A New User’s Experience Installing and Using bbPress

bbPress is a 10 year old project that’s supposed to make it easy to attach a forum to WordPress. On the day after Christmas in 2004, Matt Mullenweg spent an entire weekend coding an alternative to miniBB, from the ground up that at the time, powered the WordPress support forums. bbPress was stand-alone software until 2011, when the release of 2.0 transformed it into a WordPress plugin,

Over the years, I’ve kept a close eye on bbPress but I’ve never used it for a project of my own. Since I’m only a new user once, I decided to document my experience of configuring and using it for the first time.

Activation and Configuration

Locating bbPress is easy as it usually shows up as a Featured Plugin on the Add New plugin screen. Once activated, a welcome screen displays information on what’s new, credits, and a link at the bottom to visit the forum settings.

bbPress Welcome Screen After Activation
bbPress Welcome Screen After Activation

When visiting the forum settings screen, I’m presented with a list of options with checkboxes and numbers. While there are not a lot of things to configure, I think a better presentation of the various options would be to split each major section into a tab of its own. Although it was my choice to visit the forum settings from the Welcome screen, I think the Welcome screen is a good place to use Admin Pointers to help new users create a new topic, forum, etc. I don’t understand why the Welcome screen has a link to forum settings since a new install won’t have anything to configure.

bbPress Forum Settings Screen
bbPress Forum Settings Screen

While on the forum settings screen, I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to configure in order for the forum to display on the frontend. At this point, I visit the Documentation section of bbPress.org and locate a Getting Started guide. It turns out, the guide is of no use to me or anyone else for that matter.

Getting Started To Nowhere
Getting Started To Nowhere

The left hand sidebar has a list of related links which point to several different articles on user roles, conditional tags, and functions. It took some effort on my part, but I finally found the article on Getting Started with bbPress. This page should be linked to from the Documentation main page for the Getting Started link. This simple change will save users time and frustration.

Creating Forums

Using the Getting Started guide, I created my first forum. Since forums are Custom Post Types, the forum editor looks similar to the Post Editor. It would be nice if hints displayed above each field so users understand which part of the forum they’re connected to. For example, the title field should have a hint that says “Name of the forum” and above the editor, text that says, “A description of the forum”. Some of the items on the Forum creation screen make sense but it shouldn’t be assumed the user knows what each field corresponds to.

Creating a Forum in bbPress
Creating a Forum in bbPress

There are two different types of forums, forum and category. Forums contain topics and can be the parent of other forums. Categories can only contain forums and are primarily used as a method of organization. The nomenclature used is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Creating Topics

After creating a forum, I moved on to create a topic. Topics are similar to typical forum posts. Topics are one of the three Custom Post Types created by bbPress, which means the Topic editor uses the same interface you’d see when writing a post. Similar to creating forums, I’d like to see the fields labeled for consistency. Creating topics from the backend of WordPress is fairly easy after creating the first forum.

bbPress Topic Created From The Backend of WordPress
bbPress Topic Created From The Backend of WordPress

 

The Frontend of bbPress

Everything up to this point has been managed from the backend of WordPress. I’ve created a category, forum, and topic. It’s time to see how bbPress works on the frontend. Replying to a topic is straight forward. A form is supplied with quick tag support so visitors can easily style text. After hitting the submit button, the page reloads and the reply is shown. Sometimes, replies don’t show up immediately because they’re moderated by Akismet.

 

Replying to a Topic on The Frontend of bbPress
Replying to a Topic on The Frontend of bbPress

Once I got a handle for how bbPress is structured and what categories, forums, topics, and replies look like, I went back to the Forum Settings page.

Not Easy Enough

bbPress is a plugin, and because of that, I expect to be able to turn it on and have everything ready to go. As you can see from my experience, it doesn’t always work out that way, especially when using a theme that doesn’t support it out of the box. The Getting Started guide is important information on understanding how to configure bbPress. Without it, I’d be lost in the dark.

My initial experience is rough around the edges and at times frustrating, as I couldn’t easily find the help I needed. I can only imagine how many others have gone through the same experience. Hopefully, a few changes will be made to bbPress and its website to create a smoother new user experience.

If you’ve recently installed or used bbPress for the first time, tell us about your experience in the comments.

