Forum usability

Is it just me? Or is the LtU forum usability suboptimal? When discussions grow moderately large i find it almost impossible to keep track and I generally give up reading the threads.

I don't watch the forum all they. I generally just drop by a few times a day to see what's new. Discussions tend to diverge into a few different threads, some of which are more interesting than others. Based on this I have two basic needs. I need to be able to easily see which threads have new posts in them, and I would like to browse the threads separately, like I would if it was a usenet group.

Currently I can easily see which threads have new posts, but because of the way this is implemented I have to search for the string "***" to find the new entries. In addition it's very hard to keep track of the various sub-threads. The way the threads are indented is also not very good. I appreciate the idea, but when threads get really deep readability suffers.

IMO the ideal solution would be a threaded forum that has a two-pane solution where the threads are in one pane and the currently active message are in the other. Topics should be ordered according to the latest post, and each discussion should mark clearly if it contains new posts. When you expand a thread, it should be possible to see which thread(s) contain new posts, and expand just that thread. It would also be cool if you could "flatten" a thread at arbitrary level, if you wish to view many articles simultaneously in the view pane.

I don't know about what web forums are available, but the ones that seem to be most popular also seem to be the simplest. They all offer a flat model without threading, which IMO sucks.

Am I alone in thinking that the LtU forum is in dire need of an upgrade? And does anyone know about *good* forums that meet the criteria I have listed?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Open to suggestion

I assume you're aware of the Recent Posts page.

Something else which may help, based on the preferences you've described, is to set your Comment Viewing Options to "Date - newest first".

Yet another option is to use your favorite RSS client and use the RSS comment feed.

In general, Drupal seems to be one of the best systems around for web forum and threading handling. That was one of the biggest factors which led me to originally recommend it for LtU. While very long threads do get harder to manage, I don't know of any web-based systems that handle this significantly better.

Am I alone in thinking that the LtU forum is in dire need of an upgrade?
I think that's an overstatement if you look at what else is actually available. If you have some specific suggestions, we're all ears.


One thing that might help is if the post index showed dates for each comment/post. That way, it's easy to see from a glance which one is the oldest (and thus the most likely start of a subthread of new posts). Not sure how hard that is to add, though.

Which post index?

Which post index are you referring to specifically? Adding a date doesn't sound difficult.

Recent Posts

In particular. Or some better way of viewing new posts in a thread in order without having to search on ***, as other people note.

Re: Recent Posts

The Recent Posts page should have a red asterisk next to messages you haven't seen yet (i.e. messages that were posted since the last time you viewed that thread), and it lists messages with the most recent first. So I don't understand how the date would help on that page? I suppose it wouldn't hurt either, but I'm just trying to make sure I understand what it would add.

For viewing new posts in a thread in order, I think something like Martijn's Lambda Skipper sounds good, and I'll see if we can add that feature in on the server.

Sounds good

The problem is that I don't want to read new messages in the order they were posted. I actually want to read them in thread order. I wasn't sure what order they were shown in, so I guessed that seeing the date would help infer thread order, but I guess not.

Yes, nntp would help for thread order.

Yes, I agree. I also want to read the conversations in order. (Maybe a monad? oh never mind...)

What's the likelihood of an nntp interface?

Are the threads kept in a backend database or some other easily read format?

--Shae Erisson -


What's the likelihood of an nntp interface?

There's still no direct nntp interface available for Drupal. However, as I alluded to in my "Various replies" post, there now seem to be some options for integrating with mailing lists, which further raises the possibility of integrating with e.g. gmane. Ehud's on vacation right now, but we can look at this when he gets back.

Are the threads kept in a backend database or some other easily read format?

Drupal stores its messages in a database, MySQL by default, which is what we're using for LtU.

Recent personal posts

What I have often found difficult is to follow a discussion spawn by one of my posts. It's not too difficult, but some times I even forget in which of the many threads I have posted. A list of recent personal posts would be helpful.

