Discourse trial for UK Service Designers

As part of my job for DWP, I try to take part in cross government discussions about service design, patterns, work flow, etc. I’m part of a mailing list along with lots of other talented people all trying to improve the services we deliver.

Recently it has become necessary for the community to move away from a platform it has been using to document and discuss design patterns. This blog post is my examination of “Discourse” a platform I’ve volunteered to set-up as a help to those interested in trialling it and hopefully for people using assistive technologies to put it through it’s paces to ensure it meets their needs and the accessibility needs of others.

Video overview

For those wanting a quick and easy visual overview I’ve created a screencast to demonstrate ‘Discourse’ and give a few of my thoughts.

You can read below a summary of what I say in the screencast.

What is discourse?

Officially it describes itself as a 100% open source discussion platform built for the next decade of the Internet. It works as: a mailing list, a discussion forum, a long-form chat room

From what I’ve seen it could be a nice combination of discussion and documentation.

The original “topic” (or pattern in our case) would be the pattern outline documentation which can be directly discussed in general in the form of replies (with quotations and @replies). However related topics can be created to discuss aspects of it. Which is similar to HackPad but rather than discussion being inline (and in my personal opinion breaking the reading flow) they are linked off to related topics. Once consensus has been found the original topic can be edited (and versioned with a history) and the spin-off discussion can be archived but accessible.

How does it meet the service design community needs?

Caroline Jarrett has collated a great list of what people would like to see from the service that eventually replaces Hackpad. So when I had spare time over the last few weeks I’ve landed upon 'Discourse’ that seems to meet all the following needs:

  • I can access the tool from work and home.
  • I can easily see who wrote what.
  • I can get updates when pages change.
  • I can get updates when someone mentions me.
  • markdown support
  • pasting images from the clipboard
  • pasting animated GIFs
  • code formatting
  • I can see a history of edits for a page.
  • I can view a page without being signed in to anything.
  • I can find content by searching.
  • I can find content by searching on google.

Other things Discourse does that might be nice for our users:

  • Sign up with your Twitter or Github account.
  • Diff versions of a topic/pattern.
  • User management
  • Polls (Create polls within patterns with markdown!)

Concerns or Where it potentially doesn’t meet needs

  • How intuitive it is to use.

  • It has high browser support requirements (Quoting IE10+) but I believe most 'GSI’ machines have a version of Firefox that will work? please test this.

  • “I can create a new page just by creating a link to it”. was a feature pointed out in Janet’s list. It doesn’t quite do that but it does do something similar called “Replay as linked topic” and generally creating a new page is via the 'new topic’ button or keyboard shortcut.

  • Javascript Off is not a great experience (Can it actually be used with no-js? Is that important?)

  • Accessibility needs testing by people that know more than I do

What now?

I’m by no means an expert at configuring Discourse and I’m happy to invite members of the mailing list to be staff/administrators so that we can find what works should it meet our needs.

It is currently hosted on the Digital Ocean Cloud service I’ve personally paid for so I’ll keep an eye on the cost over the next two weeks and should it get used a lot we might have to get that quickly changed over to an official hosting environment to ensure I keep a roof over my head. :)

Anybody else that wants to try Discourse for themselves or wants good instructions for installing on their own environment via Docker can follow the official instructions as I did.

We could maybe try tools like the HackPad CLI for exporting the existing HackPad to markdown. It might speed up adding it to Discourse or whatever the final solution is for storing and discussing design patterns.

Try it

You can try it by browsing and/or signing up to: design-patterns.uk

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