stuff about networking projects involved with

Scribbled this on paper (don’t ask) at work first thing this morning but didn’t have time to post, if you are very familiar with online collaboration, social media, this isn’t anything new. Decided after finishing blogpost last night that it was time for action now – there is too much on. Got up early and went for a walk – the thought of the three different networking related projects involved with felt overwhelming so decided to tackle in one go as per below. Three are – water treatment network, complementary network and SMS.

The water treatment one is where there is an existing website and the request was – can you put a discussion forum on there. This is not an unfamiliar request – in the early days of learning web design where I was working with small clients – you often get asked that kind of thing. Also in my current role, you often get asked – what is the difference between a blog, wiki, discussion and what goes where. The answer to the difference often comes down to – not a lot – in some contexts.

This is helpful as a reminder re the SMS networking project (more on that later tonight hopefully) which is more complex than the other two because of the related infrastructure – but in terms of planning is quite – bland / vague in that have not yet progressed beyond some kind of social way of using SMS.

So, back to the water one, there is going to be a meeting soon but need to plan ahead in thinking because won’t have the time later on. So trying to look at – is it really a discussion forum they want? If they are a small organisation they may not have a huge budget if at all, so may only be making incremental changes to their website over the last few years (guessing!). They may not view the prospect of something that involves an overhaul of their web presence favourably, because of anticipation of possible work involved.

A tendency when people have not used the web much or had a more static web presence for a long period of time is wanting to ‘reproduce’ the same information in another space – even if it does have collaborative features. This doesn’t necessarily help owners / members of the website / organisation or its viewers/users learn from each other / communicate with each other because web analytics will show limited amount of content and it also relies on the users taking time to write feedback in a form or other area . This may be less likely because people are too overloaded with information now to communicate with each other in this way.

Part of the focus of my current role is to try and understand why people think this is still needed or how they would like to do things differently in a more collaborative way that doesn’t take too much time. With this project one could make assumptions or even call them constraints such as small organisation, small budget, low hours available for set-up and ongoing maintenance / facilitation / input . You could do exactly what they have asked which is set up a discussion forum, however at this point don’t have details of whether there is an existing group of users who might like to connect and communicate so is hypothetical. If you did set one up people could subscribe via RSS or email for notifications. This might take some time to integrate with their existing website and any facilitation training etc required (if wanted – will come back to this below). For the water one, I initially suggested Linked In group as a possibility too.

Technically, if they want to continually evolve – using software with proprietary coding will not only increase their budget (every time you need to make change you need to pay in some way – time & cost) but reduce their flexibility to connect with other related networks. It may initially offer some specific customisation of some functions which may help their users from a UX perspective but discussion forums are not that complex and have changed over the last ten or so years.

A different option is to suggest reviewing their whole web presence and make it more collaborative. On a small project that I spent a few hours on earlier this year for Crisis Commons (can’t remember link but can find from Crisis Commons London page) – there appeared to be two areas which are – ‘building from the inside out’ such as an online collaborative tool or network, other area is connecting / communicating where the users are and using monitoring or similar functionality to assist with understanding what your users may want / need.

They could recreate some static areas of their website using a platform such as Elgg, Joomla or have Facebook pages or another online community or networking alternative. However anyone advising them should be encouraging linking rather than replicating, keeping it brief (people won’t read and with Facebook pages there is no guarantee people will check multiple tabs). ‘But I just want a discussion forum’ does not take account what, how, why users want.

If you want to plan for and manage high levels of engagement / interaction in something like an online community – some recent online community management advice that I have come across from sites such as Fast Wonder, Feverbee, Community Spark suggest having a rolling plan – what kinds of things should go in a blog, wiki, discussion inside an online community,  assuming temporarily that you might want all three. Am not going to go into that right now, its been said in many places across the web but it all comes down to who you are communicating with, what do you hope to achieve by communicating with them, what is your understanding of how they might like to communicate, what purposes, when – what kinds of activities would you think your users might like to be involved / engaged with, where your users are, what kinds of technologies do you think they are using, comfortable using etc etc

How to encourage everyone to contribute – this can take a lot of additional work in the early days until users feel sufficiently comfortable to start taking on community roles themselves albeit informally. I saw a quite nice set of stages the other day from a social media post – being, doing, acting, thinking online. A small organisation may feel more reluctant to do this as well as being able to measure what is happening – not just the quantity but the timeliness of interactions – if users are talking about something current or asking questions about something current, its ‘an’ indication of how relevant they may feel the community is for them.

With the complementary one, we have only had a brief discussion and they said they would like a Facebook page – however this is not an indication of what their users might want to do, need to do in order to connect with the organisation and other users or expand their connections to related networks or other areas.

This also doesn’t cover the flexibility that users might want – as in online community post earlier this year relating to investing and that is where the beauty of open platforms can provide so much more choice with technology platforms and options for connecting with them continually changing. With options to build small enhancements through plugins or similar you can implement small changes quickly and with an open platform there are more chances that someone has already thought of it and has something already available that you can use.

This relates to the SMS one – finding ways of connecting SMS with proprietary coding complicates everything and restricts users following different paths. In my current role, we get users nearly every day suggesting different things to improve or do differently – they want choices and they don’t want to necessarily connect and share the same information about themselves with all of the different people that they connect with. Some don’t mind at all, some want very restricted and am assuming that there is a whole mass in between either of those.

If you have never been in this position before it is difficult to understand because you can only guess to some extent why other software might be relevant or useful. Until you have spent a few months with it yourself, however much guidance and examples you are given to play with it – it really doesn’t embed it until you have experienced good, bad and decided whether the frustrating aspects make the whole online experience worth it or not. No one really knows anybody’s else’s limits and patience with this either.

Will follow this up as part of SMS post.