community: a group of people that care about each other, and feel they belong together
While the norm of modern society is single-family households that function independently, community building and living arrangements have begun to shift. Tiny homes, Co-ops, and Land Trusts are cropping up across the country.
Cohousing is one such movement. Defined as “an intentional community of private homes clustered around a shared space”, the modern cohousing movement began in Denmark in the 1970s, and there are now more than 700 cohousing communities in Denmark alone.
Members of these groups often utilize consensus decision-making, and the concepts of Connection & Community are key. A plethora of decisions have to be made in the process of establishing and cultivating a Cohousing Community including, but not limited to: new member outreach, site review & selection, newsletter creation, website maintenance, community building, decision-making, and legal processes.
I became interested in exploring the needs of this audience as a result of my own experiences in a developing Cohousing Community, as I witnessed a variety of communication and technology challenges.
This case study, developed for Springboards UX Design course, aimed to assess the current digital platforms available to these groups, and determine the best tools and practices for their endeavors.
The cliff notes version.
Interviews and surveys to understand who users are, and what satisfaction challenges they're currently experiencing
Competitive analysis of two Cohousing resources and one social network site
I took to sketching out wireframes of the platform on both desktop and mobile and transitioned them from low to high fidelity mockups.
Prototypes were then run through usability testing to gather more feedback and perform further iterations.
Complete Breakdown of Case Study Below
First, I needed to get to know who the target audience is. To do this, I sent out a survey to a few cohousing mailing lists and message boards, and collected a total of 50 responses. From these, I noted the demographics of this group, satisfaction levels in current communication, the most commonly discussed digital topics, and the challenges being faced.
The population was primarily at or approaching retirement age. I knew that this would create a special set of accessibility issues as I had to be cognizant of digital divide (something that was again and again brought up in the interviews).
Not so surprisingly, folks that weren't currently living together were less satisfied than more developed groups. This made sense, since they are more reliant on a bunch of platforms to try and accomplish tasks rather than being able to pop over and knock on someone's door. Furthermore, things in these earlier stages are less routine and (in general) would then require a bit more communication.
Other satisfaction challenges that were brought up included:
People not seeing or replying to messages
My takeaway: require a very clear notification system and consider text or email reminder options in settings
Difficulties maintaining inclusion
My takeaway: features need to translate easily to other platforms and allow for group communication
General interpersonal challenges
My takeaway: something I'm not sure is something that I can fix, but does hone in on the importance of clarity in establishing how communication takes place in the communities so that some conflict can be alleviated
Consistency of use
My takeaway: this needs to be easy to use, simple, and engaging otherwise folks will get overwhelmed
These problems were bigger than I anticipated. and so I shifted my original concept of a comprehensive communication platform to include an organized, saveable, and sharable database of cohousing resources.
DEFINING USERS & PAIN POINTS
ANALYZING EXISTING PLATFORMS
The next step was to take a look at the main resources communities currently have to use. I took a look at The Cohousing Association of the United States, Cohousing Solutions, and Facebook (Groups). I used the NNG usability heuristics and some key features in the redesign process (analysis of content, searchability, customizability, and collaboration capabilities) to perform a competitive analysis.
Although Facebook scored the best on the 10 NNG usability heuristics, it lacked the specific structure and guidelines crucial to Cohousing community buildings. While the other two sites offered a plethora of information, their usability was hurt by their design and functionality.
Current communication for these groups is cumbersome, relying on a variety of platforms to communicate about different tasks, processes, and opinions. Furthermore, the following points had to be kept in mind:
Must solve the unique problems that cohousing presents
Current resources may need to be restructured
Users have diversity in technology comfort levels
The interface must include a variety of features to allow for seamless communication about a plethora of topics
Strict time constraints
Now that I had a better picture of my users, their needs, and what they had available, I was able to jump in and start defining them. To do this, I created four personas and empathy maps to use in referencing needs throughout development.
Geoff, an overwhelmed member of a developing community, who struggles to see progress in his community and finds himself bogged down by disagreements and personal responsibilities.
Nicole, a highly motivated optimist within a developing community, who feels challenged trying to keep members of her community talking and getting along.
Anneliese, an exhausted member of an established community, who feels that she has no power to impact the trajectory of her group.
and Claudia, a satisfied member of an established community, who thinks well-established channels of communication and clear values have helped her community create a functional and fair set of processes.
Keeping these personas in mind, I established the features of the Minimum Viable Product:
1. User Profiles
3. Message Board
4. Save & Export Data
5. Custom Forms
Now, I had to take on one of the more challenging aspects of this project - the information architecture of the site. I had noted the clear lack of hierarchy on current Cohousing databases, so I decided to focus on this issue rather than unpack some of the other features that had more well-established guidelines.
I gathered main topics from these websites, and generated a total of 50 items for a card sort. Participants grouped some of these items easily, but many were a challenge. Folks reported that they felt like these items fell under several different umbrellas, and reoccurred at different stages within the community building process.
I had to go back and combine this data with my own experiences and intuition, and decided to use broader terms to catch subgroups. Items were then grouped by their likelihood of being relevant during particular stages of development. This also meant that search functionality would need to be clear, so that individuals could always located items that weren't nested within their most relevant group.
WIREFRAMING & PROTOTYPING
With these steps in mind, I started developing wireframes. A few iterations took me from a simple sketch on my iPad to an interactive version made with Sketch & Principle.
The prototype was run through remote usability testing and, overall, participants were able to accomplish the set tasks with ease. A few changes were suggested, including a shift in the splash page to better highlight the unique qualities of the platform, and a modification to the Dashboard page to have 'Meetings' as a subcategory. Clarification was also made to redefine the purposes of the Calendar page.
Moving onto the style guide, I had several things in mind. I knew that to cater to a largely older audience, I had to keep design elements clear, make buttons and other interactive items large enough to click, be cognizant of whitespace, and keep calls to action simple.
To that end, I chose some analogous colors of green to accent the largely grayscale palette of the platform. Cohousing is progressive, creative, ecologically-minded, and relies on harmony - so green (which symbolizes nature, balance, and growth) seemed like the best choice. I utilized a red, yellow, and blue that had a similar value and chroma to act as signifying colors. These accents come into play in relevant situation: red for warnings, yellow for waiting and instructions, and blue for links.
Furthermore, I looked into the basis of Cohousing as I chose fonts. I wanted something that seemed friendly, but also progressive, reliable, and creative. A modern sans serif paired with an easy to read serif fit the bill.
I followed a conventional approach to icons, and chose to utilize a tab bar on my mobile navigation so that all of the avenues are clear, labeled, and easy to go back to so as to lessen potential user error.
Changes continue to be made as deeper levels of the platform are explored. Specifically, design work needs to be finished on the 'Calendar' and 'Meetings' pages to better reflect the complex communication that goes into agenda setting and organizing these documents.
Furthermore, the message board and messaging systems are yet to be developed. Future research and design exercises will address these challenges.