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Discourse for Developer Communities

Erlend Sogge Heggen May 5, 2017

Most early adopters of Discourse were developer communities, as is often the case with open source projects. Our own meta.discourse.org community is also a development-centric community, so we’ve been mindful of this use case since practically Day 0.

Consequently, Discourse caters to a lot of developer communities. We reached out to 30 of them to learn more about how they use Discourse.

How does your organisation use Discourse?

We use Discourse for a number of public and private communities, the most prominent of which is the Atom and Electron community message board at https://discuss.atom.io. This allows us to provide tech and community support directly to the people that are curious about, use and build on top of Atom and Electron. It also allows the community to provide support to each other in a healthy and positive environment (a rare thing on the Internet these days) and offers the ability for them to collaborate on projects or communicate ideas to the development team.

~ Lee Dohm, GitHub

Discourse is used as an open community platform for Kotlin-related discussions. In addition to other feedback channels, it helps the team to get direct feedback from language users and contributors in a convenient manner, and discuss all the issues and suggestions with all interested parties.

~Mikhail Vink, JetBrains

What are your 3 favourite things about Discourse?

Ordered by most frequently mentioned:

  • Easy for new users to get started with; Clean and simple interface
  • Easy branding and moderation tools
  • It’s much easier to search and reference older posts [compared to mailing list archives]; great search engine indexing
  • The feature set around creating posts is really fantastic; developers tend to be fond of Markdown
  • The ability to customise the languages that can be used for code-highlighting and select one as the default, lowering the barrier for people to format correctly in the most used language on the site
  • Upvoting (hearts) without downvoting
  • Category-level subscriptions
  • Browser & phone push notifications for new posts
  • Spam detection
  • Tries to answer questions when you ask one
  • Community digest by email & “unread” on the web (for those who can’t keep an eye on the web site all the time);
  • Converting a post to a wiki post, so everyone can edit it

What would make Discourse better?

  • We’d like to install custom plugins on the hosted plan.
    All our hosted forums (besides Enterprise) runs on a multisite cluster, which makes it technically difficult to enable plugins on a site-by-site basis. It also has serious implications for security and customer support. In short; this isn’t going to change in the short term, but we’re thinking about it.
  • not obvious how to set up as a mailing list-style user rather than a web forum.
    See “Discourse vs Mailing list” and and this recent discussion about mailing list mode for categories.
  • More built-in themes so that not every Discourse board looks the same.
    Native themes are now a thing! We’ll be adding at least one new alternative theme out-of-the-box.
  • Better moderator and user documentation, API documentation.
    We recently applied a cleaner “box layout” to our #howto category so it’s easier to navigate. For API documentation, can also check out docs.discourse.org which we launched about a month ago.
  • smarter anti-spam detection (we get lots of false positives)
    Our automated antispam is powered by Akismet, but does require some training to “learn” what’s right and what isn’t. If you know of a better automated spam protection system, do let us know!
  • Importing discussions from Github. In essence ways to move a lot of discussions of GitHub, while keeping the technical debate on Github.
    We have an official GitHub-to-Discourse export tool that does exactly that.
  • Mark as unread/remind me later about this. Sometimes I read a topic but don’t have time to deal with it now, and forget to come back to it later because it’s not marked unread in the list anymore.
    See this topic. As of Discourse 1.8, staff can set a timer on a topic to remind you to come back to it, as well.
  • Every topic could be treated as a 1st post (the article or news item) and subsequent posts (the comments).
    This sounds like Embedding Discourse comments via JavaScript, which we officially support.
  • We get a lot of low-information posts. Having knowledge-base-like feature would be great to answer common technical questions. (Maybe this exists already and we just don’t use it?)
    See wiki-posts and structuring a category as a FAQ via boxed layout.
  • The “all categories merged” display can be confusing for people used to the classic “first select category, then see list of topics” layout. We’d love to have a “Splash page” that has big links to the individual categories, and maybe the unified topic list below that.
    You can select the categories page as your homepage. In Discourse 1.8 we also added a “giant clickable / tappable boxes” style for categories which can be clearer for new users. We’ll look at extending that to the categories homepage as well.

Also mentioned:

To follow up on any of those, please search meta.discourse for existing topics or start a new discussion.

As always, we’re immensely thankful for having customers that readily engage with us to improve Discourse. Big ups to Twitter, Kirby, Rancher, Mattermost, TrueOS, Serverless, OpenAI, Appium, EVE tech, Rust lang, Kotlin lang, Julia lang, Atom, Peplink, Jekyll, Ember, Chef, .NET foundation, GitHub, Docker, Hubspot and Grafana, as well as the self-hosters, Hugo, React, Nextcloud, Go lang, Vue.js and Libretro.

Keep the discussion going!

3 comments

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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