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Getting the Vision

Every backend, whether bought or built, comes with design limitations. Some packages have a standard set of buttons that you can’t change. Sometimes, you can change the look of the buttons, but not their placement. Some systems always look a little boxy, some always look a little plain.

Every package comes with its own quirks and peculiarities. The trick is to find the one that matches your own the closest.

I suggest you begin by writing a document that outlines your community area in the broadest sense. Summarize what you want users to be able to do and what the goals of the project are.

Then take that one step further and get specific. Write a user scenario—a first-person story about a user of your site and how the user interacts with it. Describe the steps the user goes through to view and participate in your community area.

If you don’t know what those steps would be, that’s an important discovery. I’d advise you to go out and participate in some community forums. Pay attention to the steps you have to take to participate. Try to think of ways to do it better.

Once you’ve got a specific, step-by-step guide for how you want your users to interact with the site and each other, it’s time to build a prototype. Forget about the backend for now—just build static pages that show how things look. This is an important exercise, because it’s not until you start putting pixels to screen that you realize just how many controls and interface widgets you’re going to need.

You may feel tempted at this point to cheat—to go look at how other community sites have solved these problems and just adopt their solutions. I urge you to forge ahead on your own path. There are many horrible design elements and interface mistakes that get passed on from site to site this way. And besides, just because another site does it a certain way doesn’t mean that would be a good solution for your site. Forge ahead, and design tools that match and complement your site.

Once you have the prototype done to your satisfaction, then it’s time to start looking at backend tools. If you’re considering buying, look around at the sites that are powered by the tool you’re considering. Pay attention to their design similarities. If they all have certain things in common (placement of interface widgets, certain icons, etc.), it’s a fair bet that the tool is not customizable in that area. If your design doesn’t match the examples, look around for another tool. Of, if you do move forward with buying a tool, having your prototype done will help you in your negotiations. You can show the salesman your documents and the prototype and ask good, specific questions. “I see in the demo that the next post button is there, but as you can see in my prototype, I want to have that button here. Is that going to be possible?”

If you’re going to build, having ample documentation and a well-thought-out prototype will make your programmer’s day. Expect the programmer to happily disappear into a dark room, only to emerge a week later with six empty pizza boxes, countless cans of flat Jolt cola, and the perfect backend software.

The bottom line is, it’s up to you to have a clearly articulated vision for your community functionality before you begin the process of finding the backend software to power it. The last thing you ever want to do is just get the software and build the community around it, because you’ll wind up with a half-baked, disconnected site that looks like everybody else’s.

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