By: Matt Rafalow

Published: April 11, 2014

A common topic of discussion among our team of Leveling Up researchers is how communities maintain different barriers to entry. Every community, be it an online forum for Worldwide Wrestling enthusiasts, One Direction fangirls, or Starcraft II players, has its own etiquette and sets of rules for entering the community and becoming a full participant. But for platforms that wish to continually attract a new and engaged user base, designers must think through how to minimize barriers to entry. In essence, learning communities should make central to their mission a key design principle: support the n00bs.

Our cases show a number of different ways that n00bs, or new folks, are (and are not) supported through community design. For this post, I will review a few features from my two cases — Sackboy Planeti and Fashion Camp — that illustrate how both infrastructural and cultural design can render communities, in the words of one of my respondents, “a nice place to be part of”:

Guided Introductions

Hanging out in a new community for the first time can be an intimidating experience. Both Sackboy Planet members and Fashion Camp leaders make it a priority to welcome new members and guide them through the basic features of the community so they can begin to familiarize themselves with their environment. For example, new players are encouraged to post on a page for “Introductions” to share a bit about themselves and why they joined Sackboy Planet. Every introductory post is responded to within a matter of hours by existing members. Many responses to introductory posts are welcoming and identify resources:

Hello and welcome to Sackboy Planet! This is the perfect place to you. To help you get started, I’ll provide some links just for you. You might want to check out the Level Arena where you can share ideas you have for new levels to create. You can also ask others for help on your ideas and can receive advice about design.

Players join Sackboy Planet for a variety of reasons, and many community members actively assist in guiding new members to the resources that might best suit their interests, including specific directions and links to resources provided by other community members on how to improve those skills. Fashion camp leaders, too, make every effort to welcome their new fashion designers. Before every lesson begins the teachers introduce themselves to new students and ask about their general interests in fashion, like which styles they love at the moment. Before one lesson, Amy, the camp leader, learned from a new student that she thought ombre print was really cool. Amy briefly left the conversation to dart to the other side of the room where she pulled a bolt of fabric and brought it back to the new student. “Well look at that, we have ombre!” She then talked with the student about how she could apply her interest in ombre design to the fashion sketching lesson for that day that would start in just a couple of minutes. This type of interest-focused introduction, which is typical at both Sackboy Planet and Fashion Camp, maintains a low barrier to entry by providing opportunities for rapid engagement in learning activities.

Empower the Existing User Base

A community design strategy that works well to engage new users, especially as a community scales in size, is to empower the existing user base with key roles. For example, Fashion Camp leaders typically oversee a camp lesson of about 15-20 youth. Since the courses are project based, participants work on widely different designs at different stages and at varied levels of expertise. The camp leaders often do not have the bandwidth to help each student one-on-one throughout the course of a given lesson. To address this issue, teachers identify youth who have expertise with particular design sets to help other students who need help. This strategy has two important outcomes: it makes the helper youth feel good about their growth as designers, and it empowers them to distribute the mentoring work throughout the community.

Sackboy Planet members also empower select users with roles and titles that are assigned key regulatory tasks. For example, the community leaders identify users who are active and helpful and ask them to serve as Moderators. Moderators are tasked with welcoming new members (per the “Guided Introductions” section above) as well as mediating conflicts when other members alert them to a problem. Moderators also typically pursue their work with gusto; being selected by the Sackboy Planet leaders to moderate is considered to be a flattering signal of their budding fluency with community practice and procedure. Just like at Fashion Camp, Moderators on Sackboy Planet take on important work that the leaders themselves could never accomplish. Moderators, with the help of other community members, comb through hundreds of new posts a day and interact with new players in ways that maintain low barriers to entry and participation.

Design for “Thumbs Up,” not “Down”

Reputation systems, including badges or metrics like “thumbs up,” “thumbs down,” or “favorites,” exist on many web platforms. Sackboy Planet leaders experimented for months with different sets of reputation designs to try to establish a supportive culture among members. For example, through an iterative design process, the leaders learned that certain reputation features breed negativity and elitism:

What I wanted to avoid was giving people the feeling of elitism or building false classes into the site. You get that a lot in other sites where users who have been around longer tend to treat new users like they are less worthy.

One way Sackboy Planet leaders minimized obstacles to a culture of inclusivity was by designing the infraction system metrics out of public purview:

We have infractions, like saying you did something bad, and we have record of it…and that is private. It’s between us and the user. No one else can see the infraction. That can cause a lot of problems…especially if you want to give them the opportunity to improve.

Sackboy Planet leaders design for “thumbs up,” not “thumbs down,” as a way to cultivate a community of support, validation, and improvement. When “thumbs down” features did exist on the forums years ago, players reported higher instances of trolling, or bad behavior and negativity.

Community design, in the form of both infrastructural changes (like metrics and infraction systems) and cultural features (such as empowering users with roles), plays a powerful role in establishing the level of inclusivity in a particular environment. Designing to support the n00bs is a critical extension of Connected Learning theory. Learning communities need to maintain low barriers through inclusivity to entry to ensure wide participation and a diversity of membership and talents.

And remember…we were all n00bs once.


iSackboy Planet and any names used in this post are pseudonyms.