"Community" continues to be the buzzword for businesses looking for a meaningful online presence. Everywhere you look there's another company bragging about its online social network, either to embrace clients or consumers or even to unite employees. As membership in social networks such as Facebook and MySpace (NWS) continues to grow, brand-sponsored apps that tap into some network somewhere, somehow, have become common. But vibrant, successful communities are difficult to design and implement.
Online communities are not only expensive to build, they're expensive to maintain—and they're not even always appropriate, warns Maria Giudice of San Francisco design company Hot Studio. Giudice has been involved in Web design since the days of 1.0. She has built a number of community sites for clients, including the Open Architecture Network (OAN) (BusinessWeek.com, 7/9/07) for Architecture for Humanity (AfH), a nonprofit, humanitarian-focused architecture charity. "All clients start out saying they want a community, but who's going to manage it once it's built?" she asks. "You can't just put up a community and expect that it'll magically run itself."
For Giudice, the key to successful community design—and Web design as a whole—lies in research. That means the designers take a step back to question clients' expectations and needs. For instance, Hot Studio ended up recasting the Open Architecture Network from its initial brief as an open-source community for architects. "Through research we realized that it wasn't a Web site they needed, it was an ecosystem of sites," says Giudice. "There was a bigger vision that wasn't just about a community, but about accomplishing discrete goals for different people in a holistic way."
A Community Can Wither
In other words, the design and tools of OAN should provide an online hub for involved parties, from designers to administrators to project managers working on the ground at disaster sites. Giudice and her team acted as "caretakers" of the process, being the liaison between AfH/OAN founder Cameron Sinclair and his team and Sun Microsystems (JAVA), which provided back-end support, to oversee the design of the new system. Such internal collaboration and flexibility on the designer's part is key to success in the networked world—as is allowing for a site's design to evolve and adapt.
A year or so on, the network has 10,000 members working on some 1,500 projects in 200 countries. Not everything has been successful—some of the tools have not been widely embraced, and a proposed wiki/blog function has not been launched because of internal staffing issues. It's a salient reminder that a community needs attention, says Giudice—or it will easily wither. "There's nothing worse than having a community with no people," she says. "It becomes a graveyard—which goes against what anyone is trying to achieve."
A new Hot Studio project for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art won't include a community site at all. "People visiting the museum don't want to talk about paintings," Giudice says. Another new project, Once Upon a School, is an initiative spearheaded by author Dave Eggers to encourage adults to volunteer to teach children to read. This time, Giudice is considering tapping into existing community platforms. "There are so many social networks out there that have been vetted that are good," she says, and the project itself doesn't cry out for a customized community. For her, the designer's role remains simple: "Understand the vision of the business," she says. "And come up with a strategic recommendation."