phpBB 3 User Interface Thoughts

After 4 years, the phpBB team have finally released an update to their forum software. phpBB 3 Beta 1 was released last night. There is a list of new features at and you can download it at the bottom of the development page.

Bloat and Configuration 

The main thing I notice about phpBB 3 is that they are playing catch up to the other bulletin boards. As a result, phpBB 3 contains a ton of bloat and crap which has probably been implemented simply because other forums have it. I can’t see why anyone wants to be able to configure the minimum and maximum username/password length or why anyone would want to be able to display the fact that Google is currently crawling the forums on the "Who’s Online" list.

Features such as these make the new phpBB admin interface a lot more cluttered and it’s much harder to complete some of the basic tasks a forum admin might want to perform on his/her forum every day. Take a look at the following screenshot for sheer banality:

CAPTCHA Settings

I don’t have half a clue what these options do – there is no preview, no information on what they do and why anyone would want to configure these settings in the first place is beyond me. Administrators simply want a CAPTCHA to stop bots. They don’t want to be able to decide whether their captchas are composited, have cells or how much entropy pixel noise there is.

For me, CAPTCHAs are one of the worst "improvements" in phpBB 3. I’ve posted a couple of examples of phpBB 3 CAPTCHAs before and they are absolutely terrible.

One of the best things about phpBB 2 compared to IPB and vBulletin was that the Admin panel actually made sense and that a normal administrator could actually work their way through the admin panel and get their job done. The admin panel shouldn’t be the home to geek toys and it should not ask the user to configure things they really don’t care about.

phpBB PM 

I’m sure there are plenty of nice features in phpBB which are long awaited but I had difficulty finding them. This is my first time using phpBB 3 and it took me great difficulty to even find the Personal Messenger and then the button to send a message! (I expected there to be a send message button in the content area of the inbox). Then when I got there the crazy people at phpBB decided that there wouldn’t be a text box where I could enter the name of the recepient in. Nooo! Instead, there is a "Send to" box in the sidebar (which I wouldn’t look at unless I wanted to navigate the User CP) and there is a different text box to use depending on whether I wanted to send it to one person or multiple people. 


I can’t help but think all the major bulletin boards are getting it very wrong. Normal people don’t want more features, they want improved usability and simpler interfaces. Office 2007 and Firefox have shown us that. phpBB 3 makes an active effort to get in the way as much as possible and make your forum life as unpleasant as possible.

15 thoughts on “phpBB 3 User Interface Thoughts

  1. I forgot to mention the icons you’ll see on each post.

    Post Icons

    Icons in order: Report, Post Details, Warn User, Delete

    First of all Report and Warn User use the exact same icons which is just plain wierd since they do totally different things. Delete looks more harmless than Report does.  

  2. phpBB nees to be put to rest – it’s the only humane thing left to do.

     Speaking of bad interfaces, you REALLY should look at your blog comment form, Cow…  

  3. "The main thing I notice about phpBB 3 is that they are playing catch up to the other bulletin boards. As a result, phpBB 3 contains a ton of bloat and crap which has probably been implemented simply because other forums have it. I can’t see why anyone wants to be able to configure the minimum and maximum username/password length or why anyone would want to be able to display the fact that Google is currently crawling the forums on the "Who’s Online" list."


    minimum/maximum username/password length is for asthetics and security, respecitvly. It is annoying if you get many users with "names" like ‘.’ and ‘-‘ (those are real examples…) you can thusly set it so they need a set number of characters. As for the search engines, this is for SEO, which was a majorly requested feature, and isn’t bloat in the sense that it just uses information from the session; it doesn’t require anything more than a few hundreths of a milisecond to process the bots. 


    "Take a look at the following screenshot for sheer banality"


    The CAPTCHA and its options are very fluid at this point in time. Infact, the whole ACP is in terms of labeling and general layout. We are looking to only ship with three of the new captcha’s, of which puzzle (the obscure number squares) and 3D bitmap (the wavy one) might get the chop first. 


    The style you see currnetly is also not going to be the final style. The new style addresses some of the confusions you’ve noted (not least the warn user/report post icons) 


    Your comments are welcome though. If you would like to help us foster more helpfull conversation about such "quirks" of the beta, please feel free to take a few mins to post a new topic in our beta support forum:



  4. Hehe Oscar. The CAPTCHA I added simply because there was too much spam and I needed to implement the CAPTCHA anyway. Besides the CAPTCHA, it’s a pretty standard comment form you’ll find on any other blog. Any suggestions welcome.

