The 2 Second Drill – How Fast Is Your Forum?

One of our core values is that to provide forum software with the best user experience. Part of providing a fantastic user experience is to make sure forum pages load instantaneously. Nearly half of all web users believe web pages should load in 2 seconds or less. We strive to beat this benchmark and routinely test our forums. We use tools like Page Speed Online by Google, YSlow from Yahoo!, and’s Website Speed Test, among others.

Below is a screen cap from a recent test using Pingdom, for one of our most popular sites, the forum. We display seven images from the photo gallery, the 50 most recent threads, and preview snippets for each thread, all in less than a second. 738 milliseconds to be exact.

forum speed test results

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Lower The Bounce Rate On Your Forum

One reason popular forums have high bounce rates is because they draw in so many users from Google. We theorize that many users who land on a forum after a Google search leave the forum without clicking around because they’re in a narrow-minded “search mode” instead of a relaxed, open-minded “browse mode.”

Put another way, “searchers” are looking for something specific. Whether they find what they’re looking for or not, they’re likely to bounce quickly. By contrast, “browsers” are seeking entertainment and they’re more likely to stick around if anything at all tickles their fancy.

Although it is extraordinarily challenging to convert someone from “search mode” to “browse mode”, we propose the following techniques to lower the bounce rate on your forum:

  1. Show related threads at the footer of the page or in the sidebar.
  2. Encourage the user to search the forum if he or she did not find what they were looking for.
  3. Make the site impossibly easy to navigate so the user is enticed to view more content.
  4. Invite user to join the forum and explain member benefits.
  5. Display photos recently uploaded to the community photo gallery.
  6. Limit content visibility and require user to log in to view additional content.
  7. Include a “before you go…” popover before the user exits the page.
  8. Use a Hello Bar or WOAHbar to appeal directly to the user and ask him or her to stay longer. Employ cookies to craft specific messages just for the user.

We’ve noticed that forum bounce rates are particularly high for users on mobile devices. This makes sense because users are already low on patience thanks to the small screen, longer load time, and other obstacles wrought by mobile computing. We don’t have a good solution for this scenario. At least not yet.

However, we think the best way to get a “searcher” to stick around (no matter what device they’re on) is to show related content. Proving your forum has high quality content is a great way to introduce the user to the breadth and depth of the knowledge your community has to offer.

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Forum Software, Variable Rewards, And Serendipitous Flukes

Last week we examined how Nir Eyal’s Hooked Model applies to forum software. We acknowledge the power of the Hooked Model and argue that as more and more users make a habit of using a given forum, powerful network effects occur that strengthen existing hooks which in turn attracts new users and keeps existing users engaged.

During his presentation, Nir said, “The unknown is fascinating.” He went on to explain that variable rewards (as opposed to constant or predictable rewards) cause users to increase focus and engagement. He presented findings from various studies that prove dopamine spikes in anticipation of random rewards. And what’s more is that variable rewards can be used to instill habits in users.

Variable rewards are meaningless if they’re devoid of any real substance. Imagine, for example, “winning” a search badge but not getting the desired search results. This is not a positive outcome. However, coupling variable rewards with whatever the user is seeking is a powerful and virtually irresistible 1-2 punch.

Let’s put variable rewards in the context of forum software. Some common rewards from participating in a forum include:

  • Answer to a question
  • Humor/entertainment
  • New friends
  • Satisfaction from helping others
  • Reputation points, badges, etc.

The reason these rewards are so appealing is that they are infinitely variable. There is no shortage of knowledge that can be gained, new people to meet, or ways to impress others. When these endless possibilities result in something new and fun and positive and exciting, we call them serendipitous flukes. A serendipitous fluke is a chance encounter that results in a net gain of some kind for all parties. As a forum owner and community manager there are few things more gratifying that engineering serendipitous flukes on a daily basis.

