Derek has worked on community features for Netscape, Nike, and Sony, along with creating the community sites, {fray}, Kvetch!, and SF Stories. Christine Perfetti, a consultant at User Interface Engineering, recently talked with Derek about his experience. Here is what he had to say about creating effective online communities:

UIE: We hear the phrase, “Virtual Community” thrown around all the time. How do you define “Community”?

Derek: I advise clients to never call their sites “communities.” Instead, I tell them to provide adequate tools for your members to communicate with each other, plenty of relevant material to talk about, and an elegant structure that encourages conversation. If you’re successful, your members will start calling it a community on their own.

But since community is a personal business, I’ll give you my personal definition of the word: “Web communities happen when users are given tools to use their voice in a public and immediate way, forming intimate relationships over time.” I think that covers all the bases. Really what it’s about is power: As the site owner, I’m giving away some of my power to my audience, to give them a voice on the site. And that’s really a leap of faith sometimes. But when it works, the benefits can be astounding.

What are the major benefits for site owners considering giving some of their power away? In other words, why should designers even be thinking about community features?

There are huge benefits. Studies have shown that community site participants are far more likely to spend money online. And the connection a community member makes with a brand in a community setting can be intense. There’s no better way to form a relationship with your audience, and to enable them to form relationships with each other.

What common misperceptions do people have about designing community spaces?

The biggest misconception is that community can be built at all. It can’t. What you can do is build an environment that is conducive to social interaction. If people adopt it and make it their home, they’ll call it a community for you. Community isn’t built—it’s grown. That’s why the specifics of that environment are so important. The visual design, interaction design, experience design, text, signage … all of it has to work together to make the user feel comfortable and give them clear and welcome ways to communicate with other users.

In 1996, you started a storytelling web site called fray.com. You’ve also created two other sites with community features: Kvetch! and San Francisco Stories. What was your biggest take-away from these experiences?

I’ve learned that there’s a huge hunger out there for true stories from real people. And there’s no better place to collect those stories than the net, where everyone can have a voice. But I’ve also learned the hard way that crafting environments that produce positive, creative contributions and discourage negative, destructive ones is a tricky business. It involves creative writing, visual design, experience design, and a whole lot of social psychology.

Probably the biggest question we get from clients about Design for Community is how they can get community features to work for them. What advice would you give these people?

The first step is to examine your own motivations. Why do you want a community area? What are you hoping to gain? What are you offering to your audience to entice them to participate? What will they get out of it?

It’s difficult for clients, but the first step is to visualize what your community area is going to look like a year from now. Once you’ve got the vision, it’s a whole lot easier to get from here to there.

The thing to remember is that there is no magic formula. Every site is different, every audience is different, and getting that audience to interact is different. If it were just a matter of plugging in a piece of software, well, my book would have been about 290 pages shorter.

In your book, you discuss major successes of companies striving to create online communities. Who are some of the biggest success stories? How did these sites encourage community?

The clear winners are places like Amazon and eBay. Now, these aren’t the community ideals. Let’s face it, they’re both about buying and selling at their core. But where other web stores failed, they succeed. In both cases, it’s because they designed their sites around the strengths of the Internet: social connections.

eBay and Amazon both act as social connectors with simple, but effective, reputation management and discussion tools built in. If I stiff someone on eBay, I’m going to get punished. Not by eBay, but by my fellow members who will rate me down. And Amazon learns a lot about me—who my friends are, what I like, what they like—and then caters my experience toward that.

Speaking of Amazon, we often hear people say that one of Amazon’s best features is the customer reviews. But many customers just read the reviews and go buy elsewhere. Can Amazon view this community feature as a success if it doesn’t result in people buying?

I’d say that if people are thinking of Amazon as “the place to go when I’m thinking about books” then they’re a success. Because, eventually, that person is going to hit the buy button—it’s just too convenient.

Amazon’s real power is in the Friends and Favorites program. Just tell them who some of your friends are, and then you get this custom page that’s like the local newspaper for a small town where you’re the mayor. “Derek! You have two friends with birthdays coming up! Want to see their wish lists? And hey! Four of your friends bought the new Radiohead album! Want to check it out? And hey! Your buddy Lance just posted a review of this espresso machine. Want to read it?”

Do I care that 100 people I don’t know gave a book a good review? Yeah, a little. Do I care that one of my friends liked the book? Oh, yeah. A lot.

Successful Internet companies are going to be the ones that act as this kind of virtual middleman. It’s one of the things the Internet does very well, and no other media can replicate.

Are there any major mistakes site owners should avoid?

The number one mistake I see is when organizations simply forget to ask themselves why someone would ever want to participate in their community features. It’s an important question. As a user, it takes time and effort to create a membership, tweak preferences, and interact in some way. The user has to feel like they’re getting something back. If they don’t, why bother?

Sometimes when you’re on the inside looking out, it seems obvious to you why someone would want to participate. But that needs to get communicated to the user or it won’t work. The number one piece of advice, for designers and managers alike, is: “think like a user.”

We have clients that tell us they’re designing a web site for “everyone”. In your book, you argue that all communities, to a certain extent, should exclude some of the users. You say that providing a “barrier to entry” can help strengthen a community. Putting obstacles in the way of some users may seem counterintuitive to many designers. Why would explicitly excluding some users strengthen a community?

Imagine going to a party. You’re standing in the living room, holding a drink, talking to a few people. Then imagine that a football game lets out down the street. Hundreds of people are now streaming towards your party. Would you want the front door open or closed?

The simple truth is: you can’t have a good conversation with 300 people. You can’t really have one with 30. Good conversations happen in small groups. So on the web, your task is to set a barrier to entry that is high enough to have good conversations, but low enough that the people who are really motivated find it easy to get in.

And there are many different ways to set a barrier to entry. Some are formal (mandatory membership creation, for example), but you can also use informal barriers. Sometimes simply moving the link to the discussion area to the bottom of the page is barrier enough. That says to the user: If you’re going to come in here, you really should have read the above text first.

The thing to remember is, the Internet is a big place, and there is indeed a community out there for everyone. But your community doesn’t have to include everyone. The idea is to find the people who care about your product, service, or niche, and make a place just for them.

Thanks Derek.

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