phpBB3 so 1980s – user unfriendly

by Peter

I’ve been looking into forum software lately. I want to set up a couple of discussion forums. It seems to me that the most highly recommended among the free, open source bulletin boards is phpBB, now in version 3 – phpBB3.

phpbb logoSo I’ve installed it on a test site and have started to work with it. And, so that it’s said, the core functionality of phpBB3 is excellent! Really outstanding. It’s an excellent bulletin board. And there are a lot of good folks in the community doing an excellent job in developing good mods. However, being used to working with WordPress, I have to say I was shocked. Completely. WordPress is so geared towards making it easy to use. By contrast, with phpBB3 everything is so 1980s: Installing it is OK, not as easy and quick as WordPress, but still not too complicated either. But there it stops.

First of all, the whole attitude surrounding phpBB, including the new phpBB3, is old fashioned: It’s made by people who can write programs using HTML, CSS, PHP and MySQL for people who can do all the same things. The attitude seems to be that if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be using the software. Very little is done, compared to WordPress, to make is easy to use.

In WordPress, we have become accustomed to automatic upgrades – just click a button for upgrade, and the system upgrades itself, including the databases. Same thing with themes and plugins: Search for a theme or plugin, find it, read the docs and user reviews, decide you want it, click install, and once installed click “activate” and it’s up and running. Smooth. Nice. Easy for people who can’t program in PHP and/or don’t want to mess with MySQL.

With phpBB3 it is still 1980-something. There are mods. But you have to either download them to your PC, unpack them, upload them to the site, and install them manually or use something the good folks at phpBB call a “mod-manager”, called “Auto-Mod“. Now, manually really means going in and manually changing PHP-files and into MySQL and running scripts or instructions to create new tables, alter existing ones and the like. Very tedious. And you can make mistakes that may have serious consequences and can cause lots of grief.

But the mod-manager is tedious too! If you are patient and finally manage to find the instructions for installing it, you will find that they are OK for programmers but make no sense for non-programmers. They say, for instance: “After uploading the files, you need to run the install script.” Which script? They don’t say precisely. How do you run it? They don’t tell. Lots of people will give up at this point. Why isn’t it simply integrated in the install of phpBB3? If the plugin and theme installers hadn’t been integrated into WordPress, they probably would have had tens of millions fewer users.

I actually installed it, and used it to install another mod. Even with the auto-mod installer in place, the instructions still said I had to download and unzip the mod and then upload it to my server. Did all that, navigated though poor instructions again, installed a mod and ended up with more than a screen-full of so-called “do-it-yourself”-instructions, which required me to move files, edit PHP-code, and run MySQL-script. What’s wrong with these folks? Auto-installation and auto-upgrading is expected by everyone everywhere these days. No only does WordPress do it – even Microsoft and Adobe manages that! This really sucks big-time!

Using the auto-install was scary business as well. I’ve tested it out with two mods. The first one crashed my board – I just got a white screen and could not get into it even through back-doors, so I had to wipe and re-upload all system files. The second time I tried, I got the message that the install was “successful”, but every time I wanted to go back to the forum I got messages that files were missing, so I ended up having to upload 10 or so files manually before it started to work again. Not so good!

There is no objective reason why phpBB3 couldn’t be as easy to use as WordPress. WordPress plugins and updates overwrite and install new PHP-files and modify the MySQL database. It’s quite possible – as WordPress demonstrates – to do it. But the emphasis on user friendliness is not nearly as high among the good people developing phpBB, so the standards for it have not been developed and aren’t pushed as they are with WordPress. Another sign of the same lack of standards for user friendliness is that many mods conflict with one another: It’s a big mess for people running the boards, but quite easy to avoid if you devote attention to it.

I was also shocked by the lack of emphasis on SEO in phpBB3. It writes URL’s like this: “http://example.com/viewforum.php?f=3&sid=f00744bc867aec5bc739f4ee59364726″ (NB: Not a working URL). Not a very search engine friendly URL, if you ask me. Totally 1980s and totally bad from a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) point of view (also a dimension where WordPress really excels, by the way). Using URLs like that is almost like telling Google “I want to be invisible” or “Please don’t list me on any of the first 20 pages of search results”. To most webmasters today, being found in by the search engines is imperative. In the 1980s it wasn’t.

For sake of comparison, on another test site I installed WordPress with the bulletin board plugin bbPress. A few clicks, and there it was, up and running. And right out of the box it produces URLs that look like this: http://www.examplesite.com/forums/forum/recent-seo-software-news/ (NB: Not a working URL). The core functionality is not nearly as good, but it will get traffic from the search engines.

Also, if you want to change something, like put in place a new header image or alter the layout, it’s a lot of work. The system more or less forces you to do the changes online, while logged in, in a pretty poor editing window without, for instance, search capability. A couple of days ago I sat for hours editing a CSS-file more than 2500 lines long. Without a file-search facility available, that means scrolling up and down hundreds of lines to find the class or id one wants to modify, finding perhaps the color definitions at line 2300 or something and other styles for it at line 350 or whatever – that’s bad. And it’s boring too. And it could have been easy to fix – if user friendliness was a concern, that is.

Of course and predictably, I ended up scrapping the header that came with the system and creating my own from scratch. It simply was easier – but that’s not how it ought to be.

So, there you have it, an excellent program that has a long, long way to go in terms of user friendliness and that has been built with an old-fashioned and out-dated philosophy, so that the platform in reality is its own worst enemy. From the outside it looks like a project and community in need of a clearer vision, better prioritizing and improved leadership.

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