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Why focusing on ‘members’ rather than ‘users’ is key to creating a good community platform

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As a SaaS company specializing in online community software, the experience of the ‘user’ has always been important in our design and development process. But one key distinction between us and most other SaaS companies is that our real focus is on the experience of ‘members’, rather than just on that of ‘users’. But what does this distinction really mean? Isn’t ‘member’ just a community software synonym for ‘user’? For us, the difference between the two terms goes to the core of our product.

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What are the real differences between ‘users’ and ‘members’?

There is an obvious difference in the dictionary definitions of ‘user’ and ‘member’. A user is “a person or thing that uses something” and a member is simply “one of the individuals composing a group” (Merriam-Webster). But when it comes to software design and development there are many more layers of meaning to these terms.

The user is at the heart of software design 

‘User’ is a word that has been at the very heart of software development and design for a long time. Today, it is all about ‘user journey’, ‘user experience’, ‘end-users’, ‘user interface’, ‘usernames’, and so on. This all goes back to the practices and principles of ‘user-centered design’, a term coined as far back as 1977!

User-centered design places the software user’s tasks and goals at the center of the whole software development process. This means that designers and engineers need to simplify the otherwise complex structures of software in ways that make them intuitive and easy to use, and allow users to execute the tasks they intend to without expert training.

User testing

When it comes to the software we use every day – from the apps we stream music with to the Word processor I’m using to write this blog post – the word ‘user’ always factor into the final software design decisions made. There is a reason why your new iPad is so easy to navigate (even a toddler can find the Youtube button and put their favorite cartoons on!). This focus on user-experience is visible even if we look back at how the first Apple Mac computers were advertised:

Apple Mac advertisment

As a software company, Open Social has of course always focused on creating great user experiences. We invest a lot of time and effort into making our software simple, intuitive and a pleasure to use. After all, we want to give people the same seamless experience they expect from social media platforms (but without all the invasive privacy issues or features that are aimed only at the needs of advertisers!).

The member has a more meaningful experience than the user

There is something else that distinguishes Open Social from traditional social media, however. It is connected closely to the fact that companies like Instagram or Twitter are primarily user-centered in their design approach.

Traditional social media are designed as products to satisfy individual user needs. In this, they miss the opportunity to create products that give users a sense of real community and the feeling of belonging to something bigger. There is a reason why you often hear people make the observation that despite being meant to connect us to one another – social media makes us feel so much more isolated and alone.

What sets Open Social apart is its focus on ‘members’ in addition to ‘users’. We know that what makes Open Social communities like SparkBlue from the UNDP and Policy Kitchen from the think-tank foraus work is the fact that they are built to bring people together around a shared issue or goal. Our platforms are meant to connect people with one another and encourage them to collaborate, communicate and share ideas and expertise. It is about the actions of the community as a whole – rather than just about the experiences of the individual user.

The term ‘member’ is communal. The term ‘user’ is individualistic. We don’t think of the people using Open Social platforms just as individuals – but rather as individuals that are part of a larger connected community.

“Successful membership organizations are empathetic and open to learning about what their members actually want. They connect individuals’ passions to a shared larger purpose, getting the ratio right between the person and the group.”

Emily Goligoski, former research director at the Membership Puzzle Project.

At the end of the day, designing for users is important to make software easy to use, the tools intuitive and the interfaces appealing. But we want to design software that gives people meaningful experiences as well. Designing just for users leads to thinking only about what individuals can get out of the platform. Designing for members lets us think about how we can better enable people to build relationships, share, connect, collaborate and work together towards a common goal.

Online community network

What is member engagement software?

Open Social’s software has always been member-centric. It is a design choice that we make to help organizations who use our software engage and activate their members more easily. Being member-centric means that every feature or extension we develop doesn’t only have the user-experience in mind, but also the member-experience. We always ask: “How does this feature allow the individual member to have a more meaningful community experience on the platform?”

We also realize that organizations using Open Social are interested in the performance of the community as a whole – and of the individual members as part of that community. That is one of the core solutions Open Social offers is called the member engagement platform. To create a community that can drive organizational goals it is important to manage individual people as members of a larger community, rather than as discrete and disconnected users. This mindset allows organizations to get more out of their communities.

At the end of the day, thinking of ‘members’ instead of ‘users’ might seem like a simple shift in language. But for us, it is a design philosophy that guides us towards making software that is unique in its vision and mission.

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