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Tanmay BhatiaCommunity Manager
Sunday, April 14 2024

Best practices for online community design and user experience

Designing for community-driven projects

How can we build an online community that encourages meaningful engagement and fosters community among its members?

While online spaces lack the ability to engage our five senses, they still hold significant power and importance. However, designing online communities to create the depth of relationships and sensory experiences found in physical spaces requires appropriate investment. To save time and effort, six key principles of online community design have been distilled based on research and work in the field. As you develop or refine your online community strategy, these principles should be kept in mind.

6 Best practices for online community design and user experience

1.For new members, create a digital entry or gate-crossing experience.

It's essential for a community to have a clear gate-crossing experience to distinguish between members and visitors. Accidental gate-crossing can weaken both experiences, so it's crucial to ensure that visitors understand they are outsiders when they arrive, especially when they find the community through an online search. If visitors want to become participants, they should intentionally make that shift.

To achieve this digitally, you can ask users to create a username and share their email only when they want to create something instead of just consuming existing content. Alternatively, you can ask them to enter a specific code or go through an initiation experience via email.

2.Welcome community members 

Automated welcomes, even if personalized, are not enough to make new members feel truly welcomed in a community. When there is little effort put into welcoming new members, the results are likely to be low conversion rates and high churn. While automating welcomes is a common practice, it can give the impression that the community doesn't care enough about new members.

If personal welcomes are not feasible, it's essential to at least acknowledge members as they arrive and recognize who they aspire to be. For instance, if you're welcoming software engineers to an open-source community, the welcome message should remind them of their shared identity as people committed to creating open, accessible, equitable, and flexible software.

3.Develop intentional onboarding 

Before participating in a community, visitors should have a clear understanding of its values, culture, and of its norms. When forums allow uneducated and immediate participation, it often leads to repeat questions and disorganized information, which signals to participants that conversations are poorly moderated. To address this issue, it's important to consider creating a robust and searchable knowledge base that connects to your community. Alternatively, limiting the number of contributions new members can make until they complete onboarding and learn the basics can also be effective.

4.Lead by example and use effective design.

Community leaders, including the community manager, play a crucial role in setting the tone for the community. They should model the ideal behaviors and values of the community and acknowledge those who do the same, both in public and private spaces. One way leaders can recognize others is by using badges, featuring their profiles, or tagging them in threads.

5.Make the community rules clear and follow them.

Simply burying community guidelines in the footer of your community site is insufficient. Instead, moderators should consistently and publicly moderate while making guidelines easily accessible. This includes having private conversations with both harassment victims and perpetrators.

It's important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing and enforcing community guidelines. Guidelines must evolve with the community and mature through ongoing conversations, meaning they should be revisited regularly.

6.Make sure the visual style corresponds to your brand and the ideal member experience.

Although it's acceptable to use templates and keep the design minimal when launching a community, it's inevitable that you'll need the assistance of an experienced User Interface (UI) Designer and visual designer to handle the look-and-feel design in the long run. By collaborating with these professionals and taking into account community member interactions and the community's mission, you can create a design that accurately reflects your brand and provides the desired member experience.

For instance, if your organization's goal is to make the community a joyful experience, a text-only front end with a Times New Roman font won't suffice. Instead, you should consider incorporating bright and warm colors, light and airy fonts, and imagery of joyful scenes to design a visually appealing community.

How to Put These Ideas to Use?

Regardless of how beautiful your online community is, it will fail to meet expectations if you disregard these principles. It's crucial to implement these principles as you design your community, using them as a checklist to ensure that you build on a solid foundation. However, it's important not to overthink or become trapped in analysis paralysis. Your community doesn't need to perfectly address all principles at launch. You can begin by applying a few of them effectively before progressing to optimize all six.

Ultimately, similar to how there is no perfect human being, there is no perfect community design. The only way to create something worthwhile is to experiment, learn, iterate, and repeat.

Join us in our NblIK community, and together we can create a powerful network of individuals who share the same goals and interests. We can all benefit from each other's knowledge & experiences, so join us today and become part of something great!

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