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Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability

Author: Jenny Preece
Publisher: New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000
Review Published: June 2001

 REVIEW 1: Boyd Davis
 REVIEW 2: Chris Halaska
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Jenny Preece

In Online Communities, Jenny Preece, Chair and Professor of Information Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, covers the vast expanse of current knowledge related to developing online communities. This attempt to bring together a wide range of material is one of the book's greatest strengths and its biggest failure.

The book is described as an interdisciplinary text, combining discussions of technical and social issues, and integrating theory and practice. Its central push is to bring the ideas of sociability (the social structure of a community) and usability (how well the software works) to the forefront. The other main focus is on community-centered development, a set of techniques for including the eventual users of a community in its design. The discussion of these topics is much needed, as so much technical development seems to go on in the absence of any consideration of social issues or user needs.

The coverage of the many and varied ideas in the book makes for a great reference source and checklist of important things to think about. Unfortunately, the coverage is uneven and incomplete. Just when a provocative point is raised, it's off to the next idea. Also, some curious design decisions on the publisher's part compound the problem.

Online Communities is intended primarily for developers of online communities, both on the scale of Yahoo (formerly egroups) and small, local, community organizations. It is also geared towards graduate students studying online communities for the first time.

Sociability and Usability

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Online Communities focuses on two main topics: sociability and usability. Sociability looks at the social structure of a community, and usability is concerned with producing software that works effectively. Both of these topics have received increasing exposure in recent years, but are still underappreciated. Preece adds to the conversation by providing a systematic framework for discussing these important issues.

Throughout the book, Preece points out that there are many aspects to successful online communities, all of which need to be taken into account at the appropriate time. In most cases the appropriate time is well before the online community is opened for use. With sociability, one needs to consider the group's purpose and policies, which will guide technology decisions such as what type of software to use. With usability, one needs to have a good grasp of the various tasks users will want to perform and the users' abilities in order to tailor specifics of how the software operates.

Online Communities is grounded in extensive research, which Preece references regularly. One of her most important points -- especially for those enamored by the "uniqueness" of Internet technologies -- is that a large body of social science research already exists that is relevant to community designers. In the area of sociability, for example, she points out the importance of understanding the sociology of communities, a research area established long before online communities existed. Topics such as group dynamics and personal roles have been explored before, and much of the research is directly applicable to online communities. Preece herself has a long background in usability research, and it shows in the depth and facility with which she handles this topic. The usability section is one of the strongest of the book.

Community-Centered Design

Many online communities are developed from the top down, with programmers or marketers making decisions in relative isolation from the eventual participants in the community. Preece recommends that developers take the essential step of considering users as active participants in the design process. She briefly discusses a process that starts with assessing a community's needs, defining the users' tasks, planning the social structure, then selecting the technology appropriate for those purposes. In full community-centered design, users would be included in the decision-making in all stages. Then, repeating rounds of prototyping, testing, and refining -- again including community participants -- help turn the ideas into a final product.

Discussing the overwhelming need for community-centered development is easy, but figuring out how to do it is hard. One piece missing from the discussion (it's only alluded to in a couple of places) is the practical problem of dealing with large, geographically scattered, technologically diverse user communities. How does one practically incorporate their varied needs and opinions into a community? This question is at the heart of much online community building and is one I've struggled with for many years without a satisfactory answer. I was disappointed to not gain any further insight on that topic.

References and Pointers

Besides the welcome focus on users and community-centered design, there are several elements of the book that are very helpful references, and that developers of online communities can use throughout their projects:

  • Summaries of different types of software used in online communities that describe how much technical expertise one would need to implement the software, what kind of equipment it requires, how well it scales up to large numbers of users, what effects it has on the social structure of the group, and importantly, how usable the software is.
  • Tables that concisely summarize evaluation methods and sociability and usability heuristics to give developers a good overview of these complex ideas.
  • Further reading lists at the end of each chapter that highlight important references mentioned in the chapter, with annotations about why each reference is useful. This is one of the most useful features of the book.
  • Not surprisingly, a book about online communities also has its own online presence, in the form of a Web site pointing to a wealth of information about online communities, including many examples.

Because the book is highly structured, with a clear hierarchy and descriptive headings, it is possible to use the book's outline as a checklist of important topics to keep in mind while designing almost any kind of a Web site.

