Laying the foundations of an online community

From my own experience I am strongly convinced that really outstanding results in your work are possible only if you enjoy what you do and the work brings satisfaction and offers new challenges. And I believe this is true for the majority of people - interesting work awakens imagination, creativity and drive for perfection. From this perspective I am a lucky person as there are no dull, monotonous projects in my work. Recently I’ve been deeply engaged in one of such projects and today I would like to share my experience with you.

This project can be referred to development of online communities or social networks; however this is a very specific network. It is an online portal for Eglise Evangélique de Réveil – a church community in Geneva. Interesting, isn’t it?

Social networks and online communities occupy solid positions in our life nowadays. It seems to me that everyone (or almost everyone) has an account in at least one social network. The choice is really rich: from forums of small local clubs to world-wide networks like Facebook and Google+, where you can communicate with your friends, people you have never seen, celebrities or even companies you are interested in. Social networks allow us not only get the latest news from people we are connected to, but also exchange photos, upload files (audio, video, books, etc.) It can be either a universal network where you find your friends; a specialized community, uniting people with similar interests (job seekers, music fans, religious communities, so on and so forth) or even a promotional portal where keen users of products and services communicate, share their experience, get information about new sales and provide brand managers with ideas on how to better meet customer needs.

Each of the existing online communities and social networks has some spice – something that attracts users, makes them create accounts and keep active on this very network. This spice can be trendy design, a thrilling discussion topic or unique functionality that opens new horizons or provides a faster and easier alternative to other similar portals.

The portal we have been developing for EER church is very specific, to my mind, as it has been fully adapted to the needs of the church people and community members. So I would like to lift the veil and tell you a bit about the technologies and tools we used, specific functionality we’ve elaborated or yet plan to develop in the nearest future.

As in any other project one has to define the following to start with:

1. The purpose and objectives

Projecting starts from deliberate analysis of strategic development goals. These goals differ from project to project and their correct analysis is the first and very important step to successful realization. In case of EER online community we have been pursuing the following main goals:

  • to provide the church people with a functionally-rich tool to market their ideas and keep the flock actively engaged into the church life;
  • to reflect the main values and principles of the EER brand in their website – transparency, availability, equality and unity;
  • to provide the community members with an opportunity to communicate from any place, to quickly get in touch with the church men for consultation or help, to enhance the sense of community;
  • to enable the church men inform the whole community or only members of certain subcommunities (ministries) about upcoming events;
  • to attract new members to EER community with user-friendly, engaging website that reflects active life of the church.

2. Target audience

At this development stage it is vitally important to define into what groups the website users will be divided. To carry out this step correctly one has to collect comprehensive information about website users and carefully analyze it: demographic characteristics, behaviour patterns, needs and expectations.
In our case the main user groups are composed of the church administration members and church community members further subdivided into groups by age, interests, social status, etc. on the basis of the collected data we have drawn the conclusion – the website should be logic and transparent enough to be easily digested by both a kid and a senior adult, it should provide an opportunity of service localization according to user language preferences.

3. Project requirements

When planning a software solution you will definitely meet some specific requirements imposed by the project peculiar audience, purpose, budget and so on. The list of the requirements is formed on the basis of given customer requirements and results of the analysis carried out during the previous stages. The list we get is the major determinant of further development procedures.

The requirements may refer to:

  • graphic design and usability – adherence to corporate identity and style, transparent graphic user interface (GUI), navigation logic respectively to user behaviour patterns, etc;
  • content – types of content, layout, availability of content for users with different access level, requirements to  content management system;
  • functionality – the functional modules (collaboration, communication, file management, interactive forms, etc.) that are to be developed for the online portal;
  • compatibility – ability of the future system to integrate and interoperate with other software solutions and systems;
  • scalability –system potential for further development and integration of new functional modules;
  • security – data protection requirements aimed to avoid risk of data loss, damage or third party infringement.

This list of possible requirements can be continued. As for peculiarities of the EER project I can name some specific functionality (e.g. prayer wall, event calendar), integration with content sharing resources (flikr, youtube), complex structure of the community (subdivision into ministries with corresponding managers and managerial functions), rich communication functionality (blogging, commenting, file exchange, instant messaging) and portal flexibility (frequent changes, design diversification with inalienable adherence to EER corporate identity).

4. Website structure

It is also important to define the structure of the future website whether it is an online community, social network or professional portal, as well as the structure of each typical page. It will define the order of content presentation, module development and their correlation. Seemingly an easy task, portal structure planning plays important role as the order and names you choose for structural elements will influence the usability of the website in general, its convenience for the user. And if a website is not user-friendly and navigating it makes an annoying puzzle, the visitor is highly unlikely to stay here for long or recommend the portal to others.

5. Module description

Next step is making up the list of functional modules and components, followed by determination of development sequence for them. The list contains detailed description of each module, relationship between different modules, user interaction with forms and possible bottlenecks.

6. Prototyping and content creation

Having defined the website structure as well as microstructure of each typical page, we can create mock-ups of different types of pages with draft layouts of the text and graphic elements that are to be displayed on the pages. This material forms the basis for website graphic design and make-up. Simultaneously with graphic design works content creation activity should be started to make sure the website will be filled in with relevant content when the design is ready.

Fulfillment of all the aforementioned stages provided us with enough material and data to document all the technical requirements for the project, plan initial activity for the development team and start the development phase. But this part of EER online community birth I will describe in my later articles.

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