I’m tired of myself talking about making products but never. It’s always been my dream to make products that serve public good and create positive social impact. It’s my passion and purpose to create a personally meaningful body of work at the intersection of design, social/public issues and entrepreneurship. So I’m committing to make 1 minimum viable product per month, starting Feb 2018. I’ll keep going till I run out of ideas or money, or something takes off in a huge way that requires all my time, or exhaustion kicks in. Whichever comes first. #1mvp1month
For my 3rd MVP, I’m launching Public Design Forum, a global community of designers for public good and social impact. It’s a natural extension of my 2nd MVP – Public Design Vault, a curated directory of 500+ design tools for public good. Why? Because people typically come to the Vault with a question, even if they don’t frame it as such. And there’s no better way that’s more direct, relevant and personalised than to simply ask it and have someone answer.
(Click here if you’re here for the blogpost title and skip straight to the section on “How to choose a platform for your community”)
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM & OPPORTUNITY?
Why make Public Design Forum?
The idea for this forum kind of evolved organically from Public Design Vault. Because one of the main reasons why people come to the Vault is because they have a question, even if they might not frame it as a direct question. It can be a question about the design process, or about a specific issue that they are working on. And in finding the right tool, article, case study or resource, they hope to find an answer to their question. That’s the real job to be done – answers, not tools. In a way, tools are not the most intuitive or optimal way to get an answer to your question, isn’t it? Depending on your luck and what you search, there’s probably a lot of hits and misses, before finally finding something useful (if ever!). Not the most efficient user flow, if you ask me.
The most direct, relevant and personalised way is to simply ask it and have someone answer it (preferably without a big time gap in between).
One way of seeing if your product is relevant to users is to observe their existing work-arounds to the problem that you’re trying to solve. I’m personally part of many Whatsapp chat groups with other designers, where we share articles, resources, and ask questions and help each other. Most designers I know have someone they can message for a quick question, or even a mentor they can turn to. But it’s largely organic and hyperlocalised. What if you could turn to a global community for advice?
Many Facebook groups for the design community actually fulfill this function, and while I enjoy the conversations, my frustration with Facebook is poor search functionality especially for past discussions. It’s really hard to access gems of knowledge from years back on Facebook – something that’s been discussed extensively online. How about Slack? Search is better on Slack but the chat format tends to draw out answers line-by-line, which tend to be less considered or lack depth. It’s difficult to get deep using chat, so the quality of the answers might not be best. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a place where you could get quality, considered answers to your questions, or easily search for them?
The bigger picture that’s emerging after making Public Design Vault
Design is mostly a practice-driven field. Being an effective designer is (mostly) less about the theory you know, more about practice experience you have. There’s a strong emphasis on craft, skills and experiential capital than ‘head’ knowledge. While the Vault curates some theory-based resources, it primarily captures practice wisdom in the form of tools and case studies. But that’s an inflexible form to use. While tools are practical and condensed ways to tap on the knowledge of others, it’s also fixed at the time of print. It can’t get updated, there’s a lot of nuances that the author might have left out when editing, and your context might differ. So having a more dynamic, responsive, just-in-time way to tap on the knowledge of others will be a great complement to the static content of the Vault.
There’s also surprisingly no single place that captures and curates practitioner wisdom in design thinking in the public sector globally. Problems that the public services face around the world are so similar, even though as countries and culture we couldn’t be more different. I wonder if it’s because there’s only a handful of models of democracy in the world? (Probably a story for another blog post!)
“The future is already here, just not evenly distributed.” ~ William Gibson
We have so much collectively that we can learn from one another. So much talent and knowledge everywhere, issues we face so similar, people solving the same problems everywhere, yet we often have to reinvent the wheel and learn the ropes on our own every time. This feels like a huge inefficiency in the system. How might we optimize the practice wisdom and knowledge base of a community for better distribution and collective learning?
I’m quite enamoured by how tech communities seem to have done this well. Coding is in many ways a craft and a practice as well. Think Stack Overflow. It’s the “largest, most trusted online community for developers to learn, share their programming knowledge, and build their careers.” And with 50 million developers all sharing and learning from one another, everyone benefits. Why can’t we have that for design?
So wHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
So, based on the above considerations, I decided that making a forum was the best way to capture the practice wisdom of a global community. To make it more scientific, let’s consider business viability, user desirability, technical feasibility and maker enjoyability:
Is it easy to validate demand? Yes, using web traffic analytics on #users, #pageviews, email signups. The forum will borrow heavily from the Vault, and so far (1 month in) the Vault has 12.6k users, 42.9k pageviews and 394 email signups. About 60% growth in users and pageviews since 1 week after launch. Think that’s encouraging, no?
