Assessing the Usability of Your Online Community

17 Feb

Can poor usability kill an online community? I think it can. In any human activity, there is a trade-off that individuals make whenever they undertake some task: Is the benefit that I am receiving from this worth the effort that I am putting into it? We may not always consciously frame our actions that way, but that balancing act often underlies our gut sense of whether we like something or not.

So, for your community, there are two things to consider: (1) What benefit does the user feel they are getting from participating? (2) How difficult is it for them to participate?

If you are lucky, the benefit that people feel they are getting is really high. And please take note of the phrase “feel they are getting” because it’s not about what benefit *you* think the community provides, its about what your members perceive. Nonetheless, if you fall into this camp, you have a lot less to worry about because people will tolerate poor usability. They won’t like it, and you shouldn’t feel good about it, but at least it doesn’t threaten the existence of your community.

Unfortunately, particularly in the association space, my experience is that members don’t immediately see the value of an online community. It’s also my experience that a thriving community becomes a significant member value, but the Catch 22 is that you don’t get a thriving community without getting a bunch of people involved which is challenging when the initial perception of value is low.

The upshot of all this is that I think that usability really does matter for most association online communities. Now the interesting thing about usability is that its not just a matter of asking “Is this site easy to use?” Real analysis of usability is always framed in terms of the tasks that a user wants to carry out. You can’t even begin to think about usability until you have a reasonably good grasp on the tasks your members want to accomplish via the online community.

Thus, the first step in creating an excellent user experience is understanding your members. Based on my experience in the software industry, I find that the best way to develop this understanding is to actually talk with people. Find some of your members who are already using Facebook or LinkedIn, or find members who indicate that they are interested in participating in an online community. Ask them what they would hope to be able to get from an online community specifically for the association. Are they interested in an online book club? Would they help to build out a virtual library of reference materials that all members should be aware of? Would they be willing to participate in a virtual Q&A session on their professional experiences?

From this you can start to build up a set of personas. Each persona is associated with certain characteristics, goals they want to accomplish, level of experience, etc. For each persona, there will be a set of primary tasks or activities that they want to accomplish via the community. It is very important to keep this focused on the point of view of the user. Again, it’s not what goals *you* want to achieve, it’s what *they* want to achieve. There are different ways of capturing this information. For example, some people like to represent personas as actual individuals, so they will give them names, and supply back-story such as where they work and what their position is. I’m not religious about this — do what works for you. What is important is a ruthless focus on the user.

So, the first step in looking at usability is documenting these personas. In my next post, I’ll look at what you actually do with them.

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One Response to “Assessing the Usability of Your Online Community”

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  1. Online Community Management Links Roundup 24/02/12 - Community Management Links | Blaise Grimes-Viort - February 27, 2012

    […] Assessing the Usability of Your Online Community […]

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