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Can Forum Software Thrive In A Mobile Age? Mobile Uploads May Be The Key

In last week’s blog post we noted, “Forums are desktop applications in a mobile age.” On the bright side, we believe that many existing monetization strategies for forum communities remain applicable no matter how their users access a given forum. However, for a forum to remain profitable, its audience must stay engaged and user contributions must remain high. If forum owners offer a lousy experience to users on mobile devices, contributions will decline. If contributions decline, then so does the ability for site owners to generate revenue.

We believe that users on mobile devices are unlikely to write long posts. On the other hand, we believe mobile users are likely to post pictures while on-the-go. If the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true, then the shift to mobile represents a great opportunity to capture interesting and provocative user generated content.

This opportunity explains why one of our most important goals is to provide users with an outstanding mobile experience. Ninja Post already provides a user interface specifically designed for mobile devices and supports mobile photo uploads when users are on-the-go. The next step is to support mobile video uploads; a feature we plan to introduce very soon.

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Rich Media And Mobile Uploads For Forum Software

One of our core values is to make it fun and rewarding for users to participate. We have found that supporting rich media (especially that animated gif where they guy’s head explodes) is crucial to achieving this objective. Therefore, we have gone to great lengths to accommodate users’ increasing appetites for posting rich media such as photos and videos to threads.

For starters, we make it easy to add images and YouTube videos to threads. Secondly, we allow users to upload photos and videos to their profiles. Finally, we provide communities with a Photo Gallery and Video Gallery that aggregates content from individual profiles.

With the last year or so, we noticed a particular demand from users to upload photos from mobile devices. The rationale is easy to follow: camera-equipped mobile phones are now ubiquitous, forum participants are inclined to share their photos, and, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Why spend time typing on a finicky, miniature keyboard when a picture can say it all? Adding this feature was a no-brainer. We are incredibly excited that users can upload pics while on the go and we’re keen to see how users incorporate this feature into their communities.

uploading a photo to the forum from a mobile device

Above: Uploading a photo to the forum from a mobile device.

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Forum Software Design, Artificial Limits, And Keeping Content Fresh

Rules (however arbitrary) tend to make things more interesting. We recently discussed why Ninja Post limits threads to 500 posts. In short, the goal with this design decision is to limit “content sprawl” and keep threads in a format that is easy for users (both old and new) to digest.

In addition to limiting the size of a thread, we have found that automatically archiving older content ensures that things stay fresh and interesting. This approach fits with our broader goal to keep Ninja Post fast, easy to use, and fun for users. While resurrecting an old thread can makes sense in some instances, bumping antiquated threads is generally frowned upon by users within a community. It is usually more effective to create a new thread.

The concept of setting limits to enhance usability is a popular technique used in countless scenarios. Would basketball or football or soccer be as intriguing if their respective fields had no boundaries? Most certainly not. Although Ninja Post permits significantly more leeway than Twitter’s 140-character limit or the three lines and 17 syllables of a haiku, we believe that providing some structure and some limitations ultimately has a positive impact on usability because it ensures content stays relevant and fresh.

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3 Benefits Of Infinite Scrolling For Forum Software

As a follow up to last week’s post “5 Reasons Why Pagination Makes Sense For Forum Threads” it bears mention that there are instances where infinite scrolling does indeed make sense for forum software. The key distinction between when infinite scrolling is appropriate and when it is not depends on whether or not the user is actively and closely engaged with the content or if the user is simply browsing the content, looking for something interesting.

When deciding if infinite scrolling is appropriate, here is a general rule of thumb: if the user can lean back in his or her chair and scan content until something catches his or her eye, infinite scrolling is appropriate. By contrast, if the user needs to lean forward to engage with the content and pay close attention, then traditional pagination is a better choice.

Reading large amounts of text on a computer screen usually requires this “lean forward” posture, and forum threads typically contain a large amount of text. The need for sustained and enhanced focus to read a thread is simpatico with the benefits that pagination provides for dealing with a large volume of content that often unfolds in a narrative form. However, there are instances where infinite scrolling is appropriate for forum software:

  1. When the user is scanning the list of threads for something interesting.
  2. When the user is scanning the community’s photo gallery.
  3. When the user is scanning lists of users (e.g., popularity rankings)

With Ninja Post, we prefer to use ‘Show More…’ buttons to load in new content in situations where infinite scrolling could be appropriate. This approach allows us to quickly add fresh content to the page when the user commands it but mitigates some of the drawbacks of infinite scrolling.