❤️ 335 upvotes
6th (30 Mar) on PH
341 email subscribers
15 resource submissions
☕️ 1 @TheBuyMeACoffee received
Is this considered a successful launch?
— Jason Leow (@jasonleowsg) April 8, 2018
Do I see a clear way to monetize this? Mostly yes. There’s a few ways to keep the lights on – ads (yuck but..), patronage, subscription-based membership, job boards, etc. But I’m wary of trying to monetize the forum too soon. There’s still a lot of learn about how the community will use the forum, and what they need and don’t need. The business model has to be continually iterated upon as the community grows.
Can I reach the target customer at scale? Yes. Building on the pathway from launching Public Design Vault, the potential audience is already there – Product Hunt, LinkedIn, email list. Just need to reach out to them again.
Does it address a user need, solve a painpoint? Yes. Job to be done – answers to questions, not tools. See Community Needs below.
Does it fit in their work? Are they already using this in some form before you came in? Yes. Chat groups, Facebook groups, Slack, but no global forum for this niche topic of design + public good.
Can this MVP be done without code? Yes. Managed hosting at DiscourseHosting.com (affiliate link) makes it really easy to set up a Discourse forum without needing to code anything from scratch.
It is possible to create an MVP within a month or less? Yes. Managed hosting means I can create my forum in under a day, in two with some basic HTML/CSS customizations all found on the Meta Discourse forum.
Is this a fun idea for you personally? Yes. This is something I’m already doing frequently with my friends. I love sharing knowledge and learning from others, and had always been curious to engage with a global community of practitioners.
Does this align with your values, passion and purpose? Yes. I want to my work to be helpful to others. I want to help others using what I know. Self-growth and learning drives me in my career and life, and being able to converse with a global community is something with the kind of potential that I can’t even wrap my head around at the moment. I want to make a difference to the world. I think this does in its own little way within the cosy niche space I carved out for myself and my friends on the internet.
HOW TO CHOOSE A PLATFORM FOR YOUR COMMUNITY
First, a few things to note: It’s not (really) about the platform. The tech is a tool to help a group of human beings better interact with one another around a common topic. That’s why it’s called a community. It’s about the relationships and the interactions. From research, a successful community has a few things going:
1 Common focus/purpose. Having a common topic helps give focus to the community and provides the boundaries around which we can play. Without some boundaries, the forum will descend into a messy madness where everything and nothing can be talked about, and correspondingly, useless.
2 Sense of safety. The reason smaller chat groups amongst friends are great to ask questions is because of the familiarity, honesty, authenticity, openness, and psychological safety one feels. That makes it easy to just ask stupid questions. Being able to keep that even while the community grows will be a challenge.
3 Credibility. This needs to be nurtured over time. Is the community made of of members who can really help me with my questions? What’s the quality of the posts? Credibility about competence, skills/knowledge, reputation, and performance of the forum in addressing the needs of individual users will be key here. People don’t usually ask outright about the competence of a community, but they all care if about the quality and relevance of the conversations, so it’s something of an unarticulated need.
4 Personality/Culture. What’s the tone of the forum like? Fun vs serious? If the forum was a person, what would be his/her personality? This largely depends on what works for the kind of discussion and socialisation the community wants in relation to the kind of topics that’s discussed. More professional topics might warrant a more serious tone perhaps.
What kind of conversations does your community need?
Before deciding on the tech platform, ask what kind of conversations would benefit the community the most. What’s the mode of discussion, or use cases? I had initially wanted to start this group on Telegram or Slack since they are super popular now and every community seems to be on it. But upon research I realised I needed to match the needs of the users and the kind of conversations they want, to the functions available on the platform.
This was where reading these posts really helped loads – a blogpost by Discourse about what forums are good for vs chat; Jason Fried’s
rant post on how group chat is not working for his team at Basecamp after 10 years using it; Samuel Hulick’s breakup letter to Slack.
Summing up their points, think about conversations as happening along this spectrum:
Ephemeral vs permanent CONVERSATIONS
Ephemeral conversations are transient, temporary, realtime, chatty, random. Think of it as chatting at the pub with a bunch of friends over beer. Permanent conversations are great for reference, archive, content, in-depth discourse, considered responses, like a transcript of a deep discussion between 2 experts. Chat groups on messenger apps like Telegram/ Whatsapp are great for ephemeral conversations, and as you move down the continuum from left to right, you get to Slack which is still quite chatty but enables better search. Next comes platforms like Facebook groups, which begin to resemble the conventional forum format but does search and archival reference poorly. Traditional forums are on the far right of the spectrum, enabling deeper discourse but without the immediacy and intimacy of chat.
