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Discourse for Private Communities

Erlend Sogge Heggen January 27, 2017

There are many reasons why a community might be private: Paid memberships; a company intranet; a sensitive subject matter; beta testers; a grassroots movement building momentum before going public.

Whatever the reason, we want Discourse to function well in private contexts. We reached out to 23 private Discourse communities to learn more about their use cases, and 10 of them got back to us with some great answers.

How does your organisation use Discourse?

(…) we’re spread around the world and we’re also organized fairly traditionally into fairly independent silos. Email and chat were not helping us share knowledge and solve problems across geographical, organizational, and temporal boundaries. So we’re trying to move lots of discussions to Discourse. It’s working, and it’s helping.

~ Avi Flax, Park Assist

 

Traditionally, most of our communication has been done via mailing lists, but as our community has grown over the past few years the mailing list model has increasingly become a hurdle for us for many types of communication, for a variety of reasons. This topic on Meta gives a nice overview of why a particular sub-community inside Frostbite really prefers Discourse over mailing lists.

~ Jake Shadle, Frostbite

 

It’s a space for all coworkers to discuss, be it current methodology, philosophy, vision or strategy. We also love shared knowledge through best practices, new tools and the best ideas around. (…)

All the conversation that matters and deserves a calm space to be on lives in Discourse. Everything else, the quick and inconsequential things, go to Slack.

~ David García, GoodRebels

 

What are your favourite things about Discourse?

The top 5, ordered by how many respondents mentioned it:

  • Replies via email
    “The ability for users to participate by both web and email was probably the biggest benefit for us.”
  • Intuitive and usable interface
    “You always know where you are, no distractions, it allows you to focus on what you want. It’s very easy learn to use and fun to discover new features.”
  • Markdown support
    “Including code highlighting and inline image (and other) attachments, gives much more readable and beautiful posts compared to email defaults”
  • Customizability & configurability
  • Mobile friendly
    “Discourse responsiveness and adaptability is a best practice, it doesn’t matter what device you use for reading, even for writing, if you start a topic in one device the content saves automatically and you can continue in another! In addition, native apps are a plus due to providing push notifications.”

Also mentioned were many of the usual suspects:

  • “SSO & Google login support is great.”
  • “the multimedia and low-latency notifications that enable low-latency discussions”
  • “The assistance we got in enabling “threaded” emails was fantastic (so the support is amazing!).”
  • “gamification”
  • “[it’s] quick”
  • “Being able to assign categories & groups emails addresses has been extremely valuable.”
  • “Moving, splitting, merging topics. Overall, moderation tools are very good”
  • “Banner: we use it constantly.”
  • “Superb search, and pervasive human-readable links makes sharing Discourse content on other communication channels easy”
  • “Love text preview when creating a post”

What are some things Discourse could do better?

 

  • links and some formatting don’t carry over when you copy+paste from google docs.
  • private categories — the ability to have closed categories with a specific set of people allowed to access.
    This is already possible by limiting a category to certain Groups. Please send us an email or make a #support topic if you need further assistance with this.
  • deeper integration with slack — specifically the ability to quickly and easily migrate an existing/ongoing discussion from slack to Discourse, with history
    This is coming! You can track the plugin’s development here.
  • better on-boarding docs, help, tutorials, etc — ideally targeted to organizations’ internal communities, maybe also something specific to those trying to replace email
    We have a “Discourse vs Email & Mailing Lists” comparison that might be of interest to you. Feel free to ask for advice on how to replace email there. As for better docs in general, this is an ongoing endeavour. We recently restructured our #howto section to prepare for further doc improvements soon to come.
  • Having an area where anyone can post/mail in, but only certain groups can read/respond would be helpful.
    Sounds like what you’re looking for is Incoming Mail. Discourse lets you configure a (usually private) category or group to receive from an ordinary email address.
  • Having an area which our management group could post “announcements” to and guarantee every member receives the post.
    Just add your announcements category to the “List of categories that are watched by default.” in the default categories watching setting.
  • Allowing members to have multiple email addresses registered against a single account, so they could post from multiple email addresses (but only receive emails to their “primary” address.
  • It would be nice if people who don’t know the first thing about coding could customize the look, feel, and functions of Discourse more easily.
    Well the functions of Discourse are already highly customisable via the admin backend. Themes on the other hand do require some HTML&CSS knowledge. We’ll be addressing this later this year with the introduction of Native Themes.
  • ability to send new automated emails triggered by events
    This is usually very doable using our API or Webhooks.
  • A nicely formatted changelog for the current version, oriented to normal users, linked from the About page would be nice.
    We always post a comprehensive changelog as well as a blog announcement with shiny objects. What changelog format are you missing?
  • The native metrics don’t really cut it.
    We know! First order of business will be to pull the Admin Statistics Report plugin into core. After that we’ll turn our attention to our general stats dashboard.
  • You guys have SO much data on communities and what makes them successful. From a Community Management perspective, it would be awesome if you could leverage that and create case studies or white papers.
    Great idea! We’ll be giving this some thought.
  • Customizable profile fields / links to social media
    We explain how to do this in our Link custom user field to external website tutorial, but we could definitely take that a step further with some pre-set social media fields.