30 Comments


  1. Honestly? bbPress sucks. It in no way is in the same category as WordPress. As a plugin it is way to difficult to customize, and makes too many assumptions. The default CSS for instance? Pure bloat, and it’s a mess to stripping it down is a chore and a half. I gave up. The CSS should cover basic layout only and should allow the forum to automatically take on the appearance of ANY theme. As it is it looks ugly with anything other than TwentyWhatever.

    As far as I have been able to tell, there is no good forum solutuion for WordPress, which is kind of shocking really.

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    1. I agree that it doesn’t look good with quite a few WordPress themes and while it would be great if it did, that’s a tough objective to accomplish. Instead, we should be rallying for all or most WordPress themes to add or have core support for bbPress. That way, it’s a match and the user doesn’t have to do anything except concentrate on organizing their forum. I’m going to write a post in the near future that explains how themes can do this.

      I haven’t used the forum plugins that are out there in awhile but when I used them a few years ago, they were just as difficult, if not more so to customize.

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  2. Justin Tadlock is building a new forum plugin25 as an alternative to bbPress. He cites the following underlying goals for it:

    + Be as lightweight as possible.
    + Offer the bare essentials for running a forum.
    + Focus on tools for developers more than features for users.
    + Allow plugins to extend it for user features.

    http://wpchat.com/t/justin-tadlocks-new-forum-plugin/355/4

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    1. I’ve been keeping an eye on his project. If it can do most of what bbPress offers but utilize a WordPress theme so that it doesn’t need additional CSS support, it could definitely gain some marketshare.

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  3. You think bbpress is not easy enough? You should so do this same kind of post for BuddyPress… :)

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    1. I’ve yet to install and give BuddyPress a try. You’re right, I should do a post on that and see how it goes.

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  4. I think Justin Tadlock’s new plugin looks like a promising solution. I suspect his plugin will offer a more polished experience.

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    1. It seems crazy to me that bbPress has been around for years and Justin Tadlock can whip up a plugin that has a more polished experience. Not that it’s impossible, but it sums up the situation with bbPress rather well.

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  5. Jeff,
    Thanks for this walk through. It’s been a number of years since I last tried bbpress.

    Your suggestions seem really sound. How about submitting them to the project as enhancements/bugs?

    I submitted some similar ui ideas to the buddypress project a while back, and they were incorporated into core on the next release.

    Thanks for all that voodoo that you do!

    Toby

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    1. Since this article was published, I’ve been given access to the bbPress Codex and the first thing I did was fix the links to the Getting Started guide. I’m actively involved with the project and team members to see what I can do to contribute. Since this site might use bbPress in the future to replace comments, I might as well jump in now.

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  6. I don’t really get all the hate for BBPress.. Whilst it’s not perfect I think it’s very usable once you get the hang of it. Customising takes a bit of trial of error but in the end I got BBPress looking and behaving nicely.

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    1. These are very damning descriptions of the plugin IMO:

      it’s very usable once you get the hang of it

      Customising takes a bit of trial and* error

      * edited to fix typo

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    2. I don’t have hate for bbPress, mostly disappointment. From how the project has been run over the years to the state of forums today and how it pales in comparison to what’s available.

      I got BBPress looking and behaving nicely.

      I’d never put you in the “common user” category. It’s just an observation but I think developers or those who have mild experience hacking things together enjoy bbPress. Adding the things it’s missing to fulfill a need isn’t so for them. Users have plugins but at the end of the day, a lot of people are looking for a solution that has most of what they need out of the box. bbPress in most cases doesn’t meet that criteria.

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  7. bbPress is a very poor relation to dedicated forum software and I agree with you Jeff the nomenclature is odd to say the least. It is one of the least intuitive plugins that i have ever used. Why oh why did the team remove the visual editor, the same can be said for the odd labels that are used in the front end display.

    But it is the only real solution at the moment. It is a pity the security problems with Mingle Forum could not be sorted as that was the closest I have ever come to a proper forum on WordPress.

    Let’s hope Justin’s plugin gets us closer to a proper forum.

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    1. I really have to disagree. Maybe it’s because I’m biased having contributed back to bbPress and having used it for 3-4 years, but I LOVE bbPress. Sure there are pain points but overall it’s superb.

      I challenge you to show me another plugin of its size that is as reliable and works so consistently with 99%+ of themes available. Show me one.

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      1. Sorry, I should have clarified. One that works as consistently and has massive amounts of output on the frontend.