(Whether the conversations do pan out the way the platform is built for is another issue. People do end up chatting on a forum, though it’s hardly well suited for it. It depends largely on the moderators and leaders of the community setting/policing the tone.)
Of course you can have more than one platform, but it risks diluting the community and spreading them out over many places. So I had to choose with care. I guess it really depends on the goals of the community overlapping with your objectives or your organisation’s. Discourse’s suggestion of a twin approach of a forum for archivable discussions plus a chat group for more chatty stuff – while working hard to link conversations across the 2 platforms – sounds like a good compromise.
Inevitably people will starting chatting in the forum and sometimes the moderator will have to direct them gently to talk on the chat instead. Sometimes a really good discussion happens off the cuff on the chat group, so the best way is to summarize the chat discussion without stopping them prematurely, and post the summary of the thread on to the forum for further (future) discussion in-depth.
I never felt that having a chat group was enough for the Public Design Vault community. It’s difficult enough to track the conversations even with 2 other friends in a chat group, lest say 100 or 1000! Moreover, it’s a professional community focused in knowledge transfer and collective learning, so being able to ask questions and refer back to these answers will benefit more people over time. Being able to scale the conversations over time (future reference) and space (globally) is important if we want to be able to bring practice wisdom together in one place.
Here’s the users’ needs mapped to the features needed:
TYPES OF FORUM PLATFORMS I CONSIDERED
How do I go about selecting the right forum platform to use? There’s so many to choose from that I took 2 weeks of research to try out and understand them! After a while, it got really hard to decide, so I listed some criteria to help me:
- Use case. Does the features offered match what my community needs?
- Costs. What much does it cost to set up and maintain?
- Setup. How technical and difficult to install and set up? Does it require coding? Can it be done within a month?
- Maintenance. How technical and difficult to maintain and update? Does it require coding?
- Scalability. Does the platform scale well? Is the platform future-proof, in line with my ambitions for the forum? Would it be able to perform just as well as the community grows?
- Inter-operability. If we ever need to move the forum to a different platform, how difficult is it? Does it require coding?
- Monetization. How do we keep the lights on? Are there features to easily enable that? Does it require coding again?
With those criteria, I narrowed down the list to these 4 options:
Discourse, of course! Ok maybe I’m biased, because it was love at first sight. But I made myself go through the proper discipline of researching other viable options. There were a few days where I agonized between WordPress and Discourse. After all, it’s an MVP. Should I really be spending $20/month on something that could potentially not take off? I could do 70% of the job with a WordPress forum at 5x lesser the cost? But the feature set on WordPress is dismal, compared to Discourse! And it wouldn’t scale with my aspirations……
In the end, I went with a managed Discourse hosting because it has everything the community needed, was easy to install and maintain. The fact that I don’t have to worry about having to export the community grows and scale, felt assuring. I also liked that it acknowledged and aligned to my aspirations to grow this community into a global one. AND if the only issue is a money issue, it’s not an issue (ok $20/month is pricey but still manageable – I could source for funding for it).
I didn’t forget about the twin approach of having a chat group alongside the forum, so I quickly set up a Telegram supergroup for it. Telegram is just much better than Whatsapp in terms of group management. I could make the group public or private for easier gate-keeping, and every group comes with a link for easy invites and linking on websites. The messages are encrypted, files are easy to share. You can even create your own stickers! There’s also a whole range of possibilities opened up by the use of bots. Many Telegram groups are bringing in bots to help manage the group, or to provide new useful features to members. Mindful Makers is one such group I’m part of. It’s great to be able to chat to and feel a sense of belonging to a global community interested in “mindfulness, health, psychology, philosophy, love and finding harmony in an increasingly digital world”. Members can also use a bot to track sleep hours, meditation minutes, anxiety and happiness levels, and can even show back basic analytics of these data. Telegram is definitely catching on as the alternative to the Whatsapp ecosystem.
WHAT I LEARNED
1 No two MVPs are alike. I cannot expect to schedule each month the same way I scheduled the one before, as the learning and the work needed was so different. Last month I needed 2 weeks of painful data entry to create Public Design Vault, but this month, I had Public Design Forum up in a day. The time-consuming part this time was the upfront research and getting the right information in order to choose the right forum platform, less about actually making something. I love how that implies that I’m always having to learn something new every month, and that’s awesome because that’s what I wanted. The challenge is around planning enough time within a month to ship on target, to learn fast enough about the industry around the new product. This is like ultra-accelerated MBA in startups, business-making and product development!
