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Community-first design

As we move beyond building solely for individuals, how can we start to think about building with communities?

Growing up, my father often shared stories, anecdotes and wisdom that had a formative impact on my current understanding of the world. Many of these insights came from his own father, which he passed down to me. I would like to share one of these anecdotes with you. 

My grandfather picked up a handful of sticks from the ground. He handed one each to his children and asked them to break their stick. Of course, each stick broke. 

He took back the broken sticks and tied them together and gave the bundle back to his children. Each of them mustered all their strength to break the bundle of sticks, but they all failed. He said to them, “when you are alone, it is easy to be broken. When you come together, you cannot be broken. So stay together” 

It was through this story that I learned success is more likely when people come together. Even the greatest of individuals have a team working with them or behind the scenes. 

The Idea of people coming together versus doing it on their own is an uphill battle with the backdrop of rampant individualism and the cult of celebrity. MVP’s. Superheroes. Valedictorians. Time’s Person of the Year. Forbes 30 Under 30. We live in a time where we’re obsessed with individuals, leaving little mindshare for caring about people coming together. 

Individualism has a huge impact on how we build, design and test. Sayings like the “customer is always right” or disciplines like “user-centered design” dogmatically centers the individual with the highest importance. As a result, we now build products and services that further add fuel to the fire of individualism, creating a vicious cycle of people yearning for products and services that cater to their senses as individuals. There is no doubt in my mind that technologists especially have played a pivotal role in algorithmically fostering narcissism in the digital age.  

The main problem with catering solely to individuals is that it completely ignores the communal fabric of our existence. While community may not be present absolutely everywhere, it is a vital component for the wellbeing and progress of society. By considering the community, alongside the individual you can come up with products and services that help more people, address needs more efficiently and produce better baseline outcomes. 

To actively consider community, would be to do what I call community-first design. Community-first designs focuses on the needs of the community, while secondarily considering the needs of the individual. I’ve deployed this method of design for products, nonprofits and many other projects and the results have been promising. Here’s what I come to understand around community-first design: 

Define the intangibles:

  • People should understand the purpose of the community 
  • People should feel like they belong 
  • People should feel motivated to be courteous
  • People should feel a sense of camaraderie

Create the tangibles: 

  • Open door: How people will enter the community
  • Rooms: Where people will spend their time
  • Roles: What levels of membership will be available
  • Content: What people will read, listen and watch 

I’d like to give a shout out to the people at Late Checkout who have renewed my faith in community-first design. Seeing their work and advocacy on bringing communities to the forefront has been very awesome to see. 

I have more thoughts on the topic, but I think I’ll stop here for now. I’ll conclude with what my grandfather passed to my father, and what my father passed to me, which I now pass to you:

“When you are alone, it is easy to be broken. When you come together, you cannot be broken. So stay together.”

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Ahmed Al-Ismaily

Writing about progress. Designing products. Aspiring investor. Learning Arabic and full-stack development.