Many thanks to our survey participants!

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Discourse for Maker Communities

Erlend Sogge Heggen November 2, 2016

There is a thing called the “maker movement” and, well, it’s awesome. People are setting up shop in their basements, backyards or dedicated makerspaces to create things together. Makers openly exchanging their ideas and designs with one another in the pursuit of better solutions to problems that need solving. That problem can be anything from “how can we make underwater exploration affordable to hobbyists?” to “can we make an airborne flamethrower?”.

makers-highlights

Turns out Discourse is a great addition to a maker’s toolbelt when your DIY activity of choice can be shared with hundreds or even thousands of other makers. After all, isn’t it more fun to make stuff that can be shared with others?

We surveyed a total of 17 maker communities to figure out what they’re getting out of Discourse.

Customers

Non-customers

9 of them got back to us. Here are their responses, in summarised form.

How does your organisation use Discourse?

Our “Projects and Prints” category has provided us with several user stories and demonstrated some awesome applications for our printers like a time-lapse movie created from hundreds of prints.

“General Discussion” is a great hub for user feedback and helps us to iterate current products as well as gauge demand for new ones. Many of the requests and comments seen in general discussion were directly implemented into the Form 2.

Discourse also serves as a hub for things like announcements and troubleshooting. It serves as a resource that users can search through to find issues other users might have had before opening a ticket with our support team.

~ Formlabs

What are your favourite things about Discourse?

First and foremost my favourite thing is the responsiveness of the dev team. They really do respond to user feedback, in a way I’ve never seen. You can post your issues on Discourse Meta, and whether you like the answer or not, you ALWAYS get one, usually within minutes. Every serious issue is resolved within days or even hours. They push dozens of updates every day. No other software project of this scale provides customer support of this quality. Thank you Discourse team!! You guys are the best.

~ Drive On Wood

Ordered by most frequently mentioned.

  • Modern, clean, cross-platform interface that’s as responsive as a mobile application.

  • Powerful thread mechanics: Instant updates, infinite scrolling, linkbacks, the post editor, drag-n-drop images, Markdown support, wiki posts, “one-boxing”, ability to read other posts while replying, ability to mark solutions to help topics, auto recommended similar posts… phew!

  • Highly customizable: Discourse comes with very sane defaults, but it allows for a great deal of customization. Admins and end-users alike can tweak an abundance of little things to according to their preference.

  • Powerful search: Discourse’s powerful search makes it fast and efficient to find relevant posts, within a topic or across the forum. Great for technical communities where there’s a lot of knowledge exchange going on.

  • Advanced administration tools: Automated as well as crowdsourced anti-spam/troll/asshat tools keep the bad actors at bay. Backup export/import is done with the click of a button. Moving posts or splitting threads is simple and unintimidating.

  • API: “Crucially, the API lets us drive Discourse from our home-made membership system very easily. For example, when a member’s payment goes through, they are added to the Members group on Discourse, allowing them access to the private Categories.”

What are some things that would make Discourse better?

Ordered by most frequently mentioned.

  • iOS/Android app with notifications
    We just finished beta testing our mobile apps. They’ll be publicly available in a few weeks!
  • Better docs: A cleaner documentation site with a clear structure would make Discourse’s more advanced topics much easier to digest.
    Agreed. We’ll set aside some time for this shortly.
  • UX stability: The Discourse UX is constantly evolving. While that’s usually a good thing, it sometimes happens so fast that it’s hard for slightly custom styles to keep up.
    This should be much less of an issue once we support Native Themes.
  • Overly aggressive spam filter: Occasionally the automated spam-protection will block legitimate posts.
    While a tiny amount of false positives is nearly impossible to avoid when it comes to automated moderation, we’ll try get better at notifying site owners about automated moderation tasks.

