Always customise your forum design

by Martin Reed on 12 July 2007 in Snippets

So you have finally chosen what forum software best suits your needs, chosen a great domain name, found a reliable web host and gone ahead and installed your forum. What do you do next? I would always suggest your very next step should be customisation.

Why customisation is important

Customise your forumYour forum needs to stand out from the crowd. Even if you think you have a specific niche that targets only a minority of Web users, there will more than likely be other communities out there competing with you for visitors and members.

Customisation of your forum not only differentiates you from your competition, it also shows visitors that you are dedicated and willing to go the extra mile in order to ensure the success of your community.

When you come across a new forum and see the standard install you have seen on countless other sites, what are your initial thoughts? Personally, I am immediately turned off as I have to go digging around for more information about the community as its subject is not immediately obvious through the design.

Avoid the default forum skins/themes

In my opinion, you should never stick with the default skin or theme packaged with your forum software. If you aren’t willing to shell out for a custom theme, a quick search on Google will yield you a plentiful number of sites that offer a number of different themes and skins for your particular forum software.

Sure, a free skin will not be completely unique – but if you are careful in your choice and avoid the skins that have been downloaded thousands and thousands of times, it is unlikely that others will have come across your design before they reach your community.

An original design for your forum immediately sets you apart from the competition and helps you to brand your community. There are so many free forum designs available that there really is no excuse for sticking with the standard installation.

Are you still using the default skin for your forum? Do you feel it is important to have a custom theme to differentiate your community? Whatever your thoughts are on this article, share them by leaving a comment below.

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Blogging July 12, 2007 at 4:35 pm

I agree with your points because it really does turn people off. Also, having a different theme makes your site look unique from others. Most forums with default skins don’t succeed (expect for a very small minority who succeed just because they have huge masses of members and activity).

aaron July 12, 2007 at 5:38 pm

I have to disagree somewhat. I change my header and the footer, but everything else stays default. Why? Because people aren’t there for the graphics or the features. They are there because of the community I have created. I want them to be able to settle right and know where everything is without looking. There are some forums where it will take me a few minutes to find certain things because the template is customized. I dislike fixed width forums, and find some forums hard to read. Basically, I’m saying that I think by trying to make your forum unique through the template, your taking the risk of turning off certain visitors.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 12, 2007 at 5:57 pm

Blogging – I think forums that do stick with the default theme can succeed, but they are not particularly inviting for the first time visitor. When a user arrives at your site for the first time, you want to make sure they know exactly what your site is about. You want to draw them in and make your site different to your competitors – this is easily done by customising your forum design.

Aaron – Thanks for your comment. I agree that sometimes people do take forum customisation a step too far and change things to such an extent that it makes the forum difficult to use.

In this article I am not endorsing such extremes. I agree that people become members for the community rather than the design, however a custom design creates a far better first impression than the standard default installation that a visitor will have seen many times already.

Converting visitors into members is a big challenge. Making simple customisations to your forum to ensure you look different from all the other communities online will encourage further investigation by the visitor.

Getting the initial interest is essential – having a custom design really does help. It makes your forum unique, helps you to brand your community and encourages the visitor to read your content.

Smiley July 12, 2007 at 7:46 pm

I cheated. I kept the standard ‘subsilver’ skin, but changed the colours etc myself to have it the kind of blue I want.

I’ve also changed the “post reply” “new topic” buttons, the next thing I’m going to do is customize the ‘sticky’, ‘announcement’, ‘locked’ etc etc little graphics.

Russ July 12, 2007 at 11:38 pm

There are two reasons that I still have the default skin on my forum:
1) I kind of like it
2) Whenever I modify anything to do with my forum the whole site breaks and I’m forced to backup everything up again. If I modify the theme even slightly it breaks. If I try to install a simple plugin it breaks. For that reason I’m quite happy sticking with the default skin.

Smiley July 13, 2007 at 1:02 am

Learn to code it properly?????

The first few times I customized my old site, it took the entire site down. I even had to pay a coder to restore my old database, it took him 3 days to do it cos I buggered it up that much.

But, point is, I can easily modify it now, because –we learn from our mistakes–!!

Nobody gets it perfect the first time ;)

Create some ‘test forums’ to test the customizations on !!

