Experience design for virtual communities

The difference between a platform versus a community, incorporating experience design into your virtual community and a few what-ifs.

In 2020, we yearned for having more interactions with people - but between you and me, I confess that I didn’t always look forward to going to in-person events in the first place.

That association of awkward interactions with virtual events has carried through for me into the virtual space.

There are very few places that I would describe as hosting a community other than gyms, places of worship and co-working spaces (questionable). Unfortunately, the word itself has lost a lot of meaning. It got me thinking about why virtual communities were needed at all.

Regardless of how people felt about events and communities in the past, I do believe that virtual communities can help people know where they stand as a person in the ocean of opinions and content out there i.e. in relation to a tribe of people. I also see virtual communities as a paper trail of our understanding on a given subject and the culture around it. Communities that are defined in the digital space allow us in the present day and digital archeologists in the future to visualize the zeitgeist that we’re currently in.

In this newsletter, I explore some of the experience design elements that can address the above painpoints. Here are the tl;dr highlights for the busy bees:

  1. Having a mix of scripted and non-scripted interactions within a community creates authentic connections. Authenticity with all it’s unpolished nuances will keep people coming back.

  2. The difference between just looking around a a virtual space and joining a community is onboarding.

  3. When the cognitive load of all the interactions and content in the virtual space is well managed, people will be less likely to ghost.

📣Platform shoutouts to Clubhouse, Circle, Lunchclub and Discord.

📣Community shoutouts to New Public and Vithu Namasivayam (firstbloom) for comments and feedback!

If you’re interested in topics around public-interest technology, techno-ethics and experience design, I think you’ll find my newsletter thought-provoking and useful. You can join the list of people who get a weekly update here.


Know the difference between a community versus a social platform.

Between Slack, Discord, Twitter, Zoom and everything in between that we use to “hack” (ugh let this be the last time I use this word) a sense of community, we’re not getting better at engaging virtual communities. Gathering a list of people is not the difficult part.

There are many social platforms or digital spaces built to facilitate networking, collaboration and real-time communication but, more often than not, there is a big onus on the organizer to be the glue that guides members towards more community-like interactions such as support, acknowledgement, celebration, opinion-sharing and gatherings. This doesn’t set community organizers up to succeed or for the communities to scale without a huge human capital investment of moderators, content writers and event organizers.

I define the difference between communities and social platform as:

A social platform provides a platform for people to organically meet other people, network, share content and lurk whereas a community has guidelines, expectations of members and specific subjects that are important to this group of people.

There are a lot of social platforms disguised as communities on the inter-webs. A platform is designed to amplify thoughts, opinions and trends. It’s growth curve is linked to more typical app conversion metrics like shares or likes or posts.

A community, on the other hand, is designed to build deep connections between an individual and the subject matter and between individuals within the community. It’s growth is organic and nuanced.

The problem to solve can guide how a platform is designed and which functionalities it prioritizes. Discord, an audio and chat platform, was designed with the gamer community in mind. As a result, communities don’t play by the same rules as a purely social platform:

“Vishnevskiy describes it (the Discord platform) as feeling like "a neighborhood, or like a house where you can move between rooms," which is a radically different thing than most online social tools. It had no gamification systems, no follower counts, no algorithmic timelines.”

-David Pierce

Bringing in authentic interactions into the virtual space.

We take a lot of cues from some of the biggest social platforms that have come out of Silicon Valley. Fifteen years ago, platforms like Myspace, tumblr, Facebook pioneered a new scale of social interactions and has set the implicit benchmark of user experiences of similar platforms.

Transactional user experiences have their place in business, not in community building.

If the goal is to build thriving and engaged communities, I highly recommend taking a cue from the Civic Signals research by New Public which synthesizes 14 indicators or signals to influence how virtual communities are designed, built and managed over time.

Having a mix of scripted and non-scripted interactions within a community creates authentic connections. And authentic connections will keep people coming back.

Audio is more personal than text and less of an effort to do than to have a video chat. We are willing to speak to strangers on the phone more than get on a video call with them.

Clubhouse is leading the way with audio drop-in chat which allows each club (or room or channel) to have a very warm and human-like energy. The reactions are spontaneous, people can sense the nuances of the opinions being expressed and the personalities of speakers can come through in a way that they do not via chat.

Not all interactions are warm and fuzzy but really authentic interactions are happening on this platform.

A lot of people are hosting virtual events which is nice but it feels formal. Clubhouse and Discord allow members to spontaneously and casually drop in and out of audio interactions. Encouraging people to post voice clips, Insta stories and even to normalize self organized get-togethers between members is a great place to start. While Lunchclub is a platform and not an organized community per se - it helps visualize the kinds of interactions that you’re trying to facilitate more of.

The defining and shaping moments in community building often come incrementally and in unscripted and serendipitous connections that happen more and more frequently.

For more info on Clubhouse and Lunchclub —>

Onboarding - the difference between “just looking around” and joining a community.

The key word is onboarding (or lack thereof). I for one, struggle to find digital communities into which I’m actually welcomed and onboarded beyond receiving an automated email or Slack bot message. Joining a community tends to be a very self-serve experience at the moment and it’s easy to get lost in the noise of channels that are buzzing away.

Onboarding is not just about the part of the user journey from first hearing about the platform to signing up. It is the time until the member completes the key, hero actions of the app that will compel them to stay.

Organizers that are mission driven and that have a clear value proposition (aside from networking and topic awareness) and who clearly lay out and enforce the guidelines of membership throughout the experience see better engagement. Communities claiming to have 10,000+ members but that only have the same 100 keep posting and responding, is a community of 100 and a social platform of 10,000.

Circle has a simple and elegant approach to this and in the left hand menu, you can see how it guides organizers towards the most important functions for the organizer to think of when setting up their community - the very first thing being onboarding. The next thing that’s cool to see is how Circle is supporting the organizers with personalization of the content. Impersonal or generic interactions with the organizer is the antithesis of what a community feels like.

When the cognitive load of all the interactions and content in the virtual space is well managed, people will be less likely to ghost.

One of the hardest parts of joining a new community, is knowing where to start. Instead of blindly joining several channels or being pre-added into channels, what if the onboarding channel was a top-line view of the most engaging posts from members, highlights from past events and relevant news articles or blog posts shown.

Instead of a list of channels and informational overload upon first sign up that requires a lot of scrolling, what if the channels and members were presented with the topline information that lets them see at a glance what the benefits are of being in the community or in a given channel?

To add the personalization layer on this, by showing high level themes or the social clusters on the platform, a person can navigate to related or linked channels as per their preferences. I think this would be relevant for new members as well as older members that have been inactive for a while. These topline summaries could also be turned into external facing content to attract new members or gain support of the larger community or local government.

When you keep in mind how many notifications the average person gets in a day from all the apps on their device(s), managing cognitive overload becomes key for retaining membership.

For more info on Circle—>


~Stray thoughts and questions that came to mind on the subject~

  • What if membership was only be offered after one month of exploration?

    • The person should be able to explore and experiment with how they’d like to participate in the community. We’re tightening the definition of a member and in this way ensuring that people that are gaining real value and do want to actively contribute in some shape or form is retained and passer-bys are welcome as such.

  • What if the organizer had a community member persona they could switch to?

    • Organizers and moderators can set the best examples for other members but they’re also members of the community themselves. I wonder what kind of support and engagement they need to keep hosting the community?