Designing for Community

I was reading this blog post by Andrew Chen on the importance of designing for community. Got me thinking.

In his blog post, Andrew gives the example of Dribbble, the site for designers that curates new community members in the form of “drafts” or community nominations. Great example, but other than this, Andrew doesn’t get into the specifics of how one can successfully design and foster online communities.

Why is Community so important?

It’s a noisy world out there, and it’s only getting noisier. When it comes to building a company for the long-term, few things matter more than community. In fact, if there’s one “magic bullet” with the potential to cause one small, 13-person start-up to be valued at over a Billion dollars, I would venture to guess that the answer would be Community.

Yet, relatively little has been written about this critical element of building long-term start-up value. Why is that? And why are we (“we being the start-up community) so focused on talking about marketing, PR, Social Media and “Virality” instead?

I think it’s three things:

  1. Designing for, and fostering a large and engaged community is hard. It requires a lot of thought, care, and most importantly, patience. (Now, my definition of community may be different from yours. To me, a community is an actively engaged set of users that interact with each other frequently. A large community consists of anywhere from a few hundred thousand to several million active users.)
  2. Building a community is a highly specialized problem, very specific to the start-up in question.
  3. It could just be a general sense of lassitude, but as a culture, we are mesmerized by objects and experiences that grant us the promise of immediate gratification. We want results and we want them now, without having to invest a lot of time or money into it. It’s not hard to imagine then, why we would much rather get our hands on a shortcut or gimmick that promises to propel our obscure startup into the technological hall of fame, over doing things the long and hard (albeit tried and tested) way.

That said, I do think that there are some common elements to designing communities. Wouldn’t it be great if someone took the time to create a “Design for Community Playbook” to help the rest of us? Yes, yes it would.

But first, what are some of the common characteristics of a community? And what makes a community a community? Understanding this is critical to “hacking” our way into designing successful communities, and in turn, building long-term value. Courtesy this great presentation by Joshua Porter:

  1. Software doesn’t make communities, people do.
  2. You don’t create communities, you cultivate them.
  3. You probably have a community whether you know it or not.
  4. Communities change over time; they grow and evolve.
  5. Communities need to be managed.
  6. Communities form around activities, not necessarily software.
  7. You can’t own a community.
  8. Not everyone gets along in a community.
  9. Community is more than support, it’s about getting better.

In fact, one of Joshua’s key points is that software that connects product users and lets them help each other is the most efficient way out. When you support an activity, when you make people better at that activity, by either helping them directly or helping them help each other, then you gain the  opportunity for that group of people to call themselves a community.

Another key point – the benefits of having the community scale as the community grows, and the cost of maintaining and managing the community accordingly diminishes.

Hopefully you’re now sold on the importance of an online community and it’s benefits. But what are some key things you could do to foster and grow a community of active users for your start-up? Over the next series of posts, I’m going to throw a few ideas your way – so subscribe and stay tuned for updates.


21. July 2013 by Kunal Punjabi
Categories: Marketing, Product Management, User Acquisition | Tags: | Leave a comment

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