XenForo forum software review
Forum software is a necessary evil of running an online community. Few credible options are available to website owners and those that are tend to have outdated designs and a poor user experience. Three systems – phpBB, vBulletin and Invision – dominate the landscape, but with the arrival of XenForo, this could change.
The old Thunderbolt forums, on vBulletin
At Thunderbolt, we’ve been using vBulletin for years. It’s a piece of software which undeniably shows its age: it can do just about everything you need, but its complexity can be daunting. The admin panel is particularly obtuse, with primary navigation so unwieldily that it needs its own controls and preference system.
When vBulletin 3 (originally launched in 2004) reached its end of life, we had the choice to paying to upgrade to vBulletin 4 or look elsewhere. Fortunately, at the same time, three former vBulletin developers launched their own forum software: XenForo. After following its development for a few months, I switched Thunderbolt over to it a few days ago.
What XenForo does well
One of the most interesting additions is the ability to ‘Like’ a post. Forum software has had reputation, karma and rating systems for years, but they typically require too much effort to use and little incentive to do so. Although it initially seems like a superfluous novelty, XenForo’s Like system appears to be meaningful and effectively encourages widespread use, as only a single click is required.
Trophies is another concept borrowed from elsewhere, allowing users to receive awards for completing various actions on the forum. This echoes achievements on Xbox Live, trophies on the PlayStation Network and badges on Stack Exchange. These systems have worked extremely well and to introduce them to forum software seems only natural.
The alerts system
An alerts system, similar to Facebook’s notifications, keeps users up to date with replies to watched topics, new trophies, posts where they are quotes and other occurrences. A notification system like this is perfect for these minor actions, where being informed is useful, but not so significant that you would want an email.
A number of forum software conventions have also been discarded by XenForo. Topic titles link to the first unread post, rather than forcing users to click a smaller adjacent link. This seems like a minor adjustment, but it’s a huge improvement in the user experience and one that deserves a separate article entirely. Announcements and topic icons are also not present with little consequence.
XenForo’s administrative tools are also well conceived, with an aggressive and efficient spam cleaner, clever post moderation, elegant theme style controls and external data import that doesn’t require you to go to the command line.
What still needs work
Of the component parts of a forum, the permission system is by far the most difficult to design. Complete flexibility is required, yet it must also be easily understood and straightforward to manage. Individual users, groups of users and forums all have a set of permissions and these combine in a number of ways.
Unfortunately, XenForo’s permission system is flexible, but extremely difficult to interpret. There’s the ability to see your forum as another given user would, but this doesn’t illustrate the finer points of the system. On top of this, there are Super Moderators, Moderators and Moderator groups. How these work is not explained. With trial and error, permissions can be setup, but like other forum software before it, XenForo hasn’t solved this tricky design problem.
The admin control panel is generally well laid out (especially when compared to vBulletin), but its information architecture makes little sense in places. The Node Tree and Spam Cleaner are under the heading ‘Applications’, which seems to be an awkward refuge for functionality that does not comfortably sit anywhere else.
There are a number of other small features still missing, although these may be added as the software matures. Notably, users and topics cannot be pruned en masse, and custom BBCode is absent (although a capable add-on exists).
The forum software market needed a serious new competitor and XenForo fulfils this role. Starting from scratch has enabled them to tackle design problems differently, and without the considerable weight of years of legacy code. XenForo isn’t even out of beta testing yet, but even now it is a capable and viable alternative to vBulletin. While it lacks a few features that you might expect, its benefits far outweigh the drawbacks and this will only improve as it matures. XenForo has made an impressive start and its outlook is equally bright.
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