Designing a digital community one level at a time

Spoiler: you might only need one level

The vibrant and convivial restaurant with a hive of happy diners will draw more customers than an empty one.

Cultivating an online community can be a powerful way to attract, engage and retain an audience. We’re social creatures, after all. But digital communities are difficult to build and maintain, and getting them right requires a lot of planning, resources and time.

Considering that comments sections—the only communal areas on many sites—are notorious garbage fires, and social networks tend to make us hate ourselves, it becomes clear why organizations are often loathe to make the leap. It’s risky, a potential resource suck, and usually hard or impossible to demonstrate ROI. But does it have to be so?

In a recent meeting about developing community on TED’s flagship site and apps, I suggested that a sense of community could be the first step, and I used that word—sense—quite intentionally: when we remove the feeling of aloneness, we begin to create the sense of community. And creating that sense of community might be all we need to do. It’s not all or nothing.

I went on to describe three tiers of community, each correlating to an increased level of effort, cost, resources and risk:

  1. Exposure

  2. Contribution

  3. Interaction


1. Exposure

This is the sense level. Put simply, exposure is where we show that people are engaging with us using data we already have. It’s merely a matter of finding the right way to play that data back to them.

On TED, for example, this could be as simple as showing how many views a video has generated: six million views means six million people have engaged with that bit of content. It could mean a map showing where all the views for a given video originated; imagine seeing that most views for a TED Talk were in North Africa and Southeast Asia, while another talk was popular in Europe and North America. Does that start to create a sense of community?

One of my sons standing in front of TED’s visitor counter

At TED HQ, we have a large, real-time counter showing the number of views we’ve generated thus far on any given day. We’re exposing our data to show staff and visitors how many people are engaging with us. We’re using simple numbers to visualize our community. In a similar vein, I can picture our home page displaying how many people are on our site at that very moment.

“Hey, I’m not alone. 3,423 other people are here with me right now.”

We might show a visitor that 264 other people around the world are watching the same TED Talk. Perhaps we could use a world map to show where the viewers are. What might it feel like to know someone within a few miles was watching a TED Talk with you? Or that most of the other viewers were in China? (Note: avoid the creep factor.)

We could let someone with a TED account see how many other account holders are in their town, state, or county—without exposing any personal data, of course. We could show them the numeric impact of their shares and recommendations. How might it feel to learn that your recommendation inspired over 10,000 people around the world to watch a talk you loved?

What if instead of numbers, we used dots, each representing a viewer. What if these dots were placed around a map of the world, flickering and flashing with activity? What if you could see connections between the dots based on talks each dot—er, person—has watched? What if you could click on a dot to see some basic profile information? Is this how community starts?

What if in our app you could see how many people in the world had similar interests as you, and where they lived? Maybe you’d discover people who love neuroscience cluster in and around cities, while people with an interest in personal growth are found in coastal regions? This could expose some fascinating insights about TED’s global community.

These are just a few ideas for what we might do to create a sense of communityand are obvioulsy somewhat specific to TED. But they show how exposure—playing data back to users—might begin to create the sense of a vibrant and active community, a community defined by a shared love of ideas delivered via spoken word.

Exposure is low risk, and relatively low effort.

2. Contibution

Contribution is the next level, and it’s where things start to get more complex, more costly, and riskier. Contribution means user-generated content. It means letting people post their thoughts, their comments, their ideas. It might mean user profiles with photos, bios, links.

Contribution requires platforms or tools to ensure that user-generated content is positive, additive, not detrimental. It requires moderation by staff or contractors, or identifying and empowering sub-communities to help out.

One recent example of contribution on TED is the personalized recommendations that accompany most of our video content. These are heartfelt messages from our audience members articulating what a particular TED talk meant to them, and why they think others should watch it, too. But even something as simple as short recommendations shared with our global community requires a fair amount of care and curation.

Contribution is democratizing, but it can also be noisy and ugly. Nonetheless, if done right, contribution is a way for users to feel they are truly adding to the experience, and thus have an investment in the community. Examples abound; see, for example, Quora.

3. Interaction

Interaction means providing avenues and forums for people to engage directly with one another. It means connecting, networking, relationship building. For obvious reasons, it’s the hardest level of community to develop, the most costly, and the riskiest.

Done right, and in the correct context, however, interaction can be a powerful way to engage people in your digital community. But if it’s not an explicit organizational objective to develop networks based on direct interaction, it probably isn’t worth the time, effort, or risk.


Back to my earlier analogy: when I stand on the sidewalk outside the bustling restaurant, my thought isn’t that I want to interact with every diner I see on the other side of the plate glass. More likely I’m thinking, “Wow, this must be a good place to eat. It feels lively.”

