Community Success Factors 4: Design & Nurture
Posted July 20, 2009on:
This is Item 4 of my 8 Critical Success Factors for Virtual Communities post.
You cannot build a community just by building a website: the importance of good interface design and community nurture should not be underestimated. The following eight considerations are particularly relevant to set-up and growth phases:
- Familiar features: It’s tempting to re-invent the way we use the web over and over and over. And after all, all the cool new ways we interact online had to come from somewhere, right? But a new online presence should be built with a view of the ‘ocean of practice’ out there (Shirky, 2008) and create a user experience that rivals, if not mimics other communities, to ensure features are not so alien to potential members they feel unsure of how to use them. Until there are sufficient members to generate interesting interactions, encouraging people to come join a community is always a challenge. Features which demand minimal amounts of user commitment, time and thought can entice people to participate and get the community going. However, there’s no need to stop at the basics, see point 6 on adaptive community platforms.
- Scalability: Virtual communities can only support burgeoning growth if the platform they are hosted on is scalable. Clay Shirky (2008) gives an example of a ‘success crisis’ where bulletin boards to discuss a stolen mobile phone crashed under the weight of user demand. Keeping a view of membership numbers and visitor traffic is essential to ensure a community does not become a victim of its own success.
- Navigability: Growth can also lead to navigation problems. The coherent structuring of content and competent search mechanisms become ever more important the larger a community becomes. Allowing the community to assist with or entirely determine content categorisation can be considered. User-tagging is a good way of achieving this – for example Digg requires members to tag submitted stories with topics such as ‘technology’ or ‘science.’ Another approach is to structure the wider group into ‘subgroups’, which are essentially subdivisions of the wider community.
- Facilitating intimacy and privacy: In the real world we are used to flexible discourse: communicating in a variety of ways depending on mood or purpose. Though not to go so far as to say ‘the medium is the message‘, mode of communication affects how people interact. In addition to this, many-to-many versus one-to-one should be considered. “People use the public spaces to meet others, but once a social connection is established, they often prefer to develop the connection in private” (Mansell & Steinmueller). Virtual community members will often be observed swapping details to continue conversations more privately. Managers should be aware that forcing users to post these makes them vulnerable to risks such as having their emails harvested by search robots. This suggests the implementation of personal messaging as part of community software.
- Knowing who’s there: Another consideration is fostering togetherness, or “beside-each-otherness’ (Steven G Jones): a system can create this by showing users who else is online. A community platform should cater for the varying levels of intimacy, detail and speed best suited to the group and its members. twitter does not allow you to see whether others are online, whereas Facebook does. This leads ‘lurking’ to feel safer on twitter, as people are never expecting a reply from you. This is particularly important on twitter as once someone has many followers, the amount of @mentions that accumulate can become too many to deal with immediately.
- Adapting to the community: A community should start with familiar features but its design should evolve in line with its membership. To facilitate this managers should provide several lines of contact. An adaptive community platform is basically one where members are listened to, observed and responded to: this is why the more technically flexible it is, the better. Jeremy Keith uses the example of twitter responding to ’emergent behaviour’. Users of twitter started using the ‘@’ sign to indicate who a message was directed at. System administrators then made this clickable – so users could follow the post through to the intended recipient’s profile. A community’s web developer should be as far inside the head of its members as possible before any website is built and throughout the life of the virtual community.
- User-adaptation: (This requires advanced online software.) In addition to having skilled engineers to facilitate changes, enabling users to adapt the system themselves is an option that can help give members a sense of belonging. This has been successful in Linden Lab’s Second Life, where users can build virtual objects for others to interact with.
- Community oversight: A flourishing community needs people with the right skills behind the scenes. Back in 1993 Howard Rheingold wrote that the WELL was “nurtured in the beginning by a small group of dedicated individuals.” Community managers should know when to step in, when to encourage and inspire, when to move things around, and when to keep quiet.