Community design as an approach: 4 main project areas

Community design doesn’t exist. At least in literature. My friend Daniela Selloni, professor of Product Service System Design professor at Politecnico di Milano, wrote to me in this regard: “The term community design is not widely used in the scientific language of design, and I can’t think of any design researcher who actually works on “designing a community”. There is the expression community-centered design which refers to the immersion of the designer within a community to design activities and animation together. But it’s only a little part, at least for me. That is because designing a community certainly includes a part of immersion in the community itself, but first of all it includes the design of the context within which the members gather, move and grow. It is a paradigm shift that has yet to be codified in the literature, but which is in fact being established. In recent times, in fact, we have seen the birth of a community economy, that is, an economy made up of companies and organizations that put communities at the center of their business strategy. Scuolazoo, Weroad, Avventure nel mondo, Airbnb, Friendz, Duolingo, Gengle, are just some of the many community brands (companies that are born around a community) in Italy. Alongside them, brands such as Leroy Merlin, Adidas, Haier, Lego, Salesforce experiment with enabling models for their stakeholders, using techniques and elements of what can increasingly be called community design.

What is, then, community design?

Community design, unlike user-centred design, no longer focuses on the needs of people as individuals, but as members of a group (community), who recognize themselves around a value proposition. This community can be of different nature (of purpose, practice, product, etc), it can be spontaneous or induced, and always includes a proposing organization that promotes and stimulates it. Therefore, community design analyses and designs the interactions of the individual with the proposing organization, but also those of the individual as a member of a group, where he interacts with his peers and with the organization itself, and where he takes on an active role both in the design of the solution (co-planning) and in the organization (co-management).

The 4 project areas of community design

Community design involves, first of all, the study of the identity system of the community which is expressed through the definition of its value proposition — which involves the study of the community’s need -, of the actors who can be part of it, and of those who instead should not be part of it (the antagonists). It also includes the study of the narrative, which must be capable of attracting and transmitting emotion. The identity system of a community differs from that of a brand or product because it always integrates, in all its expressions, a dynamic of activism necessary to aggregate a group and make it cohesive.

The second area of ​​community design is the engagement model. It means defining the offer to be proposed to the community, the contact channels and the editorial plan. Even in this case, it looks like nothing new compared to the design of the model of involvement of a service. However, the design differs to a service in several aspects from that of a service because the offer is never one-way directed (the company that offers) but must always include a part of co-design. The same can be said for channels, which can no longer be just one-way (the company that communicates) but must provide for places and moments of continuous conversation, where members meet, exchange information, ideas, advice. Finally, contents represents decisive importance in a community because it becomes a vehicle for conveying one’s identity (in fact, attention is to be paid not only to what you can say but also to what you cannot say) but also for engagement. In fact, advertising doesn’t work much (at the beginning of the community it does not work at all) and the involvement comes mainly by word of mouth. This can only be achieved by a continuous, credible and naturally satisfying experience.

The third area of ​​design relates to the study of the governance model. It means designing not only the skills needed to manage a community, but also its co-management system. It means defining the rules within which the community moves, exchanges information, talks and helps each other. But it also means planning the roles and activities that are entrusted to the members; the way people grow within the community; the reasons that lead to participation; the reward system necessary to repay the expressed value.

The last area of ​​community design concerns the feasibility model. This means defining not only the resources available (time, skills, places, technology, budget) but also the business model and the measuring metrics. The differences with a traditional service are precisely the metrics which, in addition to being quantitative, must be qualitative and must measure all three areas listed above: the system of identity, the engagement and the co-management of the community. The business model, on the other hand, is often the result of a set of needs that the community gradually expresses. It is not true, as is often believed, that a community cannot be monetized. The community agrees to pay for the services offered to it, only if they recognize their value and if the services are consistent, transparent and of excellent quality.

But the work is not over yet. Designing these four areas does not mean designing a community but it means defining the context and the conditions within which it operates. A community is fluid by nature. It is an organism that moves and is made up of people. Relationships between people cannot be designed, but you can foster the construction of an environment within which they can move. It is with this awareness that we need to approach community design. It is therefore not advisable to define everything before launching a community; instead, it is good to start reflecting on these areas, and as soon as possible to launch the community in order to co-design and test what has been defined with the first members who gradually join in.

Which are the application for community design?

Community design, finally, is much more than the design of a community: it is an approach that can be applied to all contexts in which there is a group of people that one wants to involve and make active. Within a company, we can refer to customers or groups of them (e.g. lovers of a particular product), suppliers, local communities, employees — who can in turn be divided into practice groups, business, volunteers. Within an administration we can refer to neighbourhood communities, communities of practice (e.g. social innovators) and community of purpose. Within an organisation we look at all the associations and groups that are part of it.

The design of a community, therefore, is applied to the study of each group that you want to aggregate and with which you want to build a real relationship. This is the real value of this approach: transforming an audience that by definition is passive or that has a minimum degree of interaction, into a group of active people who dynamically collaborate in the construction of a solution, of a benefit, of an asset. Therefore, the correct question is what is the scope of community design, but what is the predisposition that one must have in approaching it. It is not so much understanding which stakeholders are to be involved but how much you really want to build a productive and enabling relationship with them, and how much you really believe that the effort of having active collaborators can be a value for the organization and for society as a whole.

Originally published in italian on Digital4.biz on February 25th 2021

Marta Mainieri is a consultant, trainer and speaker expert in the field of Sharing Economy, platform design and community design.