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6 Principles for Online Community Design

Because digital spaces do not engage our five senses, it can be challenging to create the depth of relationships and sensory experiences created naturally in physical spaces.

Because digital spaces do not engage our five senses, it can be challenging to create the depth of relationships and sensory experiences created naturally in physical spaces. This is, of course, not to say that online spaces have less power or importance; we simply have to invest appropriately in their design to see results.

Luckily, you do not have to squander time discovering what appropriate investment looks like. Others have blazed the trail before you. Quicken, Acer, and Qualtrics are all examples of brands that have connected people digitally for years, successfully gathering tens of thousands of people online. And, as of 2019, over half of the top-valued global startups had invested in online community strategies.

Based on their work and research in the field, I’ve distilled 6 key principles of online community design. As you begin creating or revising your online community strategy, be sure to keep these principles in mind.

Let’s begin.

1. Create a digital entry or gate-crossing experience for brand new members.

People should not find themselves in your community accidentally. They should pass through a gate-crossing experience. When “accidental gate-crossing” occurs, it blurs the lines between members and visitors and weakens both experiences. If visitors arrive in your community as a result of an online search, for example,  they should be aware that they’ve arrived as an outsider, and are not yet a member of the community. For those who then choose to participate – shifting their status from a visitor to participant – it’s important to make sure that the experience is intentional.

Digitally, you can do this by having users make a username and share their email only when they want to create something, rather than consume existing content. Or you can have them enter a specific code, or go through a thoughtful initiation experience via email.

2. Welcome members.

Generic welcomes only go so far. Automated welcomes, even if personalized to some degree, reflect a lack of care for new members. It is not that automating welcomes is wrong—after all, it is common practice. But if you put in little effort to welcome new members, you will get results consistent with that effort, such as low conversion and high churn.

If personal welcomes are impossible, at least acknowledge members as they arrive for who they want to be. Suppose you’re welcoming software engineers to an open-source community. In that case, the welcome should remind members of their shared identity as people committed to creating open, accessible, equitable, and flexible software.

3. Create intentional onboarding. 

Visitors should recognize and understand the values, culture, and (at least some of the) norms before they participate. For example, in forums that allow uneducated and immediate participation, the inevitable experience of repeat questions signals to participants that conversations are not well-moderated and information is disorganized. Consider creating a robust, searchable knowledge base that connects to your community or  limiting the amount of contributions new members can make until they complete onboarding and learn the basics.

4. Model ideal behavior through leadership and design. 

Your community manager and other leaders will set the tone for everyone else. Leaders should model not only the ideal behaviors of the community but also recognize others who do the same, both in public and private spaces. Leaders can recognize others through badges, featured profiles, or tagging in threads.

5. Make community guidelines prominent and use them. 

It is not enough to bury guidelines in the footer of your community site. Moderators must consistently and publicly moderate and make guidelines easily accessible. This includes privately conversing both with harassment victims and with perpetrators.

There is no perfect way to write and enforce community guidelines. The good news is, there are plenty of places to get inspiration for your work, including past articles on the Vanilla blog. Guidelines will evolve with the community, and they mature in ongoing conversations. You should revisit them regularly.

6. Ensure the look and feel matches your brand and desired member experience. 

When first launching a community, it is okay to start with templates and keep design minimal. However, over time, there is no getting around it: to handle look-and-feel design, you will almost certainly need to work with an experienced User Interface (UI) Designer and visual designer. Together with  from your community member interactions and your community’s mission, you can create something that closely matches your brand and desired member experience.

For instance, if your organization states that using the community should be a joyful experience, your community should probably use a Times New Roman font and have a text-only front-end. Instead, you might want to design with bright and warm colors, light and airy fonts, and plenty of imagery of joyful scenes.

From a visual design perspective, you will also want to consider:

  • Layout: Make sure it is easy to find ways to engage, including discovering events and new posts and navigating to relevant subgroups. The layout should mimic mental models that members are already familiar with (e.g., the connections between a main group and subgroups). Consider how the layout presented will change, if at all, for first-time visitors, new members, or leaders, if your software makes it possible to customize the layout based on a member’s profile.
  • Calls to action: Consider the most important thing you want members to do when they are in your digital space and place that prominently. Do not distract with unnecessary details and options.
  • Imagery, iconography, colors, and fonts: Consider how imagery will clearly communicate the purpose of the community. And consider how iconography, such as moderator badges, will signify special roles.
  • Search: Put search in an easy-to-find location (e.g. front and center on an entry page or on the top right of your navigation). If you can budget for universal search across the community and your other websites, such as knowledge base and blog, do so. Many members come to a community to get timely and customized answers to their questions, and chances are they can find that information easily not only in the community but also in other content areas. That means your community managers can focus more on relationship-building and connection-creation and less on copy-pasting answers over and over again.

How to Apply These Principles

Even if you design the most beautiful online community, it will fall short of expectations if these principles are ignored. Now you must put them into practice.

As you design your community, go through these principles as a checklist to ensure you build on a strong foundation. But I want to caution you not to overthink or get stuck in analysis paralysis. Your community does not need to address all principles pristinely, right at launch. You can start by applying a few of these principles “well enough” before applying and optimizing all six.

After all, just as there is no perfect human being, there is no perfect community design. The only way to get closer to something worthwhile is to experiment, learn, iterate, and repeat.

Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.