I recently had the opportunity to catch up with a friend and inspiration of mine, Alex Hillman.
Alex is the Founder of Independents Hall, a coworking community in Philadelphia. Alex has succeeded in building a large, constantly growing, and intertwined community of creative and driven people . His model for cultivating relationships is now being used around the world to start growing other communities in cities from Australia to Las Vegas, in large part through his Community Builder Masterclass.
I have been an Indy Hall member for over a year and am continuously impressed with the level of interaction between my coworkers; it’s nearly impossible to leave the Hall in a bad mood. Seriously, I can’t begin to describe the level of positive energy here, you need to experience it for yourself.
Communities are built by their users, supported by participation, and solidified by the deep friendships that occur as the byproduct of people’s everyday interactions. The experience of each
user member is critical in defining both what the community is, and more so where it’s going.
Alex was nice enough to take some time and let me pick his brain on how he approaches managing the experience of Indy Hall, as it continues to grow, passing 200 members this year.
As a former software developer, how do you approach gathering requirements for developing a community?
One of the things that I learned as a software developer was that my customers never cared about my tools as much as I did. Clean, compliant code and well structured databases were important for efficiency and maintainability.
But those are foundation elements of the work; like the stuff closer to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These foundation elements are important because without them we can’t climb closer to the top of the pyramid. But the customer [user] doesn’t really care about those elements, only the effects the presence of those elements have on their ability to kick ass at doing whatever they are using the software to do.
Having empathy for the users – and understanding what THEY care about, in their terms and priorities without dragging my own terms and priorities into the mix – is probably the single most valuable skill that I’ve been able to draw out of software and bring into community building.
The best online experiences focus on serving the behaviors of their audience. How has Indy Hall, as an audience, guided your approach to building an ideal experience?
Being offline gives us a really powerful tool in the fact that we have the ability to let our members co-create the experience. Literally, we design Indy Hall to be very special kind of “incomplete” at every turn with the intention being that our members see that incompleteness as an invitation to be a part of completing it. I liken it to “sanding off the rough edges”.
The power of this is that their experience steps up another level on Maslow’s Pyramid, past simply having a place they can ‘belong’ to a sense of achievement and self-actualization. The ONLY way I think this can be done is by getting people past the level of “attendance” and into the level of “participation.”
This is really hard to do online. Like buttons and share widgets aren’t participation, in fact I think they’re probably worse because they trick people into thinking they are participating, but you’re really just trying to squeeze a little bit of juice out of their attendance.
Be honest with yourself: there’s nothing self-actualizing about clicking a “like” or “share” button.
The closest thing I can think of to a layer of participation in software is something along the lines of being a forum moderator. Mods have a critical participatory role that shapes the experience for themselves and for others. Obviously, a given forum can only have so many moderators, but then Reddit does things like their Gift Exchanges that are HIGHLY participatory, and extraordinarily self-actualizing (even if it’s just in fun).
The takeaway from all of this, though, is that participation is the holy grail. And there’s no point in faking it. Everyone can tell.
How have you incorporated user experience design into your process for managing growth?
Growth offline is an interesting subject because when you’re dealing with physical space, you have a different set of constraints than in an online experience. Cost vectors are also more complicated (and burdensome).
But at the end of the day, it’s still all about the people. Growth presents two primary challenges:
- It gets harder to know everybody
- It becomes more challenging for a newbie to enter into a place where it feels like culture is established
The first issue is Dunbar’s Number in effect. We have an approximate maximum number of relationships we can manage, around 150. Beyond that, something has to give. But even well before that, people max out.
How many people do you really know, that you really trust?
The second issue is a bit harder to battle because you need to design an on-boarding experience that makes the community feel like something they can break into, usually through a much smaller subset of the people. Once they establish trust with one person, the likelihood of them connecting with the second person skyrockets, and continues to grow with each conniption.
So we do two things, intentionally:
- We create experiences that are specifically designed to get people to know each other on a basis other than their work. We design socialization experiences – for us things like Show and Tell, Happy Hours, and other events give people the ability to more fluidly work on building trust without the pressures of networking.
- We embrace fragmentation. This is a bit counter intuitive but even in online communities and user bases, there is natural fragmentation. You can try to squeeze people back together but it’s more like squeezing sand – the harder you push, the faster it runs through your fingers.
The challenge is to keep fragmentation from turning into a clique. So we head it off by looking for people within the fragment and encourage them to be a “fractal” of the macro community – abiding by some of the major cultural norms while establishing some new ones of their own.
We also apply the same kind of socialization experiences for groups. The same way we work to help individuals “collide” serendipitously and get to know each other without the pressures of networking, we look for ways to apply this to sub-communities. This gives us a strong deterrent for isolationism – which is where cliques thrive.
One mark of a healthy community is that it has sub-communities (this is a sign of healthy growth), but the related mark of health is that the people within those sub communities are active participants in multiple sub communities.
Essentially, we design experiences at different zoom levels, but the general principals continue to apply at each zoom.
How do you balance a great user experience with the commercial interests of your projects?
You’re going to have to read my upcoming book for the nitty gritty details, but the gist is that the two need to be symbiotic. Generally, when user experience and commercial interests are put together, it’s like two animals fighting to the death. Only one is going to come out alive, and it’s probably whichever one was stronger (or hungrier).
The two need to be treated as equal, first class citizens, in order for balance to be maintained. This means looking at business a bit differently, but also means that the community needs to be a profit center rather than a cost center. We use participation as our measuring stick for everything, and our business approach is no exception.
As a user base grows and begins to separate into groups of sub-communities, how do you maintain the identity of the community as a whole?
I think I addressed this in my previous answer – the truth is that there will never be only one identity as it grows. There never was a single identity anyway – once there were two people, they each owned their own perspective of what the identity was.
The best thing you can do – and you shouldn’t wait until you’re growing to do this – is establish a higher purpose, a set of common goals that everyone can participate in fulfilling together. Developing this is more challenging than designing a “feature” or “identity” because what you’re really creating is a bearing, or a vector, for all of your future features or identities to fall into with some standard deviation.
This design process is at the core of what we cover within the Community Builder Masterclass, and we use that common purpose as THE foundation element for an experience design process that gets applied to EVERYTHING – from the layout of the room to the communication to partnerships to the business model.