Building a community: Starting the design process

by Martin Reed on 18 January 2008 in Articles

Designing a new community website

This is the fifth article in what I hope will be an indefinite series about the processes involved in developing a brand new community from scratch. I am currently developing a brand new online community and will detail its development on this blog. As I have said before, I think it is far easier to learn by example rather than simply reading another person’s theories and ideas.

Logo being finalised

In my last article I wrote about the logo design process. I am happy to say that the logo for my new online community is currently going through a final minor revision before it will be ready – therefore I can now move onto the design process for the site itself.

Starting the community design process

Designing a website is a process – you cannot simply knock something up from the top of your head and publish it. If you do, you are highly unlikely to have the site you want, and it is unlikely that your site will please your visitors. In this article, I will outline the steps I am taking in order to get my new community website designed.

Step One – Determine what your site is about

This may sound obvious, but it is important that you decide exactly what your site will be about. Simply knowing the subject of your site is not enough. You need to decide who your target audience will be, what needs they have and how your site will satisfy these needs.

You also need to decide what functions your site will have. Will you offer a forum and nothing else? Will you offer articles and a forum? How will you integrate such features into your website?

Step Two – Determine your site’s purpose and goals

Why are you setting up your website? What will make it different from other websites out there? What do you hope to achieve with your website? You will not be able to design a suitable website without knowing the answers to these questions. If your priority is to attract forum traffic and interaction, then your forum needs to be a focus of your site’s design. If your priority is to build a strong member database, your design needs to focus on encouraging visitor conversion and registration.

Step Three – Understand and learn about your target audience

Who is your audience? What are their likes and dislikes? Are they Internet savvy? Do they love flashy, intricate site designs? Do they need help and reassurance? Do they like lengthy, in-depth articles or basic articles that will inspire them? You will not be able to design a site appropriate for your audience unless you understand your audience.

Step Four – Draw up a design brief

Even if you are a talented designer, it will help if you write down all your ideas and goals to ensure you don’t lose focus – it can be easy to get carried away during the design process and end up with something that is completely different to your actual aims! A little improvisation can be great, but if you deviate from your brief too much, you should reconsider whether your design is really catering to your audience, or solely to your own tastes!

Your design brief is even more important if you are outsourcing the design work. A designer will struggle to design the right site for you unless they understand exactly what you (and your target audience) want. Draw up a written brief for your designer and include as much information as possible – don’t be afraid of making it too long; a good designer will always be grateful to receive as much information as possible.

Step Five – Begin the design process

By now you should have a clear understanding of what you want your site to be and the goals you want it to achieve. You should know who your audience is, what they want and be able to cater to their needs and your own goals through your site’s design. Don’t be afraid to experiment – sometimes experimentation can yield great results; just be sure you stay true to your overall design brief.

The next article in this series of building a new online community will detail the process of design revisions and coding.

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Amish Made Furniture January 19, 2008 at 6:58 am

This is a very well written post. I know someone who is creating a brand new community and I have asked for the article to be sent to him by email through the link that you have given. Thank you. I am sure that he will be in touch with you too.

Thesis January 19, 2008 at 11:45 am

I think another problem in building a community is that how do you plan to have the sudden surge of traffic?

you’ll definitely need to spend some cash to promote your site..

jonathon January 20, 2008 at 5:37 pm

a very useful article, tho building a community does take a lot of work and may take years.

Vyoma January 21, 2008 at 12:23 am

While I understand that we should not stick with a default theme for a forum (and also that the design process involves more than just the forum skin), depending on the purpose and scope, you can settle for a non-default theme.

But in terms of establishing the brand, never hesitate to get a unique logo. (More on what I did for

Both design and more importantly, the brand can evolve.

Bottom line – though you do not need to spend a fortune (effort/money/time), do not stick with the default that the forum software gives you. :)

Andrew Reynolds January 21, 2008 at 1:46 am

I agree with your ideas posted. Building a community is not that quick and easy. It may take some time, but learning the basis of it like the design, I guess it will make effective and successful.

Nicole Price January 21, 2008 at 9:05 am

the article does make it look simpler by breaking it down to points and putting the plan of action on paper. But for non-designers like me, this part of the job is the toughest.

Eva White January 21, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for the very informative post. I would like to say one thing I like about you Martin, I like the way you give your views and thoughts on all the members comments. It really gives that personal touch which many blogs lack. It gives a feeling that we are actually conversing with you. Great work !!

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 22, 2008 at 2:04 pm

Ramana – Thanks for your kind comment; I hope the recipient finds the article helpful.

Thesis – Of course, you should never stop planning. It is possible to promote a website without spending a penny, though. Perhaps that will be a future post!

Jonathon – Yes, building a successful online community is extremely hard work. It won’t necessarily take years for a new community to be successful though.

Vyoma – I agree with you. You don’t need to spend a fortune designing your site, and very often a move from a default theme to a non-standard but publicly available one can be appropriate. Having a unique logo is important though as it is a symbol of what your site stands for and is your primary method of branding.

Andrew – Building a community is quick and easy. Building a successful community is extremely tough! The design of a site is just one part of the process, but it can certainly help and contribute towards your success.

Nicole – I am a complete non-designer, too; that’s precisely why I wrote the article! I hope you found it useful.

Eva – Thanks for your kind comment. I think it is really important to respond to my readers’ comments. After all, they made the effort to contribute so the least I can do is reply!

What’s more, I consider a blog to be just as much of an online community as a forum – therefore, it is essential to create and maintain dialogue and the sharing of ideas in order for this blog to be successful.

Vyoma January 22, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Yes – that is the reason I took time to get a logo. :) (Since I design logos myself – I did not need to spend much on it).

Eventually though, if I could raise some revenue out of my community – it would get a custom design. Until then, :), the community must drive itself.

Gadget Blog January 24, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Certainly, a very useful article, tho building a community does take a lot of work and may take years.

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 28, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Vyoma – It’s definitely important to only invest money in your site that you are able to recoup, otherwise you risk spending too much and being unable to afford to keep the site running.

Gadget – Yes, building a community does take a lot of work. It doesn’t need to take years, though!

D. Hendrix November 17, 2008 at 3:11 pm

I have looked through several threads on building online communities. Some advice is great, however, i think too tools focused… The tool is only the enabler, it is about the people and building a community in a virtual space, the tool should be secondary to your community buidling efforts.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 17, 2008 at 8:06 pm

D. Hendrix – The community is the most important aspect, without doubt. However, having a unique design helps your online community stand out from the crowd. Additionally, if you have a design that isn’t user-friendly, you will be making it difficult for visitors to navigate around your site, learn more, and potentially become members.

Bret February 24, 2009 at 11:26 pm

The article means a lot to me, it gives me the idea on constructing a website, the constraints and key factors on building a website. The idea was very helpful for those who are just starting up. Setting your goals and objective in able to be successful….Thanks for the concept.

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