In other words, creating a sense of community doesn’t require interaction, and it may not even require contribution. It can be as simple as letting people know they aren’t alone, that they’re engaging in a shared experience.

Should Adobe have acquired Sketch?

I was asked this question on Quora. Here’s my response.

sketch icon.png

For nearly a decade, Adobe completely missed the boat on what UI designers were doing, so we made do with Adobe Photoshop (and, for a while, ImageReady and Fireworks—good times!), but it was a less-than-ideal tool for the challenges we faced. It’s to Photoshop’s credit, Swiss Army knife that it is, that it had such a long run as a UI design tool. It wasn’t purpose-built for UI design, however, and with time its shortcomings became untenable.


I remember being surveyed by some smart Adobe researchers back in 2006; I shared my workflow with them, mentioned the kinds of features I was longing for, and explained where their products were falling short. Adobe responded to our needs in fits and starts. Apps like Muse were interesting, but were slow to evolve and ultimately didn’t address our needs sufficiently. Most of us continued to wrangle our way around Photoshop.

Around the same time, Adobe transitioned to an expensive subscription model that lumped all their apps together in a bundle that was unaffordable for many of us. We were paying a hefty monthly fee for apps we’d never use, and still didn’t get the one app we really needed, a purpose-built UI design and prototyping tool. Some of us switched to alternatives like, gasp, Keynote. (Don’t laugh: Keynote is fast, decent for drawing, supports styles, exports to HTML, and comes with every Mac. In fact, its UI seems to be a precursor to several modern UI design apps.) Nonetheless, that silver bullet UI design tool escaped us…and Adobe.

Keynote, looking like Sketch before Sketch was a thing

Then, in 2010, the lean, mean upstart Bohemian Coding launched Sketch which, in short order, ate Adobe’s lunch. At just $99, Sketch was affordable and did what designers needed. At this point, Adobe probably should have released a comparable product or perhaps tried to acquire Sketch outright. I’m not sure Bohemian would have gone for such an arrangement; they seem like a pretty rebellious band of warriors.

Nonetheless, Adobe must have seen the beauty and power of Sketch and realized it was worth acquiring. Perhaps they underestimated the burgeoning UI design and prototyping market. I find that hard to believe, however, since they were doing a lot of market research; I myself was polled twice, in person, by Adobe researchers. And I took many online surveys for Adobe, too. Maybe Adobe heard us, but management ignored the findings.

Some have suggested that Adobe didn’t consider acquiring Sketch because it was Mac only, but that theory doesn’t hold water. For one thing, Adobe’s often launched products on one platform first. For another, most UI designers were on Macs anyway. And, Adobe has the engineering muscle to have kept the Sketch UI and workflow, but re-built it so that it was compatible with both Mac and Windows. Moreover, when Adobe finally launched their “Sketch killer”—initially as Project Comet, later renamed XD—it was Mac-only, and the eventual Windows version lagged behind the Mac version for some time.

We may never know why Adobe didn’t try to purchase Sketch. What we do know is that Sketch is now the de facto standard for UI design and prototyping while Adobe, the longtime giant of desktop publishing and photo editing, has been sidelined in this arena. Even upstarts like Pixelmator and Affinity are giving Adobe a run for their money in the photo editing and vector design market. Nothing is sacred.

Adobe XD and Sketch: who’s zooming who?

At this point, XD is a solid tool—but it’s no Sketch killer. Its features aren’t as robust; it lacks the community and third-party plugin support that Sketch enjoys; and it doesn’t integrate with nearly as many apps as Sketch does. It’s like looking at a reflection of Sketch in a slightly blurry mirror.

Meanwhile, the market is shifting again, and even Sketch is facing competition from apps that promise to bring UI design, interaction design, and animation into a single experience. See, for example, FramerFigma, and the nascent Invision Studio.

So what should Adobe do? Do they continue developing XD, hoping to catch up to and ultimately outpace all the competition? That doesn’t seem like a great bet. Should they scramble a tiger team to develop an entirely new product that’s closer to where the market is headed? Or should they just cede the UI design and prototyping market altogether? It’s a less-than-ideal position for such a venerable company to find itself in. Then again, that’s what can happen when you don’t listen to your users.


There’s an axiom in business that it’s harder to correct course when you’re successful than when you’re struggling. Adobe was flying high and they simply didn’t see the warning signs ahead, or they ignored them altogether, letting a tiny competitor dominate a market they could have—and probably should have—owned.

Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.


Original Quora question here.