Always Be Onboarding: Creating Community Arcades

Many people think of onboarding only when a member first joins a community, but onboarding happens every time a member re-enters a community space. Communities should always be onboarding. Onboarding is the process of providing members with the context necessary to function in the community. It is needed because context changes constantly.

Communities create a lot of information, often too much to consume if you aren’t constantly active. Consuming information takes work, and presents a barrier whenever someone joins. Communities need to shape, limit, and structure the information they produce to ensure users can get the most out of it, especially early. For example, if users do not have the context to engage in an ongoing conversation when they join, they are likely to leave. 

Platforms give defaults. Discord, Slack, and others show all the channels with new content on the side and put you into the channel you last were viewing. Reddit and forums default to the newest or most popular. Telegram, Signal, and Whatsapp show you the most recent message in every group you are a part of.

These are simple solutions, but they may not be “right.” These solutions are good for users with context. They are optimizing for post-onboarding engagement. Platforms and communities don’t realize context needs to be built every time a member rejoins the space. To have conversations and connections with other members, you need to know what they are talking about. That changes constantly, so context needs to be built and rebuilt. Members need to always be onboarded.

A way to “always be onboarding” is building a space between the general “outside” world and the private “inside” community space. This transition space provides the context needed to fully engage and connect with the community. Luckily for us, architecture and building design created such a space, they’ve called it the “arcade.”

Community Arcades

An “arcade, in architecture, a series of arches carried by columns or piers, a passageway between arches and a solid wall, or a covered walkway that provides access to adjacent shops.” It is a space between the public and the private that helps people transition into a new world and context. Communities should be doing the same in their onboarding process.

The idea to use it as a transition space comes from Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language.” It turns out, if you replace the word “building” with “community,” much of architecture and city design becomes community building. Here’s what he says about arcades and their uses:

“Buildings are often much more unfriendly than they need to be. They do not create the possibility of a connection with the public world outside. They do not genuinely invite the public in; they operate essentially as private territory for the people who are inside.”

“There are no realms between the two kinds of spaces which are ambiguously a part of each—places that are both characteristic of the territory inside and, simultaneously, part of the public world.”

“The classic solution to this problem is the arcade: arcades create an ambiguous territory between the public world and the private world, and so make buildings friendly.”

If Alexander’s diagnosis is right, many people never join or enter communities because communities aren’t “friendly.” I translate this to mean, they don’t provide the context necessary to enter them. They must always be onboarding, and building an equivalent to an “arcade” is a way to do that.

Building Community Arcades

What does a community arcade look like in practice? They are a transition space with elements of both the public world and the private world. Platforms have data on your behaviours and interests. They also have data on what information the community produces. They should be doing a better job at connecting these two to help users build context through relevant information.

Arcades should help members prioritize their path into a community. It should help them make decisions about where they want to go and what they want to do. If users know what information is important to them, they can make this decision better. The community arcade should give a view into the community from the outside without overwhelming users.

Some examples of information they could summarize:

  • New
  • Popular
  • Rising
  • Relevant to you
  • People you care about
  • Channels you care about

For example, an arcade might show you a summary of your mentions, people you engage with often, and channels you check. Your first actions are probably going to be that anyway, so community platforms (or bots) should do it for you. Machine learning should be getting good enough to make the user experience better, not only ads.

Community platforms never recommended content to me from people I’ve regularly enjoyed. If I’ve commented, messaged, or reacted to a specific user’s posts multiple times, I’d probably have a connection I’d like to continue with that user. Platforms should be smart enough to do it for me.

Don’t tell me there are new messages, tell me what new messages are relevant to me. Don’t tell me I have unread messages, tell me what unread messages are most important to look at. Computers are smart enough to do this, it is sad community platforms aren’t leveraging this. Many platforms optimize for time-on-site, information consumed, or ad clickthrough, instead of community experience, and connection.

Discord’s inbox provides an example of a community arcade, but they don’t embrace it. They hide the inbox in the top right corner, never automatically open it for you, and never tell you why you should use it.

Discord’s inbox feature, an example of a community arcade in practice.

What Communities Can Do

Often, only the platform can make the structural or design changes necessary to create arcades. This doesn’t prevent communities from having an “always be onboarding” mindset and trying their best to create arcade-like spaces.

Communities should think hard about their onboarding process for new and returning users. They should understand what information is shared and needed to engage with the community, and what path those users are going on. They should think about how to summarize context to be more consumable for both new and returning users. For example, a community could build an arcade-like space with a combination of channels, pinned posts, bots, summaries, and announcements.

Too much irrelevant information is often shared in the onboarding process such as excessive amounts of rules, roles, channels, and features. This clutter is preventing the arcade from doing its job as a transition space. When information is consistently irrelevant, users begin to ignore it and any valuable information shared there is lost. Users should be shown what they need to start with the option to explore more if they want. 

Communities should think hard about how new and returning users are onboarded into their community. Ask users about the path they are taking to build context, figure out what information is most important (and unimportant) on this path, and try to build the best community arcade you can. Every time they return is a chance to onboard them again. The communities who get this right create better engagement, connections, and a stronger overall community.

Thanks to Caryn Tan from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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