gatherings - Cool Community Tech

    Sometimes community technology is so freaking cool, you can’t help but share it! This time around, we’re chatting with Andy Baio, creator of Skittish, a playful, audio-first virtual space for hosting events and gatherings online. Let’s get into the conversation and learn more!

    Tell us a little bit about who you are.

    Hi, I’m Andy Baio (@waxpancake). I’m a writer, coder, and the co-organizer/curator of XOXO, an experimental festival in Portland, Oregon about artists and creators who live and work on the internet, currently on hiatus due to the pandemic.

    Andy Baio

    For the last two decades, I’ve written about internet culture and creative technology on my site, Waxy.org. I also built and rebuilt the Upcoming.org event calendar, helped get Kickstarter off the ground as a long-time advisor to the company and its first CTO, and made a bunch of other weird stuff like Belong.io, Playfic, and Supercut.org.

    What drew you to invest in the events/community space?

    Since the BBS era, I’ve been drawn to the ways technology can bring people together, online and off. I originally built Upcoming to help connect people at events, and after my involvement with Kickstarter, co-founded XOXO to bring together creators using the internet to make a living and put them all in one room to talk about the uniquely hard things that come out of it.

    But then the pandemic canceled our festival (twice!) and I started playing around with virtual event platforms, realizing that there wasn’t anything out there that felt quite right to me, so I started building Skittish.

    For those who don’t know, what is Skittish?

    Skittish Logo

    Skittish is a playful space for online events, letting you explore a colorful and easily customizable world as a cute animal avatar, using spatial audio from your microphone to talk to others near you. It’s all browser-based, built in a 3D engine with a simple but powerful collaborative editor.

    Techcrunch described it recently as “what you’d get if you crossed Animal Crossing with Clubhouse,” which is as good a description as any.

    As a conference leader, how has the pandemic changed community and events from your perspective?

    Well, it pretty much destroyed the in-person events industry, at least for now. Here in Oregon, we’re facing the biggest surge of the pandemic so far, so it’s not clear when it will be safe to run large gatherings like XOXO again.

    I think, by necessity, it opened a lot of people up to the benefits of virtual events — convenient, accessible, affordable — but also the huge drawbacks. Whether it’s a Zoom-style wall of faces or a glorified webinar, the interaction between attendees is so awkward or lackluster, if it exists at all.

    What gap does Skittish fill in the online community/gathering space?

    Skittish Party

    I’ve tried to focus on building a space that lets people interact with each other in a way that’s much more playful and natural: talking to the people near you as you explore the world, watch talks, or listen to others. You’re never on camera and can use the 3D positional audio to hear a mesh of conversation around you as you explore, deciding when and how to engage.

    Many of the design decisions — no camera, spatial audio, animal avatars, the visual look of the space — were designed to get people comfortable interacting with others. From the moment you join, it’s clear this isn’t a meeting or conference call.

    We also built Skittish in a 3D engine, which allows for a level of customization and immersion that’s hard to recreate from a 2D environment alone.

    That said, there’s a lot of amazing experimentation in this space right now with tons of interesting and inspiring projects. We’re far from alone here in recognizing the need for innovative social event spaces.

    What kinds of gatherings did you design Skittish for? What uses do you hope to see in the future?

    I’ve tried to keep an open mind about that! I initially designed it for events like XOXO: large-scale social gatherings with multiple tracks of programming across multiple rooms, and ample space for people to interact with each other and make new friends.

    Skittish Private Rooms

    I also hoped that artists and creators use it to bring their communities together, whether it’s authors doing a book reading, podcasters doing a live episode, musicians doing a concert livestream or listening party, or YouTubers debuting new work with their supporters.

    But I’ve found that there’s interest far beyond that, particularly from educators who want to use it for schools and companies like Discourse who want to use it for their own internal meetups. It’s also worked very well for more casual unstructured meetups without programming. I know I’m biased, but it’s just pretty fun to hang out in.

    What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen done in Skittish so far?

    A creative coding event I love called !!Con (pronounced “Bang Bang Con”) used Skittish for its viewing parties and social space during its virtual conference, building out a theater that doubled as a dance hall at night, holding impromptu animal races during the day, and hiding all sorts of delightful things around the world for people to find.

    Bang Bang Con Main Room

    And literally as I write this, it’s being used for a game design camp for 10-13 year olds, where they meet in Skittish and use its world editor to craft simple social games. It’s chaotic and adorable.

    What does the future hold for Skittish?

    Our next big milestone is opening publicly. We’ve been running events of all kinds for the last few months, making improvements and adding features as we go, and have slowly been rolling out invites to people on our waitlist.

    Skittish Livestream

    Beyond that, I’m excited to start incorporating more tools and interactive objects to let event organizers and attendees design game-like experiences in Skittish. I’m a big fan of immersive theater, escape rooms, adventure games, and social gaming, and it feels like there’s enormous potential to extend what we’ve built so far for deeper social experiences.

    The inspiration for Skittish came out of the pandemic, but these days, I’m much more excited to see how it can be used for experiences that could never be done in the real world than trying to replicate real-world events.

    Where can people find out more if they’re interested?

    We’re currently rolling out invites, so you can sign up for the notification list on our homepage to get notified. We’re posting periodic major updates to our blog, and you can follow us on Twitter at @SkittishHQ. Thanks for checking it out!

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