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    2. I don’t think the Team removed the visual editor, it’s just disabled by default. http://codex.bbpress.org/enable-visual-editor/ but really, you shouldn’t have to touch any code to turn the Visual editor back on, it should be controlled on a per user basis, like WordPress does it.

      Actually, I found the ticket that describes why it was removed. You can read it here https://bbpress.trac.wordpress.org/ticket/1967 maybe we can revisit the ticket to see if there are still issues and it can be re-instated.

      I guess the nomenclature used in bbPress is not new but it’s just different from what I’m used to. I come from a phpBB2 and vBulletin background and they both use similar terms to describe things. There are definitely some things as I mentioned in the post that would help the new user experience.

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  8. Thank you for writing this, Jeff. I don’t like that bbPress got a poor review, but I do believe reviews like this are important because they help improve the software. It’s not often that you can get good, honest, helpful feedback beyond “this sucks”.

    By the way, the nomenclature of “forum” and “category” are not new ideas to bbPress. They’ve been around a lot longer and in other forum software. My plugin has the same terms, so it’s good to know those were odd to you.

    I have mad respect for anyone who has put time into building bbPress. It’s a lot of work trying to get WordPress to be a forum. You really have to jump through some crazy hoops because WP doesn’t exactly make it easy to do a lot of stuff.

    When I release version 1.0 of my plugin, I expect the same treatment with its review. :)

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    1. I’ve been dissing bbPress for a long time. I’ve never gone through the process of installing and using the darn thing because in a real world situation, I’d never choose bbPress to power my community, especially when there are dedicated forum solutions that are in another league. So that’s why I decided to sit down and write this post, to chronicle my experience as a first time user.

      The nomenclature may not be new, but it’s new to me. After using phpbb2 for a few years and then vBulletin, that software doesn’t use those terms. They use threads, replies, categories, but not Topics and Voices.

      I’m willing to give your plugin a shot. It probably won’t have what I want out of the box to which you’ll tell me there’s plugins for that. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “there are plugins available that do that”. Great, but I want it all in one solution, not a core with 20 or more plugins, not to mention these are WordPress plugins now.

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  9. One of the things I find it hard in bbPress is customization… There are so many templates to change that sometimes it is crazy to keep track of or to know what files do or include something .

    Indeed after a time you might understand everything, but at first, you’re gonna almost lose your mind trying to figure it out.

    I like the simplicity of Message Board, but I also think it is too early to consider it for a client project… Maybe in the future and with more development, but right now, it seems it’s only Theme Hybrid Board.

    Also, I see the development of the plugin only being made by Justin.

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    1. It’s definitely too early for my plugin. There’s still structural stuff dealing with data that’s not in place or is changing. Once that is ironed out, we’ll be a lot closer. The only reason I’m running it on a live site is because I tend to live on the edge. That, and the best way to work out kinks out is to put the plugin into real-world use.

      I’m definitely the only person developing the plugin. Sometimes, that’s better when you need to keep a focused goal and work toward it. Contributions are always welcome though!

      I’m right there with you on the template situation with bbPress. I’m going to try my best to cut that way back in my own plugin, but there’s a lot to handle. Realistically, a forum has so many more parts than your standard blog + pages site. It’s just going to naturally have a lot more templates.

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      1. If it matters, I think Mingle Forum, depsite being a bit dated looking essentially got the CSS side of things right. It was fairly easy to strip out all uneeded CSS and leave just enough to have the forum inherit theme CSS for everything except for critical, forum specific layout. bbPress gets this VERY, very wrong on the other hand.

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      2. Let me ask you something Justin, would it be easier for you to create your forum plugin as stand alone software that has a simple bridge to the WordPress user base? What benefits do you get other than tight integration by developing it as a plugin?

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  10. “It turns out, the guide is of no use to me or anyone else for that matter.”

    Sooooooo true. I did an install coupled with a phpBB import, took me three tries to get it done properly and some help from my host.

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  11. Jeff, I’ve tried BBPress in the past and found it really difficult to use. May be its just me.. but even the guide doesn’t help.

    Customizing it is a real pain in the a**. May be advanced users can do it, but 90% people would find it difficult.

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    1. I’ve yet to go so far as to start customizing the forum but when I do, I’ll write about that experience as well. I’m not looking forward to it based on what others have reported.

