Monday, December 19, 2011

The Seventh Hat of a Community Manager: UX Design


"Nothing important should ever be more than two clicks away", said Steve Krug in his classic Don't Make Me Think! This is an excellent thumb rule for designers--and as I got into my role of a community manager--I learned the value of this rule for community managers as well. I have recently blogged about The Six Hats of a Community Manager, and here is the seventh one.

Does a community manager need to become an UX expert?
This doesn't of course mean that we become UX designers by virtue of being community managers. That might be stretching it too far. After all, UX designers come with years of experience, expertise in a specific area, and knowledge of their subjects. Nevertheless, a community manager needs to understand the basic tenets of good usability.

An online community hosted using a social platform is as much about usability as it is about collaboration and communication. A confusing interface, a sub-optimal navigation and a search that doesn't yield the expected results--are all surefire ways of losing and alienating potential community members. I will elaborate on this theme in the post.

Just as we are attracted to well-designed localities where it is easy to locate and reach the frequently accessed places like the grocery store, the pharmacy, schools and parks, the bus depot and the railway station, similarly an online community needs to offer the same comforting and pleasant user experience to keep members coming back. Shaping the user experience will also depend on the kinds of users the community targets. Oftentimes, an out-of-the-box implementation of the platform one is going to use to host the community may not work. It needs customisation to meet the requirements of the business and the users.

What does a community manager has to do with this? Isn't that the designers' and the developers' job?
The designers and the developers will help to "design" and customize the platform; the vision and the requirements need to come from the community manager. S/he is the one who knows what the long- term goal of the community is going to be.

A community manager's tasks start long before the community is born. It starts from the time an organisation decides to move towards a more social way of doing business. It starts long before s/he is designated the community manager. Anyone who is going to be responsible for the launch and ultimate use of the platform, i.e., a potential community manager, needs to think about shaping user experience. Launching a platform and expecting users to participate and start contributing is wishful thinking just as assuming users will keep coming back to a platform with poor usability is.

This can mean sitting with the web design team, figuring out what the original platform offers and what are the tweaks required to make it user-friendly for the organisation. It is important to delineate all possible use cases and user types and explore how they are likely to interact with the platform.

It is important also to remeber that all employees of an organization are not going to form one large, massive group. They will segregate and form smaller communities around functional areas, roles, projects, perhaps locations and regional offices, capability areas, and even hobbies and interests. Any user of the platform will most likely be part of at least more than one smaller community. And given that an organization's social platform is going to be their knowledge sharing and collaboration hub, it is important to identify the key actions a user will perform on the platform. S/he will consume content and also contribute; participate and sometimes lurk; sometimes search and, at times, browse. Keeping in mind this gamut of actions a user is likely to take, it is crucial to shape the user experience to be as seamless as possible.

It is useful to pinpoint what are at least the top five actions a user is likey to perform, and here is a suggestive list: 
  1. Find and participate in communities relevant to them
  2. Find specific content at the point of need
  3. Locate experts at the point of need
  4. Participate in different forums
  5. Follow other users 

If the navigation and the design of the platform makes it difficult for them to do any one or more of the tasks mentioned--we are going to "drain their reservoir of goodwill" and they are unlikely to become loyal community members.

Make the first experience memorable
The first page a user typically lands on is the site's Home Page. Make this a pleasant, non-head-scratching experience. Some thumb rules to consider with respect to the Home Page (based on my experience and may differ from community to community) in no particular order:
1. The Home page should clearly tell the users what are the key actions they can take on the platform and make them easy to perform.
2. Whatever is clickable should look clickable.
3. The search box must be prominent, and it is best to avoid putting any search criteria like, "use only lower case". This adds a layer of friction.
4. The navigation bar must absolutely be self explanatory; the users should not have to think what clicking on any of those links/tabs/buttons will do. It is best to use convention even if it seems boring.
5. The fonts and color scheme need to take into consideration users of varying ages.
6. The Home button needs to pop out; it is the North Star for the users.
7. There needs to be a clear sense of hierarchy so that users know what are the key actions to take as opposed to "good to do" stuff.
8. Provide visual cues to help users navigate.
9. Have clear directives for first time users. This can be something as simple as a prominent "First time users" link leading to a video or screen cast on how to navigate around the platform.
10. Allow users to provide feedback easily, perhaps via an easily accessible feedback link from the Home page. This tells users we are open to listening to them and are willing to improve.

It's time to wrap up this post. Community management goes beyond curating content, welcoming users and facilitating discussions. It is also about enabling frictionless access to collaboration for members of your community. Frictionless can be achieved in multiple ways--by making the environment welcoming, by guiding members to the right groups and content, by enabling easy access to the collaboration platform and making the site design intuitive and easily navigable.

I would love to hear your views on this. How important is it for community managers to grasp the basics of usability? 

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