Is this what you are looking

Is this what you are looking for?

ah yes. Thank you.

It never occured to me to search for my posts under 'my account'. Perhaps 'track' should be moved under 'recent posts'?

It's too crowded over there

It's too crowded over there for my tastes, but if this sounds good to others it shouldn't be too hard to do.

Ok where it is

It was intuitive for me to find this functionality. It also makes when you consider that sometimes you want to track other users. I guess this is an object-oriented style instead of functional :)

Threading interface needs work

I find the forum software to be pretty adequate. However, one feature it could use is to limit the nesting depth in the display. Right now, a really deep reply thread will become ridiculously narrow in the browser window. I make this point as a reply in a deep thread to further illustrate the point.

Slashdot (otherwise not the exemplar of good forum software) has a limit in the nested display, and it seems to do the trick.

Limiting nesting depth

I've found a patch for Drupal which addresses this, so we'll check it out and install it if it looks good.

Not in 'recent posts' page, under the 'recent posts' command.

Sorry for the confusion. I meant that 'track' could be in the front page, under the user's name, right below 'my account'.

"web-based" may be the problem...

I agree that Drupal is one of the best web-based forum systems around, but it's still not too great, and is IMHO far more primitive than good mailing list archives. It's a real shame that the email list and web forum communities are so deeply separated, considering that in the end it seems like email/web should really just be a per-user UI preference around the same basic system. Maybe someday we'll get there...

However, in the short term, if it would be possible to enhance the RSS feeds with currently missing info (author for top-level posts, in-reply-to info for comments, maybe a couple of other things), I think it would be pretty easy to build an email list gateway for LtU, and then archive it using any system we like. I'd almost certainly be willing to host such a list and its archives, but I can't make the changes to the RSS feeds myself...

Does anybody else even think this would be useful?

'prev in thread', 'next in thread', list of follow-ups

It would be nice to have these options for navigating the 'collapsed' view of threads.
The 'collapsed' view is easier to notice new posts with, but AFAIK to view the next message in a thread one must go back to the collapsed-list and manually select the next message. There is no indication of where this msg is in a thread except that it has a "parent" (it is also strange to see just a given reply preceeded by the original post - even if they are severely disconnected)
When there are multiple separate reply-threads, these should be separate 'next in thread's or follow-ups.

This is SOP for mailing lists.

Also, does there really need to be a 'post new comment' set of forms when every message already has a 'reply to this comment' link?
It takes up a lot of space, and it is unclear whether the new comment will be "new" in the sense of starting a new thread, or whether it will be equivalent to clicking "reply to this comment".
[On Edit: there was even a thread about this ~5 months ago: here]

Just my $0.02

Re: Open to suggestion

I am aware of the Recent Posts. I display the discussions sorted by latest post, so it's easy enough to find the latest updated thread. The problem is navigating large threads.

But I admittedly can't think of any better solutions, I don't know about all the web forums that exist out there. It might very well be that they simply aren't any better. But I really liked the thing. The fact that you can use nntp with it is excellent for those of us who prefer good old usenet style, and the web interface seems good too.

If Gmane is not an option, are there are other interfaces between mailing lists, nntp and the web that might be usable? I think that turning the LtU discussions into a mailing list might be a good idea if we can get a decent web interface and possibly a nntp "feed" on top of it.

Recent posts - slight bug

Recent posts is good but I noticed a problem when threads go over 1 page. The links to topics on the second (for example) page on "recent posts" doesn't take you to the second page, it puts you at the top of the first page. Not sure if it's a known issue.

Yeah, it's hard to navigate.

I also lose track of the threads. I'd be happiest with a web-based interface that works like, and an nntp feed so I can use emacs to check my spelling and let me cut'n'paste easily.

The current system is nice, but the current system is a weblog not really a discussion forum. I want a real discussion forum. Maybe I should find a free nntp feed?