2 Growth is hard if you’re always on to the next shiny thing. I’m finding it hard to grow my previous MVPs right now, because the pace to deliver an MVP every month is relentless! There’s new ideas and tasks I lined up for Outsprint Store and Public Design Vault, but I have no time to work on them because I got to ship Public Design Forum by end of April! This is so completely self-inflicted. While there’s no critical urgency at the moment to improve and grow the previous MVPs, I’d been asking myself if I’m just launching for the sake of launching, or am I trying to make stuff that creates real impact? I’m already considering having a mid-term hiatus, where I skip shipping for a month at the mid-term of #1mvp1month, so that I can spend some time to grow the previous MVPs. Will sit on this longer and see if there’s other ways to better prioritize and balance new vs old.
3 Growing a community is haaard. Getting the platform up is just the first baby step. I realized that all my agonizing over which forum platform to use is so, so small compared to the larger task I have ahead of me – growing the forum into a global community. Thing is, I had never been a forum moderator before, and I’m not the most extroverted, well-connected person I know. How exactly do I grow a community? What skills do I need? Who do I need to know? Who can do this better than me? Should I get help, or continue solo? It’s scary but also exciting at the same time.
4 Throughout the process of making this MVP, I really enjoyed discovering communities and forums all over the internet. It’s fascinating to see all these cool hidden alleyways and tiny little spaces people carved out for themselves, spaces I never knew even existed. Like Mindful Makers which I mentioned previously for instance, or Beyond Type 1, a community for those impacted by Type 1 diabetes. Or Barnacles, a forum for bootstrapper entrepreneurs. It’s super fascinating. When you only use Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp as your main sources of community, it’s surprising to find these new worlds out there you didn’t realize existed. Discovering these communities and learning from them brought a whole new experience of learning for me. It’s no longer just about consuming content on my own but also engaging with people around the content to learn better.
5 Asking others for help. This is more of a personality knot. I’d always struggled with asking others for help, preferring to hunker down alone. Not just this time but for all the MVPs before, I had to seek help from friends to say, give user feedback, to kickstart the forum with questions etc. It had always been difficult for me as I’m terrified of being a bother or nuisance to my friends. Why would they want to help me? Why would they even care? Yet it really gets me down when I don’t receive the help I need after asking for it. Yes, people are busy, forget to reply, or simply don’t really care about what I’m making or asking. Intellectually I get it. But somehow the social-emotional me doesn’t. To be ignored feels infinitely worse than to be given negative feedback. This is a deeply personal struggle that’s been recurring since starting #1mvp1month, and I have no answers or epiphanies at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out till the end. In the meantime, I’ll just keep being mindful of it and working through it.
SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK?
In gratitude to Leon, who’s always so game to offer help and knowledge on the forum, Angie and Vickie for being pioneers to join in the fray. Also thanks to the community at Meta Discourse forum, who were invaluable during research and installation.
ALL ABOUT PUBLIC DESIGN FORUM
This forum is a platform for a global community where we help one another when we have questions about the design process as applied in the public/social sector, or when we need advice on how best to approach a public project/social cause. Ask questions, help others by answering, and chat!
We hope this forum will be a place for considered, in-depth discussions on how human-centered design/design thinking is applied in the public and social sector. Take your time to think through your reply before hitting post, share your deeper reflections and let’s all learn from our collective wisdom. For more random, chatty and transient conversations, check out our Telegram chat group.
WHO IS PUBLIC DESIGN FORUM FOR
This forum is great for folks working at the intersection of human-centered design, innovation and public/social impact. You might be a:
- UX designer creating an app that serves vulnerable groups,
- social worker planning programs for your local community,
- manager of an in-house government design team,
- organizational change expert trying to bring citizen-centered transformation to your workplace,
- civil servant charged with driving public service innovation or commissioning an innovation project
WHAT IS PUBLIC DESIGN FORUM FOR
Some situations where you might find this forum useful:
- you’re new to design thinking and would like to apply it to your work, but unsure how to and want to ask someone about it
- you’re commissioning a design/innovation consultant to change “business as usual” and not sure what to look out for when appointing
- you’re starting out on a new project and want to explore new ways to approach it using design thinking, and like to ask some expert practitioners for their views
- your existing service/program is not working, the numbers are not coming in and you need to inject a fresh perspective by crowdsourcing some ideas from the community
- prior to a workshop, you’re planning the structure and agenda for the workshop participants and could save time by adopting some templates that others in the community might know about
- there’s new findings from your design research that requires you to explore new themes using different tools and you need help
- you’re an experienced practitioner but want to stay inspired and keep updated on new best practices, and feel a sense of community to a global network