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  12. Jeff, I’m just catching up on your replies from earlier. Maybe I won’t miss anything.

    It seems crazy to me that bbPress has been around for years and Justin Tadlock can whip up a plugin that has a more polished experience.

    “Whip up” is probably not right. I built a forum plugin years ago. Plus, hindsight and all.

    I built the first rought draft of my new plugin in two days and had it running live on Theme Hybrid inside of a week. Since then, I’ve been spending every free moment I have polishing things.

    I don’t know if version 1.0 of mine will be more polished than bbPress. However, I’m not going to have all the same features, so that leaves me with time to work on the smaller feature set. Sometimes, simple is better for the overall user experience.

    The nomenclature may not be new, but it’s new to me. After using phpbb2 for a few years and then vBulletin, that software doesn’t use those terms. They use threads, replies, categories, but not Topics and Voices.

    I was referring to only the “forum” and “category” terms. The other terms are definitely different from a lot of other forum software, but forum and category are fairly standard from what I’ve seen.

    Nomenclature isn’t such a big deal though if things are adequately explained. Putting “glossary” on the to-do list…

    I’m willing to give your plugin a shot. It probably won’t have what I want out of the box to which you’ll tell me there’s plugins for that…

    Now’s a good time to let me know about features you’d like to see. Ultimately, I’m going to put in the features I want, but if you don’t tell me about the features you want, I might not ever want them. Follow?

    There’ll definitely be times when I feel it’s appropriate to use an add-on plugin. There’ll also be times when someone other than me has a great idea about what should be a part of the core plugin.

    Let me ask you something Justin, would it be easier for you to create your forum plugin as stand alone software that has a simple bridge to the WordPress user base? What benefits do you get other than tight integration by developing it as a plugin?

    It’d be both easier and harder to build it as standalone software. Working with the current WP APIs has its limitations in a lot of ways. Those limitations could easily be surpassed with some custom tables and custom APIs. There are some real pain points when trying to build, not just a forum plugin, but any plugin of this scale with WordPress.

    However, there are many other useful things than the built-in user integration, more important than the user integration in some ways: themes, roles, capabilities, formatting, plugin API (hooks), entire WP admin, and the list goes on. In the long run, as WP matures as a CMS, some of the current limitations will disappear. I built my first forum plugin about 4 years ago with WP. I can honestly say that it was much easier this time around with some of the newer developer features.

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  13. I have had positive experiences with bbPress. In previous sites I have used vBulletin as it seems to be the most used commercial forum package out there but I found the customisation very painful (perhaps they have improved it since v4? Their admin was a million miles away from WP).

    I ended up moving to bbPress when v2.0 was released (I had tried and dismissed the previous version). Theme compatibility was an issue, but it works well with StudioPress Genesis (thanks to a helper plugin) so that hasn’t been a problem for me. And at least this gives you a chance of an integrated user experience, there is no way I would be able to style vBulletin, MyBB, etc to match my blog! Before bbPress I’d have to manage two systems which looked and felt like two different sites.

    Setting up is very straightforward imo. You just need to add your forums like anywhere else, the user management aspect is all through WordPress. So Im not sure how any other forum package makes this job easier?!

    Customisation has been easy enough, writing a plugin is straightforward if you are familiar with WP plugins. The general concepts are the same (it is based around custom posts after all!) and there are a number of bbPress hooks that have allowed me to do all I need.

    The advantage of having it seamlessly integrated into WordPress makes all the difference to me. As a hobby blogger the convenience of having one system to manage is perfect, and it now actually feels like I have one integrated site rather than miss-matched off the shelf products. Sure, it isn’t so feature rich but I never used 99% of what eg vBulletin offered me anyway so I really don’t miss it! And actually lots of cool additions are available through standard WP plugins! I found other forums eg vBulletin plugins to be very disappointing, I was lead to believe I would be spoilt for choice but they often did work for certain versions or were long abandoned… we really are spoilt at WP.

    Hopefully being an Automattic associated plugin means that it will have some longevity and continued investment however my only criticism is the slow pace of development, it’s been a long time since there has been a release whilst eg BuddyPress has enjoyed multiple iterations.

    Thankfully @JJJ has been funded by a few of us via Indiegogo to dedicate some time to making it better. I hope he makes some good progress and would happily donate again to keep the momentum.

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