--Shae Erisson -

linking to a post

Speaking of usability, is there an easier way to link to an individual post, besides searching through the html source to find the comment number?

Reply link

The comment number shows up at the end of the "reply to this comment" link. You'd still have to put the right URL together to link to the comment, though.

Re: linking to a post

The subject of each post is a link to itself. Just right-click on it and copy the location.

He did not miss it

These links were only added since Greg posted his question ;)

Old threads

Sorry, I didn't realize this was a very old thread with some new posts. One thing I like about Slashdot is that at some point they "archive" threads and don't allow any more posts.

Story shelf life

Leaving comments open has been a deliberate policy. Stories on LtU can still be relevant after years, whereas articles on Slashdot are usually obsolete by the time you've read down to the troll comments at the bottom of the page (If you don't believe me, Netcraft confirms this ;)

as they fade away ...

Maybe make the older stories have a background that turns yellow after six months, orange after a year, brownish after three years ... just so you'd get the hint that you're replying to a somewhat sun-baked thread. Or use shades of green, to imply mold?

Nice idea!

I'll keep that in mind...


Amusingly enough, I wrote about this idea agre ago, in a totally different context.

Greasemonkey enhancements

Just before this summer, I was hacking a bit on Greasemonkey, an extension for Firefox that lets you execute scripts during loading of specific webpages.

One of the things I came up with was Lambda Skipper, a scripts that adds direct links to topmost new posts on the Recent Posts page. It also adds 'skip to next new comment' links after each comment for easy browsing of new comments in top-to-bottom order.

This sure is a hack, but maybe someone here finds it usefull. It could also easily be extended to add permanent links for each individual comment (as someone mentioned it was tedious to be searching through the HTML source in order to assemble such a link).

(Disclaimer: I have not used the script for some time, but it still seems to work just fine. Of course it will break if the HTML sources of the site change.)


I'm surprised no one mentioned yet. It powers As Shae already pointed out, drupal is weblog centric.

Re: slashcode

I'd have to dig back through old email for the exact reasons, but we considered Slash and rejected it when we moved the site from its old home on

The general consensus seems to be that as one of the oldest weblog systems, the Slash codebase is a little iffy and difficult to deal with, and more recent systems have surpassed it in various ways. Probably for these kinds of reasons, it doesn't seem to be very actively developed any more, judging by emails on the development mailing list and by the frequency of posts on The sense I have is that development effort has moved on to other platforms, and that Slash isn't going anywhere.

Various replies

I've combined my replies to various points in this post.

Martijn Vermaat's Greasemonkey mods sound cool — I'll try them, and if there's anything we can adapt, we'll do that.

Links to individual comments, and enhancing the RSS feeds — we'll do both of these.

On the ideas for interfacing to mailing lists/gmane/nntp, I've looked at this previously and didn't find any good options available "off the shelf". However, there seem to be some other options available now, so we'll look into that.

We aren't likely to make any major changes to Drupal's forum interface ourselves. If anyone wants to undertake development of enhancements, let us know and we can discuss it. A major Drupal upgrade is still planned — it has been delayed because of various difficulties migrating to the most recent versions of Drupal, including the need to do other major upgrades of dependencies on the server. That upgrade should provide various new features, so it would make sense to revisit our wish lists after that's done.

Regarding the comment box, in the earlier thread that was linked to, Ehud said he didn't want to remove that. In any case, the thread breaking problems which that has occasionally caused seem to happen less often now, and I don't see that it's a problem once one is somewhat familiar with the interface. I'll make a note to add something about that to the FAQ.

I'm aware of the bug with Recent Posts and long threads. With any luck, the Drupal upgrade will fix that. Luckily, we don't have too many threads that long. One option is always to break out independent subthreads via a new top-level forum post.

another one

Often I click on a forum with several new posts. If I read reply to the first new post, I'm taken to another window, when I get back to read rest of the new messages, the *** have disappeared! Not sure how that would be fixed though, perhaps have the 'reply' link open a new window? The 'recent posts' feature mitigates that problem though.


