10 Social Skills for Community Designers (things we learned from the drupal.org project)

It was pretty obvious from the outset that we’d need some design and UX skills to get us from one end of the Drupal.org redesign project to the other. It was less obvious how important our ‘social’ skills would be – and unsurprisingly, we learned a lot about good and bad ways to share the design process with a community along the way.

Here’s a few ‘social skills’ we learned:

  1. you need to take responsibility for the way that your community behaves: it’s not in any way productive to associate the way that a community is responding to you by blaming the community or even the individuals in it. If you respond that way you’ll never be able to improve the situation. As with every relationship, the only person you can change is yourself. If you’re getting a bad vibe back, the first thing you should do is check your tone and content – what are you saying? how are you saying it? can YOU improve the way you’re communicating. The onus is on YOU to get it right.
  2. tokenistic involvement is a waste of time: if you don’t really care what the community has to say on a subject, don’t ask them. If you do want their input, take the time to design a way for them to interact with you in a way that gets the best from them. Be creative, put a bit of thought into it. Avoid polls and and use surveys with care – you might feel as though you’re involving the community because you have ‘numbers’, but do you have real involvement. Ask yourself what the community knows that you can benefit from, then consider the best way to help them share that knowledge and experience with you.
  3. ask for specific feedback: if you want to get good feedback from your community, tell them what you want feedback on. We *didn’t* do this much during the Drupal.org redesign – instead I was trying to keep it ‘neutral’ and not influence what and how people gave us feedback – we learned that by asking for specific direction we not only got excellent feedback on the issues we highlighted, but others as well. Without direction the discussion tended to be less helpful and was more likely to get personal (not in a good way!) This will also help you to get feedback on more than just the homepage.
  4. give examples: if you want a particular kind of response from the community, it is important to provide an example for them to follow and really great instructions to participate. For example, when we were doing the ‘crowdsourced wireframing’ I included a picture of one of my not very elegant wireframes so that people had a sense that their submissions didn’t have to look ‘designed’. If there are instructions to participate, make sure these are as clear as possible. Then make them even clearer.
  5. wait… wait… wait… engage! once you post something for feedback, go away and make a snack and do NOT get involved in the conversation immediately. This is probably the most difficult rule to follow and one that Mark and I had to coach each other on (and occasionally police! – step away from the computer!) throughout the project. If you dive in and start responding to the first few comments, what you unintentially do is skew and retard the conversation. Rather than exploring a broad range of issues and allowing key points to gradually evolve, the discussion focusses on whichever points you have responded to, everyone starts to focus on those few issues. The richness of the feedback is lost because you dive into detail too quickly. Rather, wait until at least a half dozen people have posted (or 12hrs has elapsed, whichever is soonest) and see what the trends are in the feedback, then start getting more involved in the conversation.
  6. admit errors quickly: the only exception to the rule above is if you’ve stuffed up. In this circumstance you should admit the mistake quickly so that the conversation doesn’t focus on your error. In one iteration of our redesign we accidentally omitted a very important call to action (I know… how could we?!) As you can imagine, that oversight dominated the feedback we received and by the time we responded (way too late!) things were getting a little frenzied. We should have been keeping a closer eye on the situation and stepped in as soon as we realised our mistake.
  7. don’t go dark, but don’t respond to everything: there is a balance in the correct volume of response that you need to aim for. It is really important that you don’t disappear (even if you get really busy) – the community needs to know that you are there and that you are listening. On the other hand, don’t feel as though you need to respond to every comment that is posted – unless you are only getting a handful of responses. As a rule, aim to respond to trends and issues not individual comments. Feel free to occasionally respond with a simple ‘I’m here and listening, I don’t have the answer yet’.
  8. lead by example: it’s an oldy but a goody –¬†interact with the community in the way that you would like them to interact with you. Be polite and respectful. Others rudeness or bad behaviour is no excuse for you to let loose. It’s up to you to set and maintain the standard of communication you want the community to engage in.
  9. assume good faith: it’s a general rule of interacting with others online, but keep it at front of mind especially when you’re putting your own work out there for review and, therefore, more likely to feel a little defensive. Text is a tricky medium for communication – people might sound like they’re being mean or overly critical or agressive when they’re just not great at communicating (or you’re feeling defensive and read everything as an attack!), or being a little lazy with their words, or created unintentional meaning. Always assume that people are trying to be friendly and constructive and helpful if there is any room for doubt at all. In fact, even when it is evident that they *are* being a little mean, it is often useful to deploy this rule – play dumb and be extra nice. Don’t waste time fighting or being a smart ass, or just being mean, or engaging with others who are. Focus on the task at hand – doing good design.
  10. be a human: I think this is the absolute most important thing – don’t assume a Voice of God, don’t pretend to be infallible or to know everything. Don’t feel as though you have to use very big words all the time. Swear occasionally (if your community is ok with that). Admit that you are nervous (or outright terrified, if that’s the case). All of this is allowed and encouraged. Communities are made up of people, of human beings and you are but one of them. Use your real voice and speak honestly. Be open.