Designing for Participant Interaction – 3 tips to promote social engagement within your online community

The rise of social networking sites heralded in the era of the social web. We freely interact with people we know and even ones we don’t. Given these widespread virtual exchanges, there are often high expectations for social interaction within online research communities.

The promise is great but the reality often falls well below expectations.

Upon reflection, this isn’t so surprising. Online research communities are not natural communities that form and grow organically. Rather, they are artificial settings where participants are strangers and have no immediate shared interests. As a result, researchers need to work to build social interactions and connections. It needs to be a thoughtful part of the activity design.

Here are three tips for maximizing social interaction:

Tip 1: Build-In Time for Interaction

Social activity within the context of online research communities has two parts: the first is “do” (i.e., completing the set activity), and the second is “interact.” Participants are first required to complete their activities (“do”) before moving onto the interaction. As a rule of thumb, people will spend 30-40 minutes completing activities on any given day. If the “do” list becomes too long, exceeding this timeframe, then there will be little or no interaction.

Tip 2: Narrow the Focus

Resist the temptation to cast a wide net by urging participants to “please take some time to comment on other people’s responses”. This is akin to saying “Go onto Twitter and comment on a Tweet”. The scope is so wide and the task so daunting that people naturally shy away from it. A better approach is to narrow the parameters and set expectations around the interaction. What specific activity should they be commenting on? Are there particular participants to engage with? What day? What type of interaction is desired (commenting, “liking”)? How many (or few) interactions are acceptable?

Tip 3: A Tale of Two Parts

Moving beyond simply building in time for social engagement, foster interactivity by integrating it into the activity. Create two parts to their mission. Part one is the “do” (for example: write a short pitch) and part two is the “interact” (for example: “read other people’s pitches and comment on the one you liked best”). This helps participants clearly see what is expected of them and that their interaction is not an afterthought, but a core expectation.

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