I recommend right-clicking on the Reply link and opening it in a new tab or new window. :)


One thing which would really benefit me would be to remove the right sidebar (perhaps merging it with the left one). I often ready LtU on my little laptop screen. The right sidebar takes up roughly 1/4 of the available screen width, and also prevents threads expanding to the right. This means (for me) that threads with more than about 5 levels of replies become unreadable (one word per line). Setting a minimum width on each reply would be good too (I think you can do this in CSS). I don't mind having to use a horizontal scrollbar if it means the content is more readable.

Yes, bar on one side only?

That would be nice for reading LtU on PalmOS as well.

--Shae Erisson -

Mobile theme

We could set up a theme designed for portable devices. Removing the right hand sidebar from that theme would be easy enough, and CSS customizations would be possible. I'll add this to the list.

Nokia770 theme?

Right now I'm reading LtU on my Nokia 770, and I very much wish for a theme with only one sidebar. Even a quick hack that kills the right sidebar would make reading easier.


I'll see what I can do.

A suggestion

I've switched to the "threaded view - collapsed" and combined with "latest first" it is a little bit easier to find new entries in a thread. However, the new entries are still just marked with *, which is very hard to find if the tree is fairly large. So my suggestion is to modify the view so that instead of using the *, new articles have their titles in bold, whereas old ones don't. This would make them stand out much more. Alternatively, the new articles could have red titles. Anything to make them stand out more.

The *s is searchable, boldnes

The *s is searchable, boldness isn't. Combine the features, sure, don't ditch the *s

I'm back

Thanks for all the input. We'll look at all the suggestions (some of which are not new, by the way). Some things can be easily fixed, others are more problematic. If you want to donate your time to help implement something, let me and Anton know.

One thing to keep in mind is that LtU is primarily a weblog. Most readers use it to keep current with new research and development projects. The forum is active, and that's great of course, but I don't want LtU to become a mailing list. Plenty of those are out there, and serve a useul purpose, but they have a quite different dynamic than LtU (some of my general thoughts about Lambda as blog can be found here).

Quite a few good ideas are floating around (e.g., adding a wiki). The months ahead will be exciting...

UI of any kind is hard

As my friend once said, "we're lucky to have ASCII". Or, you could maybe think of Woody Allen's opening joke in Annie Hall, but maybe that's less charitable.

However, even though I totally understand that UI is hard to manage and so think we in some sense should shut up and put up, I will register a request!

Pretty please, if it is not too hard, enlarge (in both dimensions) the 'comment' field where I enter posts. It would make the editing task much more pleasurable, I believe.

many thanks

Text area size

Yes. We should do that.

I'll add it to the todo list for the drupal upgrade.

There is a "wider textareas" bookmarklet

Lambda/drupaul doesn't seem to like the word "javascript" in links in comments, so I can't make a live bookmarklet. But if you put text like this:

paranoiascript:(function(){var i,x; for(i=0;x=document.getElementsByTagName(%22textarea%22)[i];++i){x.cols +=50;}})()

into the "Location" field of a bookmark in your bookmarks toolbar, then you'll be able to click it to widen text areas in almost any web app. (I've only tried in Firefox.) (You'll have to s/paranoia/java/.)


Wow, bookmarklets are a neat hack. This is the first I've heard of them. I feel so behind the times :)

shuffling the byline for the marvin theme

Since we're talking about the user interface anyway, here's one complaint that I have. I use the marvin theme as it's overall a nice theme. One thing though that has always bugged me about it though is that the byline is at the bottom of the comments. For long comments, I have to scroll to the bottom of the quote in order to see who is saying it, and when they said it. This gets especially tricky trying to track the arguments when there's a conversation going on between multiple people. Is there any chance that you could modify this theme so the byline is right under the title of the comment?