One of the most common questions I get from community builders working on launching a new community space is on community architecture: “What do you think about how my community space is set up?”
This makes sense — actually setting up your community space is when all the work starts to feel ‘real’! You’ve spent months on researching and creating your community strategy, and now you get to actually build a community space. It’s concrete, it’s exciting, and it’s a really important part of your community’s success.
Over the years of talking through community architecture decisions for lots of different communities (through my own projects, with consulting clients, or with C School students), I’ve pulled out a couple of recurring themes and best practices that come up most frequently in these conversations.
In this article, I’ll explore some of the dimensions of creating community architecture that sets your community up for success.
It turns out that physical spaces are often a pretty convenient metaphor for understanding concepts in community building.
Imagine you were going to host an event, and you got to build a totally new physical space to host it in from scratch. The type of space you’d create to host a wedding would be different from what you’d create to host an intimate dinner party, or an immersive theater experience. The number and size of the rooms, how the rooms were connected, how they were decorated, if there was outdoor space, and if there were rooms or entrances private to only the event staff would make a huge impact on the overall feel of the event. The same is true for communities.
Put simply, community architecture is the way you as a community builder configure your community space prior to letting in members. It’s everything from the spaces you make available for community members to congregate and what you call them, to the order you display new information to members, to the way you make use of your community platform’s features for organizing content and who it’s accessible to, to the content you pre-load into your community that helps members navigate it.
Community architecture, hand-in-hand with the actual culture you establish within your community, is one of the most important ways we can model desired behaviors to community members.
Just like how when we build physical spaces, we often start with some baseline limitations — the size of the lot, the materials we can access, and the laws of physics — when we build new communities, we are architecting within a set of conditions.
The condition that influences community architecture the most is the community platform itself, and specifically the platform’s content hierarchies. In other words, how does the community platform organize content? Understanding your community platform’s basic content hierarchies can be hugely influential to your design.
A good way to think about content hierarchies is to imagine a nesting doll. What is the largest container for content in the community, what is the smallest, and what are the increments in between? For example, Slack’s content hierarchy is pretty simple: Workspace > Channel > Post > Thread. On the flipside, a platform like Circle has more complex content hierarchies: Community > Space Group > Space > Topic > Comments > Multi-level-threaded comments.
Different levels of content to work with can influence the flexibility you have as a community builder to organize content on your community members’ behalf, and to what extent the community architecture allows you to influence your community’s behavior in the space. For example, since Facebook Groups' content hierarchy is pretty narrow (Group > Post > Comments > Multi-level-threaded comments), you have a more limited ability to demonstrate to members just through your architecture alone how you would like them to interact with the space.
Beyond content hierarchy, the native tools of your community platform can also influence things like your ability to subgroup members, provide private discussions, and more — so, understanding these conditions deeply is an essential step to producing a smart design.
In community architecture, less is more. One of the biggest mistakes I see community builders making as they establish their community architecture is over-designing.
I’ve seen community builders specify hundreds of different discussion topics via their community architecture before even letting a single member through the door. This is the equivalent of trying to host an intimate dinner party in a sprawling mansion.
Over-designing usually a mistake for a few reasons: it’s confusing to your members to have too many choices, it assumes members will want to talk about things they may not actually want to, and it creates too high of a bar to generate a lively feeling in too many different spaces.
You can always add more spaces responsively as your community grows. If there’s a need for this, it’ll become apparent.
A word of caution on this — exercise a healthy skepticism when community members request new breakout spaces for specific niches or topics. This happens a lot, but it doesn’t always mean there’s genuine desire from the community at large. Respond more to trends that are actually happening in the community than one-off requests.
Don’t worry if the spaces you do create feel too broad — remember, this matches the normal way people interact in real life, too.
If you were having a dinner party and everyone was discussing work, you wouldn’t make some of your friends go into another room if they decided they wanted to talk about their pets instead.
That said, you may want to consider creating distinct spaces for conversation that are likely to continuously interrupt or pull focus from others. While I wouldn’t make my friends go into another room to discuss their pets, I might ask them to go into a different room if they wanted to play Twister.
A good way to think about this is that your community architecture should account more for how people are interacting (formats) than what they are talking about (topics). For example, breaking questions into a different space to intros, team announcements, or product ideation might make sense, while forcing people to discuss different topics in different spaces might not.
Lastly, you should consider ditching brand-specific or jargony nomenclature within your community architecture in favor of nomenclature that’s straightforward and descriptive. Don’t make people guess what 'watercooler' means — simple descriptions like 'conversation', 'discussion', or 'questions' tend to work best. You want your community members to be able to understand where to go to start engaging as quickly and easily as possible.
Architecting a new community can be one of the most fun parts of the community-building process — it’s when you can really start to see the project coming together. Have fun with it!
Don’t forget, everything you do in community building is an experiment, so if you don’t get it perfect the first time, that’s totally OK. I hope these tips helped you take a strategic first swing — good luck!
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