Designing for gravity

Optimising for community vibrancy, co-creation and impact

Success for many web applications or projects will rely on building and engaging a thriving community. Hence, in MX is the new UX, I advocated to focus on member experience (MX) by filtering and optimising all traditional user experience (UX) fundamentals through a community and member journey lens. In doing so, it shifts the focus on interactive and relational design, facilitating peer-to-peer connections and community co-creation, and enabling relational processes that collectively drive community agency and impact.

I recently got exposed to Orbit and the model they have built to design for and measure community health. In a play of words, the concept revolves around the notion of ‘gravity’ by which a community pulls its members in ‘orbit’ closer to the centre of the community. Members in a high-gravity community are more engaged and involved (member ‘love’) and have stronger connections amongst each other (member ‘reach’), underpinned by a strong sense of shared purpose and values.

The Orbit Model is a framework for building high gravity communities. A high gravity community is one that excels at attracting and retaining members by providing an outstanding member experience and increasing the bonds between members. Orbit Model

A community’s gravity causes members to pull themselves closer to the centre. All members start on the outer rim, and some become highly engaged members and orbit faster down at the centre. Not all members are active contributors and strong connectors, however a high-gravity community is able to move members at each level of involvement up to the next level in a scalable and effective way. This allows close-knit communities to grow without losing their density and vibrancy, as they can weave from the inside out, with core team and high-commitment members onboarding and guiding new or less involved members.

The key is to design experiences that engage members appropriately by mapping utility, interaction, recognition, incentives and rewards to a member’s community journey and commitment level. Every member deserves the right experience, no matter how committed or engaged they are. Too often, communities tend to be an either-or: they can feel like an insider club where newcomers or outsiders have a hard time to connect and join in the chatter, or they can come across as big-stage open events where a core team of presenters is entertaining a largely passive audience. Effective and impactful communities are champions at combining rich and engaging storytelling with strong member-to-member interaction and co-creation. They master ease of creation and interaction, as much as the art of curation and moderation.

While access gating can solve for accommodating different experiences and interaction levels, it’s helpful to zoom in on member expectations at each of the ‘orbit levels’. Newcomers entering orbit will be looking for a welcoming and personalised onboarding experience. From the outset, the ‘we’ and ‘me’ of joining a community should be obvious: what am I signing up for and what’s in it for me? And while most of the initial onboarding should be seamless and progressive, some friction helps to assess a new member’s fit with the community’s purpose, scope and values.

4 basic orbit levels to categorise and segment community members based on depth of involvement (‘love’) Orbit Model

Newcomers and lurkers want to explore and consume, before they are comfortable interacting and contributing. Rather than exposing these members to the dense noise and constantly evolving community chatter, it’s important to keep them up to date and engaged with the key stories and highlight relevant activities. This is where the art of curation and moderation comes in; ideally self-filtered through a community’s bottom-up reputation model which can signal high-engagement content and separate the newsworthy from the noise. As they are still early in their habit-forming cycle, smart notifications will need to pull in exploring members to check-out community updates and gradually increase overall their in-community presence (frequency & recency).

As members get more comfortable and some level of positive FOMO (fear of missing out) starts to get them hooked to your community, the time is ripe to trigger meaningful interaction and active participation. To keep member conversations meaningful and valuable, it’s not enough to focus on ease of interaction. While likes or any other form of emoji reactions will help signal high-engagement content, they aren’t necessarily thoughtful reactions and add very little to the conversation. Upvoting or downvoting posts or comments has been an effective way for a community to co-curate content and tends to trump emoji reactions as a way to signal collective reception and appreciation. However, true interaction and co-creation happens in comment threads, or by having members participating in votes, polls, Q&As or challenges.

There is a lot of room for optimisation in setting the ‘stage’ for community interaction and co-creation. First off, any interaction needs to be nested or anchored to a core piece of content that grounds and stages the interactive experience. Too often, community members are exposed to comments that aren’t properly anchored, let alone neatly threaded. As a result, they lose context and aren’t triggered to add to the conversation. Also, some content formats are more interactive by default, e.g. polls, votes, Q&As, challenges, … The trick is to create and format the ‘main stage’ such that is both engaging and triggers interaction.

Ultimately, you want members to contribute original content, ideas and work to the community. And you want members to collaborate on community projects. Triggering and recognising original contributions, as well as highlighting opportunities for collaboration will be one of the core roles for community managers and project leaders. Ideally their work is supported by reputation and token reward models that properly incentivise members to put skin-in-the-game, while these same systems also enable effective self-moderation and self-curation. As such, rather than being the main stage performers and storytellers, community leaders become the key stewards and facilitators of community vibrancy, agency and gravity, while they delegate more of the actual creative work and activation to the member collective.

My vision and concept for high-gravity communities is one that blends rich storytelling with active community engagement, member-to-member interaction and co-creation. One whereby creator and member stories set the ‘stage’ for community ‘interaction’, with the value being as much in the originality of the content created as in the community participation and co-creation outcomes generated. One whereby member experience (MX) is optimised for all levels of commitment (‘love’) and depth of interactions (‘reach’). And one where empowerment and co-ownership creates a (‘gravity’) flywheel, by turning member agency into community impact.

Equity Distribution Basics

Tom Vandendooren
November 19, 2022