Plugin ideas

  • User photo galleries
  • Assigning posts/PMs to specific users
  • Simpler “post-to-social-media” shortcuts.
  • Blog style view homepage
  • User map to allow people find others in the same area
  • WYSIWYG Editor

Self-install suggestions

  • Integrated SSL via Let’s Encrypt.
  • Better support for installing/uninstalling plugins easier via admin section.

Thanks a bunch for all your feedback! Missing some feature requests, or didn’t get a chance to participate in the survey? Please make a post in our #feature category!

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Discourse for Online Education Communities

Erlend Sogge Heggen August 18, 2016

Just like our survey for game communities back in May, we once more sent out a survey to a mix of customers and self-supported Discourse communities. This time we wanted feedback from leaders in online education.

discourse-for-onlineed-web

We’re absolutely ecstatic about the amount of learning tools readily available online for young and old minds alike today. Even more so because so many of these sites have chosen to use Discourse to build their communities, in which educators and learners can work effectively together to improve their common platform.

8 hosted customers

Self-hosted

Nine communities got back to us and completed our survey. Here’s what they said.

How does your company use Discourse?

CodeCombat uses Discourse as a general forum for its players to talk about programming concepts, help each other debug difficult levels, and share game strategies. We also get a lot of bug reports there, which is great for players who wouldn’t have emailed us or gone to GitHub to file an issue.

As an open source project, we have promoted some amazing forum moderators from amongst our players, and they help the community learn to help itself when the core team can’t handle the onslaught. For a project with a wide mix of young kids and older players, it’s surprising how well it works. Discourse and GitHub are the two most important pieces of the CodeCombat community.

~ Nick Winter, CEO of CodeCombat

What are your favorite things about Discourse?

Here’s a summary of the answers, roughly ordered by how frequently each was brought up:

  • Excellent Markdown editor (the basic HTML support also comes in handy)

  • Clean, clear and snappy UI

  • Robust organisation tools: Private/public categories, groups, global pins

  • Powerful email support. Email summaries; granular email notifications; create or reply to posts by email.

  • Badges encourage positive behaviour, flags discourage negative behaviour, JIT notifications (similar reply detection, duplicate link detection etc.) and reply-as-new-topic encourage on-topic discussion.

  • Out-of-the-box settings provide strong defaults that require very little tweaking.

  • Good search

  • Infinite scrolling

  • Links tracking

  • Extensive REST API

What are some things that would make Discourse better?

Here’s a summary of the answers:

  • Some way to help our players automatically format their code better, since they can rarely seem to get it right
    This was the only improvement suggestion that came up several times. Our recommendation would be to switch to the “code-fences” code formatting style, which we added specifically for developer-centric communities.
    discourse-codeformatting
  • Better auto-localization to the user’s default browser language
    This has been a TODO of ours for a while! Consider it bumped in priority.
  • Better embedding options.
    We generally recommend against embedding, as this is a tricky thing to get right across multiple platforms and screen sizes. Try using the API instead to make lightweight streams for your content. Even plain RSS could do the trick.
  • Better documentation
    We’re adding new docs at a steady rate. There were 7 new additions to our #howto category this past month. If there’s any topic in particular that you’d like to see a proper tutorial on, feel free to make a #support request for it.
  • The user profile doesn’t stand up enough and the basic settings are hidden in the “preferences” tab, which can be confusing.
    Agreed! See this UX discussion.
  • The “similar topic” suggestions are not always relevant.
    Tough nut to crack. First order of business will be to make it less in the way in case it’s not helpful.
  • Add a stackoverflow-like way to mark and highlight the best answers
    We have that! The Solved plugin is available on all our plans and can be installed for free by self-hosters.
  • Better GitHub auth integration.
    We don’t have plans to automatically retrieve avatars from Twitter, Facebook, G+, GitHub etc at this time. However, we’d gladly accept a pull request for this!
  • We really need another level of hierarchy in the the categories structure.
    In our experience, a deep category hierarchy cause more problems than it solves. However, Tags were recently merged into core and received a lot of new features, including category restrictions, tag groups, and tag relationships.
  • UI could be improved
    Once more, our UI finds itself on both the pros and cons list (although the praise clearly outweighed the critique this time). The best we can do is continue to make Discourse more customisable so community owners can tweak it to their liking. See next bullet point.
  • The ability customize all CSS easier, like being able to upload custom stylesheet. Being able to adjust html layout by having access to page templates.
    Yes! We are figuring out a way to support Native Themes in Discourse. Please join the conversation and share your ideal theme designer experience with us.

Thanks for the feedback!

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