Biddy July 13, 2007 at 7:53 am

I did what Smiley did, and changed the colours on SubSilver radically to match the rest of the site. I agree with you that just leaving the absolute standard install is a bad idea, but equally customising everything so that your members have to start right at the bottom of the learning curve is also a bad idea: the nice thing about widely-used forum software like PHPBB is that people probably already have a good idea how it works, and you should take advantage of that: people who don’t have to think about how the site works have more time to create interesting content for you :-D

aaron July 13, 2007 at 7:50 pm

And that’s kind of what I’m talking about. People will spend hundreds of dollars on a custom forum design thinking that a cool looking forum draws visitors. When I visit a new forum, I completely skip the design (unless it’s just so obtrusive it’s hard to use) and go straight to what’s being talked about. That’s why I register and that’s why I stay. The design should always be secondary and should be something that complements the community. I’m not even sure a complete redesign should happen first. That should probably happen 6-12 months after the community has gotten started. What people should focus on to start out is features that differentiate their community from any other. Have a sports forum? Give me a fantasy league feature that I can’t find anywhere else.

Mike July 15, 2007 at 3:55 am

I paid for a custom skin for my forum. It is better than anything I could have produced. I think for a new forum, design is important. For a well established community however, I don’t think it matters as much as long as it is easy to read and navigate the site.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 15, 2007 at 6:06 am

Smiley – I like your idea of starting off making simple modifications. Small changes such as changing colours and the design of some icons can really give your site a personal touch without too much effort.

Russ – Your forum design is nice and clean; the fact there are fewer communities running SMF compared to say, phpBB also helps.

If you are having trouble with customisation, perhaps you should consider commissioning a designer or asking the SMF community for help and advice? Spending time working out how to customise your forum really is time well spent.

Biddy – You’re definitely right that the more widely used your forum software is, the more intuitive it is for your site’s visitors. Modifying template colours is one of the easiest ways you can differentiate your community. I would also suggest incorporating your own logo or header image, just as you have done.

Aaron – You are right that many people invest in expensive designs that are a complete failure in terms of usability.

I agree that design should always come second to content – however when it comes to first impressions, the majority of Web users are fickle; if something doesn’t look unique and interesting, they will often be turned off and continue surfing right past your website.

Mike – I am also a fan of your forum design. Yes, design is important but it should never get in the way of usability (as suggested by Aaron).

Sara August 19, 2007 at 11:29 pm

Well, I definitely personalized my theme and I am creating a brand that has nothing to do with my niche. I have a community for bloggers, but I am branding it as a laboratory because the site is called the Blog Experiment. I wanted to do something different to stick out from the crowd and something fun. Because of my domain name, I chose to go with that idea. Time will only tell if that was the right one!

Martin Reed - Blog Author August 20, 2007 at 9:07 pm

Sara – I love the way you have customised and incorporated some personality into your forum design. Keep up the good work – your forum definitely stands out from the crowd!

Ryan March 9, 2008 at 5:33 pm

2 weeks ago I uploaded a new theme to my site. It had been the default SMF theme, but I was tired of it plus it seems a pretty common piece of advice that forums should be at least somewhat unique in their designs.

The problem I had is that about half a dozen members have switched back to the default theme, which I’m going to be removing as soon as I at least look into their reasons for switching back. The comment that a couple of them gave was that they weren’t interested in learning to use a new design and wanted a forum design that looked like every other forum because it was easier.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 15, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Ryan – If your members like using the default theme, let them carry on with it. Many people are resistant to change; if you had the default theme then changed it, it’s only to be expected that there will be some resistance.

Have a unique theme as a default, but allow existing members the option of sticking with the default view for themselves.

Alvina March 17, 2008 at 4:27 pm

I added many forum skins for my members to choose from. Some I downloaded for free, others I created myself. I found that this was very liked among the members. Some prefer to use darker or lighter styles, so I added a bit of both. I think the main theme should reflect the theme of the forum. e.g. if it’s a fashion forum, add some fashion icons, if it’s a fishing forum, add some fishing forum icons and so on.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 17, 2008 at 7:24 pm

Alvina – Having members choose their favourite skin can definitely be beneficial. After all, you can never please all your members all of the time. Giving them a choice of their own theme can certainly improve their perception of your site’s usability.

I agree with you that the default design should be relevant to the content of the site. It should also be unique, too (in my opinion).