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Building online communities - learning from failure

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NCVO share their approach to developing online groups, why the project was unsuccessful and what they've learnt from this failure.


In September 2015 NCVO launched a project to support its strategic aim of connecting people and organisations by developing new groups functionality on NCVO Knowhow and providing support and training for staff to develop online communities.

12 months later we took the decision to close the groups. This case study outlines what we did, why we did it, what went wrong and what we have learned.

The issues we faced

We wanted to be more effective at blending offline and online activity and provide opportunities for people in voluntary organisations to connect with others, share, learn and build relationships.

An audit of existing groups and networks facilitated by people at NCVO identified a perceived need for an online space where group members could connect, share and learn.

It was intended that a number of staff would become ‘community managers’, convening people around areas of support or policy development, and so would require support with the skills and confidence to develop potential groups into active online communities.

The actions we took

We evaluated several options for this online space and decided to develop some new functionality on Knowhow. We chose Knowhow over existing external networking sites such as LinkedIn and Yammer to give us full control over the design, enabling us to add further functionality should this be required; give us ownership over the content of group discussions, and enable us to capture better quality data and intelligence; provide a gateway to other Knowhow resources and further build on Knowhow’s reputation as a valued source of relevant information and support.

Initial development work was completed in September 2015 following internal testing. This identified a number of bugs and user issues which were rectified by our developers while the new section was launched in beta.

Groups were made public in February 2016 and promoted externally through email and social media. 

Positive outcomes

We invested significant time in creating supporting documents to help NCVO staff create and manage groups. We still consider online groups to be an effective engagement tool and a way to support offline activity.  We now have a better understanding of the processes involved in building, promoting and managing online groups and the challenges this presents and we will use this knowledge to offer advice and guidance to staff on alternative platforms. 

Negative outcomes

When scoping out the project a number of potential risks were identified, and despite taking steps to manage these, the following challenges led to the failure of the project:

Staff capacity
Although group managers were briefed on the tasks involved and made aware of the time commitments required, and given support around planning and managing groups, everyone who started a group has been unable to successfully integrate group management into their current work plans.

Technical issues
Group users have experienced ongoing technical issues that could not be resolved by our developers.

Functionality and navigation
Functionality was intentionally kept basic, based on budget constraints and to ensure ease of use. Despite giving group managers a detailed demonstration of the functionality before setting up their group, feedback from managers indicated a dissatisfaction with the available functionality. Users also commented on the lack of functionality.

Lessons learnt

Despite failing build active online communities through Knowhow groups, we’ve gained some valuable lessons from the project:

Use low-risk and low-cost ways to test whether there is a true demand for the proposed functionality
Although NCVO had experience of running groups on a variety of platforms we could have worked with staff to pilot groups on existing platforms. This would have tested user demand as well as the ability of staff to commit the time required to make a group successful. We could also have used prototypes (paper or digital) to check functionality and user expectations before investing money in development. 

Consider whether we can provide a user experience that meets expectations
Even without the technical issues, Knowhow groups offered basic social features. Users are now familiar with the sophisticated features and functionality offered by long-established platforms such as LinkedIn, Yammer or Facebook. We could not meet their expectations and this is one reason that users didn’t engage. When planning products we should consider whether we have an advantage which will give us the edge over other products. For example, in this example, users may have put up with less functionality in a group/forum if there was an expert hanging out on there who would answer their questions. If not, then we have no competitive advantage.

Spend more time on user testing
More extensive user testing of the groups would have identified technical issues earlier. Prototype testing would have revealed a gap in user expectations and external testing could have helped identify issues around functionality and navigation, particularly in terms of accessibility.


Page last edited Apr 04, 2019

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