Designing for an ecosystem – OpenIDEO’s user engagement framework

The OpenIDEO platform launched 7 months, 2 days ago and since then we’ve seen an amazing collective of people gather around the site and adopt it as their own (12,000 members and counting). I think out of all the outcomes of the platform, this has been the most meaningful for me: to design a tool which users will adopt and feel ownership over and are now shaping along with our team.

I thought I would share some of the initial thoughts that went into the design of the platform and continues to drive its evolution. In a way, this feels a little premature because we’re in the middle of a period of platform refinement, applying the same framework, to both features and layout, in order to drive better user engagement.But this is really just an excuse to talk about a topic I’m passionate to share and would love to continue conversing about: designing for a social ecosystem.

Online community is a word that comes up a lot these days, for me it’s happening across many different projects in education, media, financial services. One of the first reactions to the creation of a community is always… ‘Who would come and contribute? I just can’t see myself doing it.’The answer is your online community isn’t a mob that forms a single entity with a single set of goals and expectations. Your community is an ecosystem of many user types, driven by varying motivations. There will be a small handful users who will passionately contribute and there will be a lot of users who will come to see the results.Here’s one of the most useful diagrams I’ve seen to explain this social ecosystem:At the top of the social ecosystem pyramid you have your small core group of Passionate Contributors. These users are the heart of your community. If your platform is like an empty house, these are the users that fill the house with their creations and take up residence. On OpenIDEO, these are our most passionate members who take the time to submit an inspiration or a concept, or visit the user forums to suggest a new feature.

But you can’t, and shouldn’t expect to, have a hundred thousand passionate contributors. Unless you’re Wikipedia and your userbase is 80% of the planet. When there’s even a handful of passionate contributors, it can signal a larger portion of Collaborators who comment, vote and generally keep the conversation alive. On OpenIDEO, we built bite-sized interactions such as a quick ‘Applaud’ or posting a comment on someone’s idea. The hurdle for clicking a button or typing in a comment is much lower and therefore attracts a different set of people who perhaps aren’t ready to submit something, but can partake of the other ways to interact.

At the base of the pyramid, we have the largest numbers of users, Regulars and occasional Visitors, and (in my mind) the most challenging to design for. It may be enough to surface these users somehow in the design of the site (by revealing their footprints across the platform) and to level them up through smaller, more lightweight interactions (ie. A quick Facebook like or tweet).

Finally, the tiers of different user types form an ecosystem where there is social interaction across the tiers, where Passionate Contributors and Collaborators create conversations that Regulars and Visitors return to consume.Here’s how the current spread of OpenIDEO features cater to different tiers of the ecosystem. They range from bite-sized interactions (click to applaud) to more involved interactions (submitting a concept).You can also see that converting someone from a Visitor to a Regular is a bit of a hurdle (raised higher by the process of actually having to sign up for an account). I’m not sure if I’ve seen any sites that do well at helping users level up from the bottom of the pyramid, except to make the value of the site so high as to drive signup.

As OpenIDEO is in this current phase of Living in Beta, it means we’re also trying to level-up users across all the tiers, through building intermediate features that turn Collaborators into Passionate Contributors and Regulars into Collaborators. Our latest Inspiration Assignments feature is an attempt to turn the rather nebulous Inspiration phase into more specific questions so as to overcome the hurdle of a blank piece of paper, where guiding questions can prompt Collaborators to start contributing.

So whether you’re a Visitor, Regular, Collaborator, Passionate Contributor, or social design geek, what are examples and ideas you’ve seen to level up user engagement?


  1. Charlotte Fliegner says:

    Hi Haiyan, Can I please use your diagram in a university essay I am writing on clans & tribes in online communities? Thanks, Charlotte

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  4. I think one thing that works quite well is the DQ. It is a reward for participation. Unlocking functionality by moving up a level could also be an interesting point. Say to execute tasks that can help the community members.But what really helps as well, and in some way gmail was a good example of that, is to make your collaborators and passionate contributors into evangelists. Passionate contributors can become so engaged in the platform, that they tell all their friends about it. Invite others to the platform, blog, tweet or facebook-update about it. And also, encourage regulars, and collaborators to be even more involved or help them out. I think that level of evangelist is missing from the pyramid. Gmail grew quite fast, because enthusiastic users invited their friends. (The added charm then was also the fact that you could only get in with an invite.)So, in short: motivation to level up by offering rewards like more control, and cherish the passionate contributors to turn them into evangelists.

  5. Hi Haiyan. Loving the visualization of OpenIDEO features layered onto the social ecosystem pyramid. You’ve really considered user engagement & motivation very thoroughly and thoughtfully!In terms of leveling up “visitors” to sign up for accounts and become “regulars”, may be helpful to 1st convert them to “regular visitors” by making it as easy as possible for them to receive updates from the community, increasing their interaction over time. As “visitors” become more involved “regular visitors”, their desire to participate further and likelihood of becoming registered “regulars” increases.Right now, OpenIDEO is already supporting this through Facebook Updates sent to people who have “liked” OpenIDEO and tweets to Twitter followers.In addition, the following functionality could be provided through other popular channels that people use such as email subscriptions (alerting when new challenges or stages of current challenges are launched) and RSS feeds (of new inspiration & concept posts). RSS feeds would also be a good step towards adapting OpenIDEO for viewing through mobile (through free visual smartphone newsreaders like PULSE and FLUD), without requiring too much additional work.Finally, these different following options can be grouped and highlighted for visitors to encourage a lightweight follow action: e.g., through a small “Keep Inspired By New Ideas” box fixed at the bottom right of each page (like the “login/toolbar” and “feedback” boxes already on the site).Increasing “Following” would amplify engagement and leveling up, not only for new visitors, but also for all user type tiers.

  6. Krassimira says:

    Hi Haiyan, I like the idea of the pyramid and how you mapped different types of interactions to different types of users. The challenge of converting visitors-> regular-> collaborator reminds me of the challenge facebook fan pages have to convert vistors-> fans-> customers-> returning customers.

  7. I would also like to add that while the massive amount of data is a weakness for the web, it is also its greatest strength.

  8. How can we use this framework for identifying a relevant social connection for a non-user? The weakness of the web is the vast sea of data that is available and few tools to access only a small percentage of this data.How do we use this framework toA: Establish social connections that will foster greater depth and success in online collaboration.B: Make finding information easier and search more accurate.A like or a tweet or a single-click, low engagement action is a very superficial way to calculate engagement as we both agree. We need a framework like yours that not only identifies user classes but also identifies possible users to increase the knowledge pool.

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