Derek Powazek

Design for Communities, Derek Powazek

New Riders, 2001, 307 pages, C$44.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7357-1075-9

As a web designer, I know how easy it is to focus on the information structure, the XHTML coding, the CSS graphical design or the hardware needed to run a successful web site, while ignoring the users who will visit the site. (Or even worse; thinking of them merely as automaton visitors that have to be scientifically managed using “usability guidelines”.) I can testify that coding even a mid-sized web site by oneself can be such a huge task that any simplification is welcome.

At the same time, there is a tendency -among organizations and individuals alike- to think of a web site as merely a repository of information. That’s a good first step, and sometime all you need… but what sets the web apart from anything else that’s existed before is the capability for interaction between creator and visitors, or between visitors themselves. Indeed, you could argue that some of the most successful web sites are made by visitors rather than the administrators.

But there’s a very good reason to avoid considering web sites as community tools. It’s far more complex, on a technical level, than simply putting up static XHTML pages. It’s also vastly more complicated to deal with unpredictable humans when they have a hand in the creation of content. For every five well-behaved net.citizen, there’s at least one net.vandal who loves nothing better than the anonymity of the web to be able to send bricks through your virtual storefront. Dealing with those idiots isn’t the only challenges of community web sites; administrators also have to define the tone of their community, attract enough users to sustain a critical mass of discussion, nurture their shared conventions, avoid growing too quickly and manage flame wars… the list just goes on. Woe on anyone venturing forth in this area without strong guidance.

Early web pioneers had to learn it all on the job, through mistakes and the wonders of naturally-evolving systems. But not anymore, thanks to people like Derek Powazek and his wonderful book Design for Communities. Anyone thinking about going beyond simple contact forms to a more sophisticated form of web community interaction should put this book high on their must-read list. Not only is it fascinating reading on its own, but it contains enough hard-won advice to save you months of development time.

Powazek quickly establishes himself as a likeable host in the book’s first few pages, and this shining personality is one of the things that make Design for Communities worthwhile and so compulsively readable. He integrates the “website by other people” concept a step further in his writing by including great interviews with other web community builders at the end of each chapter (for instance, a discussion with’s Rob Malda is featured at the end of chapter 6, “Moderation, Karma and Flame Bait”) Communities are about identity and personality, and Design for Communities has a voice of its own. There’s almost no technical jargon in this book and that’s a good thing: you’re building for a community and not from technology.

Chapter after chapter examines not only the design issues in allowing user interaction on a site, but also how to set rules, enforce policies, why barriers to entry are useful, how communities can become highly intimate, how to set up mailing lists and how even commercial entities can create highly successful communities. I was most impressed by Chapter 11, ironically (or not) about how to gracefully manage the end of a community site. Thoughtful!

At the end of Design for Communities, I felt as if I’d learned an awful lot of stuff in a very short while. In fact, I’d learned enough to decide that I wasn’t yet ready to implement such tools on any of my sites yet. But maybe you’ll decide otherwise (or have already done so), and in this case, there isn’t a better work out there than this book to guide you through the pitfalls of web communities. As web presences become more commonplace, I suspect that many organizations and individuals will start looking at the Next Big Thing for their web site, and communities could be one of those things. In a field where books expire before they roll off the printing presses, it’s doubtful that Design for Communities will be obsolete any time soon.