Monthly Archives: December 2012

Forums: when to have one?

I’m currently on the steering group to review and redevelop the website for my children’s school.  One of the issues raised has been whether we want to have a parents’ forum on the site.  This led me thinking to the kinds of situations in which forums are useful, and when they serve no purpose  or are even harmful.

I’m not a great one for online forums, but I do contribute from time to time to one.  It’s a community of people who have a common interest, for some a professional one.  We have between us a spectrum of strongly held views on certain topics, which sometimes get argued over on the site, though many contributions are not contentious in any way.

It’s ‘reactively moderated’, in other words posts go online at once, but a post which breaks guidelines will be withdrawn or edited by a moderator of the list. (When I joined, my first few posts were viewed by a moderator before being published, before I was deemed to be trustworthy. In those days the forum was on a different platform though.)  Editing by a moderator doesn’t actually happen very often; the usual reason is that something unacceptable has been said about a particular person (their precise date of birth, or the reason why they didn’t get a certain job, for example).

Perhaps it’s that this particular topic attracts reasonable, restrained people, but arguments rarely get beyond polite and reasoned disagreement and the system has worked well to date.

But a forum for the school would be different.  We see one another regularly face to face and any unpleasantness which broke out (e.g. because of an allegation of bullying, suspicion someone was having an affair or a complaint about a particular teacher) could be seen by many before a moderator had a chance to remove it, which could be very damaging.  So reactive moderation wouldn’t be enough; each post would have be be seen by an editor and approved, which would slow discussion down, especially if the editors didn’t log on very often (which parents at the school tend not to).

In general, forums don’t take off when the members meet frequently in person or have other means of discussing matters of interest such as a shared email list.  We tried one at work, and it never took off for this reason.  They work best when there is a scattered group of people with a shared but unusual interest.

the NHS and mobile devices

I’ve been looking at the website of my local hospital.  It has become extensive and provides very detailed information about what the hospital does.  In fact in some cases, such as the hospital’s family history programmes for certain cancers, the Web page is the only public source of information that exists.  (Whether a Web page should be the only source of information for such vital services is a can of worms that I won’t open here.)

But the website appears to have been designed with the browsing habits of a few years ago in mind.  One issue stands out: an assumption that the person viewing it will be doing so on something the size of a desktop PC.

Let’s put ourselves in the position of someone wanting to get some information about what the local NHS provides.  It’s really quite likely that they might not want others in their household to find out which pages they’ve been looking at.  In this situation, they’re likely to consult the site on their own mobile phone or other handheld device rather than on a shared PC or laptop.

However, the hospital web pages do not have this sort of accessibility.  They are long and image-heavy and key information is often deeply buried (not a good idea, whatever hardware the visitor is using).  For example, a list of risk factors for one common and deadly disease is only reachable on a 17-page PDF which you first have to download and then scroll several pages into.  No thought has been given to the anxious person who might be accessing the page on a mobile phone with a small screen and who pays by the megabyte for everything they download.

I have the impression that the website was developed a few years ago when handheld devices were not routinely used to access the Web.  By the time the site was ready, the world had moved on and it no longer fully met the needs of the public (something possibly true of other aspects of the NHS too?)