    NeoThermic: Thanks for clearing some of it up. I understand the reason why there is a minimum/maximum username/password length but I do not understand why it needs to be configurable from the Admin CP. This is a feature most people will not need or ever use.

    I’m not really sure why search engines need to be detected – I thought that sites were penalized for sending special content to search engines. Besides, having GoogleBot show on the Online List is just silly.

    I presume that you represent the phpBB team so I should congratulate this on this update and I think it’ll turn out to be a fantastic product after refinement. I can’t wait to see the new style. Hopefully some of the usability issues will be sorted out before release. 

  5. You’re complaining that now the new Captcha system is better, with more options? Do you want all of the Captchas on every phpBB installation to be the same, for the bots can read them and understand what the captcha says? DOn’t think so. The new features are to prevent this… and, for customisability. Hey, if they bother you, ignore them.

    Although I see your point. phpBB was supposed to be the ‘lightweight’ bulletin board. But hey, it’s for the better.

  6. Yes, I would say that having the customizable CAPTCHAs are pointless. First of all, nobody wants to configure the CAPTCHA so they’ll all end up being the default ones. If the point of those options is to have a different CAPTCHA for every board, automatically randomize the settings on install! End users do not and should not be asked to configure CAPTCHAs – it is bad for usability and the end user does not care what the CAPTCHA looks like but the fact it works.

    Just look at Mozilla Suite which has an option for everything and Firefox which hardly has any options but the options it has are meaningful and useful. In the suite, sure you could ignore these pointless options but the amount of time it takes for you to find what you’re looking for still increases.

  7. I disagree with your assessment of phpBB 3, and here is why.

    First you look at the CAPTCHA options and complain that you don’t have the slightest idea what those options mean. But of course you don’t, you haven’t read the documentation yet! If you’re happy with the default captcha, you can freely ignore that page, but if you want it to work differently I appreciate having the power to change it. I concede that some of the captchas are bordering on unreadable, but that’s an issue they’re working on. This is only a first beta, after all.

    After I took the time to understand how the control panel works, I realized just how much raw power it gave me compared to that of phpBB2. While user-level features should be simplified as much as possible, it’s not unreasonable that *forum administrators* should actually have a brain. While users are typically unwilling to learn and their interfaces should be kept simple, forum admins should be expected to have some knowledge of the technology they’re operating. This is a complicated and powerful tool they’re configuring, after all. Yeah, it takes some time to get to know it – the permissions system threw me for a loop at first, too – but once you do, the flexibility it offers is unmatched.

    Private messages are not that hard to find. If you’re browsing the forum and see someone you want to message, just click on “PM” under their post. Otherwise, just click on “0 New Messages” at the top of the screen to proceed directly to the PM section of the User CP. Took me all of 5 seconds to find that.. I concede that the PM functionality could be simpler, it is a user-level feature after all, but it’s plenty simple enough.

    Oh, and just because you don’t care about setting min and max lengths for nicknames doesn’t mean that I don’t. Maybe I want to cap my nicknames at 9 characters, and disallow spaces, a la IRC. Maybe I just don’t want people using something the length of an essay for their nicknames. Either way, phpBB3 gives me a choice. If you can’t be bothered to make that choice, go with the defaults. I hear they’re pretty good.

  8. Eek, sorry about the lack of paragraphs in the above post.. seems your comment posting tool doesn’t translate CR/LF into HTML br’s, and there’s no preview tool so I didn’t realize that until it was too late.

  9. Interesting thoughts. Now, yes, there will be people who want to change those options but I don’t believe that a normal forum administrator should be asked to learn about the intricacies and ins and outs of the CAPTCHA tools. Forum administration should be accessible to someone with as little training as possible. Many of the new options phpBB 3 offers are options probably under 0.1% of forum administrators will ever change.

    Compare Mozilla Firefox which has very few options and Seamonkey which has loads. Seamonkey has a load more options and arguably is more powerful but it never took off in the way that Firefox does. phpBB needs to have an interface that normal people can access and perhaps an advanced interface for those who desire the extra power. This could be done through an "Advanced" section, an about:config-type page like Firefox or something along those lines. The problem is the complexity of the ACP makes it too hard to change very basic options.

    Regarding finding the PM, perhaps yes – I did miss that. However, I am speaking only as an end user who has never used phpBB 3 before. I may miss things as will others. 

    Regarding line breaks, It’s supposed to load a rich text editor but it doesn’t yet work in Safari and doesn’t work if JS is disabled. I need to make it to translate line feeds when in plain text mode

  10. Simplicity has it’s usefulness for "normal people," as you say. However, the "I shouldn’t have to learn anything to use this software" attitude is very dangerous for a forum administrator. That’s the mindset of an admin who can’t be bothered to read the instructions, is careless about configuration and applying patches.. the likely outcome is that his forum will get hacked in pretty short order.