Broad Coverage, Shallow Depth

Online Communities addresses a huge variety of topics, in order to be comprehensive and, presumably, to appeal to a wide variety of readers. My main frustration with the book is that there's a sense of trying to be all things to all people that ends up feeling unsatisfactory. The discussion can be too technical and detailed for people looking for an introduction to online communities, and too sparse with details for those already experienced.

The scope of the book is impressive in its breadth and diversity, but the number of concepts and things to think about is overwhelming. Usually they are presented briefly, with little discussion before moving on to the next idea. While it is true that in the real world of developing online communities one should keep all of these ideas in mind, it might have been more useful for Preece to focus on fewer ideas with more detailed examples of each. (I suspect that the abundance of ideas is linked to the book's use as a textbook -- student readers will have the opportunity to discuss the ideas in more detail.)

Because the book collects so much intertwined material in one place, it is also a densely-linked hypertext, with hardly a paragraph that doesn't have a pointer to another section of the book or to an external reference. The quantity of links can sometimes be distracting, but the external references provide an avenue into a large body of literature that supports the work.

Lack of Social Analysis

Since Preece talks about combining social issues with the technical work of developing online communities, and particularly since she highlights community-centered development, I was expecting a deeper analysis of their political and economic aspects.

Since I have been criticizing the attempt to cover too much material, I hesitate to point out omissions. However, one large gap is the lack of discussion about the economic and political ramifications of online communities. Preece doesn't even acknowledge some of the most damning critiques of the Internet and online communities, such as their role in increasing homogenization of cultures around the world, and their use as tools to develop national and globalized markets. Does it matter if local bookstores that function as community centers are driven out of business as long as Amazon.com allows for "community" discussion and reviews of the books on its Web site?

There are regular mentions of the "dark side" of various types of online communities, specifically the popularized concerns around hate groups and pornography. These statements are a simple recognition that there might be downsides to online communities, and are usually glossed over quickly. Even in these descriptions, little attention is given to looking at how computer-mediated communication (and online communities) interact with these issues or even exacerbate them.

As a whole, the disadvantages of online communities are described, rather than analyzed, and the ones that are mentioned are typically individual problems (such as increases in depression or social disconnection), rather than collective ones (such as economic changes). Finally, when presenting advantages and disadvantages of online communities, Preece does not discuss who reaps the benefits of these technologies and who bears the brunt of the drawbacks.

Distracting Design

Unfortunately, the book suffers from several problems that I assume are the fault of the publisher, not the author. I normally wouldn't mention these kinds of flaws, but in this case, several poor graphic design decisions have resulted in a layout that is distracting and regularly interferes with the content of the book. The worst problems:

  • The text is typeset double-spaced, which gives it the feel of a student trying to pad a term paper. It seems a curious decision on the publisher's part to almost double their paper costs, while at the same time decreasing readability.
  • The example screen shots are in many cases difficult to read or interpret because they are in gray and often at a low resolution. They could benefit greatly by being in color, to show how the design principles discussed in the text affect a site's usability. Perhaps the money spent on double-spacing could be better used on a few color images to amplify the discussions.
  • The quantity of pointers or navigational aides at the beginning of the book, each section, and each chapter seem excessive, and further decrease the space available for content.

It's disturbing that a book that is so concerned with usability has so many readability problems.

Conclusion

Online Communities is full of useful and provocative ideas about developing online communities. In particular, Preece does an excellent job of keeping ideas about community needs, social structure, and software usability in the forefront of everything she says. She also reminds us that people have been studying the ups and downs of communities long before online communities existed. Unfortunately, the book attempts to cover too much ground in its limited space, and therefore feels unsatisfying. Many ideas are introduced briefly, but never developed.

Designers of online communities won't be able to use this book as their sole source of information for developing their communities. As an on overview text, it's not designed to be the final resource. Fortunately, Preece provides annotated lists of further readings and extensive references, to help designers get to more detailed sources.

Designing successful online communities is not a simple undertaking. Online Communities collects the various pieces of the process, and I expect to consult it regularly to remind me of the many concerns necessary for successful community-building.

Chris Halaska:
Chris Halaska, Ph.D., is a consultant and researcher focusing on issues of community-scale technology and participatory design.  <x2fer@socialdesign.org>

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