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5 Reasons Why Pagination Makes Sense For Forum Threads

Since sites like Pinterest pioneered “infinite scrolling” in which content is automatically loaded to the page as the user scrolls down, some have applied this concept to forum software. In effect, this approach can turn a thread into a really, really long page. We disagree with this approach for several reasons. Here are five of them:

1. Big tasks are more difficult for users to accomplish

Compared to scrolling through a set of images or list of status updates on Facebook, reading a forum thread requires more brain power. It is well known that accomplishing a series of short tasks fuels motivation better than a big, amorphous goal. Reading a forum thread requires effort (at least compared to browsing photos), so it makes sense to break the task into discrete mini-tasks. A thread with hundreds of posts can be very daunting but dividing the thread into smaller pieces allows the reader to gather momentum as he or she gets caught up. We opine that a thread without pages is like a book without chapters.

2. Browser’s back button becomes unpredictable

An infinitely scrolled page can be problematic when the user leaves the page and then hits the back button on his or her browser. The browser is likely to become confused as to where the user left off. This problem especially affects mobile devices. Imagine the pain induced by re-loading and re-scrolling an entire set of results just to get back to a certain point.

3. Difficult to locate, link, and crawl content

When a user is trying to locate a particular post or send a URL linking to a certain page, the ability to jump to a specific point becomes indispensable. Same goes for search engines crawling the site. And, like #2 above, there are implications for mobile devices as well: reloading or scrolling through an entire set of results just to get to a certain point quickly proves frustrating.

4. Footer content becomes impossible to reach

It is often impossible or at least very difficult to reach the footer of a page that scrolls infinitely. This obviates a section of the page that could be used to display advertising or traditional footer content (contact links, terms of service, privacy policy, etc.).

5. Users don’t demand it

When it comes to forum content, users recognize that infinite scrolling might solve some problems caused by pagination (e.g., lag time to open the next page) but it produces new problems such as those outlined above.

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Using The Participation Rate To Gauge Our Progress

When we began to develop Ninja Post, one of our goals was to create forum software that improved upon traditional platforms. However, we needed a concrete way to gauge our progress. In other words, how do we know with certainty that we’re making correct design decisions?

One metric we look at is the “User Participation Rate”. A high Participation Rate is crucial because activity instills confidence that questions will receive answers in a timely fashion. This confidence is what compels users to participate. If the user doesn’t think his or her question will garner a response, he or she won’t ask it. But if the user is confident in getting a worthy reply, he or she is likely to dive in.

We measure the PR in several ways. For example:

  • What percentage of users are logged in vs. lurking?
  • What is the average number of posts per registered user?
  • What is the average time before the first reply?
  • What is the average number of replies per thread?
  • What is the average user reputation score?
  • What is the average pageview-to-post ratio for threads?

Making the Participation Rate an integral part of our feedback loop guides our development process. We live by the credo “measure, improve, measure”. We are striving toward our goal to build the fastest, most effective forum software and thanks to studying the Participation Rate so closely, we’re confident we’re on the right track.

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Judging Forum Software Pound For Pound

Ninja Post forum software is fast, nimble, and powerful like Manny Pacquiao. Meanwhile, traditional forum software is bloated and slow like Butterbean. Yes, Butterbean-type software can get the job done, but not in the most elegant way. Feature bloat is ugly and an unfortunate trait inherent in most forum software packages.

We believe that, pound for pound, Ninja Post is the best forum software. Speed and power are combined within a lightweight framework. Threads update in real time, like a chat so the user does not need to constantly refresh the page to see if new items have been posted. Speed, elegance, and power trump an endless array of features. Ninja Post has the most essential features for users in your community to engage with one another.

A lightweight framework that is fast, nimble, and powerful

Can get the job done, but not in the most elegant way


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