  11. Your forum shouldn’t get hacked if your careless about configuration. Forums aren’t just used by webmasters on their own servers but you also have people who administrate forums for a friend, have forums set up for them and people who have forums hosted at services such as Invisionfree. You should not need to be a geek or to have any technology knowledge to run a forum.

    Firefox, for example, comes with a good set of default options. If you don’t even touch them, your browser will be secure and have sensible options. If you use the default options on phpBB, your board should also be secure and sensibly configured. 

    Anyway, I don’t see the sense in making an interface more complicated as geeks love simple interfaces too. 

  12. Dude i dont know what your talking about, I love PHPBB3, I love having all these extra options possible. Its like MSpaint upgrading to Photoshop or Jasc. Yeah there are alot more things there but you dont HAVE to use them. They just let the people who want to tweak it a bit more the ability to do so. I love where phpbb is going. Keep it up!!!

  13. I was unaware just how important the ability to modify captchas really is. After months of trying this, that, and the other thing to try and fight spam I came across a webpage that shows you how to modify the base captcha that comes with phpbb2. All I did was modify the captcha so that the bottom third of the letters were obscured and all automated spam was ELIMINATED. I have no mods installed whatsoever, all it took was the changing of 2 values, but in retrospect I bet it could even be done changing only one value.

    Anyway long story short, you don’t need Visual Confirmation or any of those hordes of anti spam mods. You don’t need a new captcha. All you need is to obscure the bottom third of the stock captcha that comes with phpbb and you will eliminate the automated spam. Manual entry spam is a different story though.

    As for the comment that one should not need to be a geek in order to run a forum, I take issue with this. Sure forums these days are easier to use, but running one without the technical savvy is like driving through the desert without knowing how to repair your vehicle. You can do it, but if you hit a serious snag, you’re totally screwed. I can’t tell you guys how many times I’ve been surfing a forum looking for people with similar problems and come across posts like "I don’t know how to program, but I’m trying to fix this issue.." I avoid posts like that like the plague and I’m willing to bet that many others with the appropriate knowledge do too because you just know that you are going to have to work with someone like that on a step to step basis, and there aren’t many people willing to do that on a constant basis, for free.

    "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology."
    Carl Sagan

  14. Actually I thought version 3 was very well done.  I would much rather have more options than I need; I can always ignore the options I don’t need.  You said "The admin panel shouldn’t be the home to geek toys and it should not ask the user to configure things they really don’t care about."  How do you know what others care about?  It sounds like what you’re really saying is that the software shouldn’t contain features that confuse you personally or don’t interest you personally.  Presuming everyone is like you is not an optimal way to view the world.

    The admin interface took maybe 30 minutes to figure out.  I really didn’t find it that confusing nor do I think it gets in the way of using my forum.  I was actually pleasantly surprised by how well put together it was.  Moderation, for instance, is very powerful, allowing topic splitting, copying, etc.  Permissions are exhaustive and extensive.  The list goes on.

    The default "skin" looks very professional and easily allows for simple customization just by replacing the graphic. 

    Everyone wants usability and stability.  You say "normal" people (whoever they are) don’t want features but features are what actually provide usability.   I don’t think the solution is to remove features; rather I think it’s better to provide more features and then set useful defaults so that a "normal" user doesn’t have to touch them.  This really gives us the benefit of both worlds.  Again, presuming everyone is like you tends to be detrimental in the long run.

    And, in the end, remember that it’s free software.  If you don’t like it you should probably suggest the development team modify it.  Or maybe it’s better just to use something else that does do what you want, even if you have to buy it.  If you buy something and it doesn’t deliver then you’ve purchased the right to bitch, otherwise it sounds childish.  They’ve given you something for free and you’ve thrown it back in their faces telling them it’s not good enough.  My son would go in "time out" for that.

    If you believe in the software then work for change and improvement.  If you don’t, then you should probably just move on.  There are other fish in the sea. 

    Thanks for listening. 

  15. phpBB3 has a really mean user rights management. Really terrible and confusing – i really can’t believe they changed the wonderful and easy to handle UI of phpBB2 in such a monster. Why isnt’t it possible to set standards for all new forums? The Copy thing is just ridiculous – and why does an admin with full access has no right to set sticky posts? yes – because you have to set this also!
    im really disapointed
    actually yes – the trend goes to more simple. the best thing is a good combination. if everything is thought about well there can be a lot of functions and the handling keeps simple.

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