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How to Design Community Software with User Experience Empathy

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In recent years, the use of online communities has exploded. Online communities have increasingly positioned themselves as relationship builders: between institutions and people; between organizers and volunteers; as network-builders; and person-to-person. As online communities start to play an increasingly central role in people’s lives and relationships, we begin to further understand why it’s crucial to design the User Experience of community software with empathy for the members who will be using it in the end.

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What is User Experience design empathy?

User Experience (UX) design relates to the creation of the digital experience that a user of specific software has. It is about understanding and determining how they approach and engage with the software in question.

UX design

UX design empathy means putting the user’s needs at the center of design decisions. It’s about understanding what their needs are, what they value and what the limitations of a specific digital experience are in relation to these. As Sarah Gibbons writes:

“In UX, empathy enables us to understand not only our users’ immediate frustrations, but also their hopes, fears, abilities, limitations, reasoning, and goals. It allows us to dig deep into our understanding of the user and create solutions that will not only solve a need, but effectively improve our users’ lives by removing unnecessary pain or friction.”

Empathetic User Experiences for community software

As a UX designer at Open Social, my job is to evaluate the needs of our platform’s members and design features, processes and interfaces that help members get the most out of their community.

Online communities are often uniquely crafted for their members, both as digital-storage spaces for community knowledge and as hubs for member interaction. Each community is unique, and often involves a mixture of community-specific goals.

When we look at community platforms hosted on big tech platforms like Facebook, we see that they are highly optimized for interaction, yet provide questionable security of their digital storage, as well as software and user experiences that prioritize user retention over user well-being.

In pursuit of building both engaging as well as ethical online community software, Open Social promotes empathy in the user experience of our platform. What is our approach? Read on below!

Community design is never neutral

The design of a community encourages, or discourages certain types of behaviors – it is never truly neutral. Open Social has a very diverse demographic, so creating a safe space that encourages diverse members using Open Social platforms is of the highest importance.

We aim to place importance on accessible design – encouraging the equal interaction opportunity between any type of member. Including members who are:

  • From across the gender spectrum
  • From different age groups
  • From different cultural backgrounds
  • Left-to-Right and Right-to-Left readers (for example Arabic)
  • Non-native English speakers
  • Visually impaired
  • With physical disabilities
  • Neurodivergent (Eg. ADHD. Autism, Dyslexia)
  • And much more…

These are not edge cases. For example, research has found that one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent, while another study found that 13% of American adults have eye-sight problems.

UX design accessibility

All of these people use our platform. In fact, we have communities such as the Diabetes Fonds community (we call these Communities of Circumstance) in which it is important for us to take into consideration that diabetes type 1 can severely affect patient eye-sight!

Formal and informal spaces for discussion

Community design encourages both formal and informal formats for conversation. The ‘formal’ is found in features such as our Discussions extension, while the ‘informal’ in the chat feature. We believe that it is important to have a platform that encourages very different styles of conversation and that this is part of building a well-networked community.

By having different spaces for interaction, we can encourage different styles of perspective-sharing and network building, depending on the member’s preferences, the community’s culture and different relationship types.

Serendipitous connections

Although we may design for certain types of relationship building, the most impactful connections people often create are serendipitous. That can be running into someone who may have an opinion that’s interesting to you or perchance discovering an event that’s exactly what you’ve been looking for. Opportunities for coincidental connections can be created, but it’s about placing the User Experience at the center of community design that creates the space for it.

For example, Open Social has a strong focus on Groups. Both community managers and members can create groups, allowing people to set up online spaces where they can connect around shared interests, topics, professions, locations and more.

Chance meetings in online communities

Making communities less intimidating

Being a new member on an online community platform is a lot like being a new member of any group. When a member finds it difficult to find others or doesn’t know how to ask their questions, the exclusivity barrier becomes too high and the platform becomes too intimidating to use.

This is why as a UX designer, I have a moral obligation to help design a community platform that is inviting and doesn’t look or feel intimidating. This encourages the voices of the newcomers as much as the voices of experienced members are encouraged.

Accepting that communities are ever-evolving

Community design can never stay static because communities aren’t static. One of the most interesting shifts we’ve seen in Group Design is the shift from “this is who we are” to “this is who we want to become”. Online groups have transformed to being spaces for relationship building, crowd-innovation and long-form discussion. It is thus important to find ways to enable this kind of flexibility, giving community managers the ability to engage with their members and adapt their community to fit into their changing needs.

As Alison Springate, Strategic Communications and Program Advisor for City of Guelph, says about their Open Social platform Our Food Futures:

“It’s easy to create and adjust the homepage to meet our changing needs allowing us to highlight our latest project or draw attention to an area of work that could use community support.”

Evolve communities

The future of community software design

Community software design has seen a large shift over the course of the COVID pandemic. As we place increased importance on our digital spaces as a means to remain connected, it is becoming more important to evaluate whether the online spaces we create are healthy, helpful and ethical. For Community designers, this means continued knowledge-sharing of best practices, being up-to-date on community design research and most importantly: remaining human-centered and designing User Experiences with empathy.

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