Community as a Feature in Apps – Design for User Engagement

community for user engagement in app design

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This is part of a series on design for user engagement (or addictive design) patterns, and good and bad examples of implementation of these patterns.

Today’s is about digital products using “community” as a user engagement strategy. community for user engagement in app design

See Previously:

“Community”, The Feel Good Sauce ✨??‍?‍????‍?‍????

Lately, it feels like the word “community” is the secret, feel good sauce that promises to make every app, digital course, or even co-working space special.

And it’s alluring. If you’re learning a new skill, hobby, or habit – chances are you’ll want people to talk to, buddy up with and ask questions.

Dedicated digital communities can be a product unto themselves, but today I’m looking at apps that include online communities as supplemental to the main offering.

Ones that utilise the dopamine hit we get from upvotes, comments and likes to increase user engagement and retention.


Good example of community as as a user retention feature

Shine app

screenshot of shine app, showing a question and comments underneath. This is how the app builds user engagement through community
Solid community plan and content strategy

Shine describes itself as a self care app, with daily tips, mindfulness exercises, mood trackers and courses to help their users “live their best life”. Launched in 2018, they added community as a feature to their app in December last year (2019).

What makes it work

The community feature is

  1. strongly related to the content of the day (‘daily thought’ image & meditation)
  2. The community question is primarily designed to reinforce of the message of the day through self reflection..
  3. ..and to receive community support as a secondary, addictive, benefit.

Shine cleverly ties in our desire for “likes” with an activity that reinforces learning, which means the users are more likely to positively rate the app as being beneficial to them, thus upgrading to a paid plan, or continue subscribing.

The positive wording of the community post encourages people to say on topic in a positive or even vulnerable way.  You’ll also notice there are no negative reaction options to shared community comments, and no ability to follow up with a snarky comment. There are only different positive reaction types, to give a sense of variable reward to those receiving feedback.

In short, Shine have done a great job of planning their content and community strategy and keeping the community aspect healthy.

This is a great implementation that adds value to their product, encourages positive behaviour changes and increases the likelihood of subscribers. ???????


The Cons of Adding Community

Because the in-group dynamic is so addictive,  established community users don’t want to hurt the feelings of another established community poster and risk being an outcast, even when the question posted is a huge red flag.  This is the 8chan effect, where identification with the group as a whole becomes a bigger priority than any question or topic that might harm someone offline.

I don’t want to name and shame specific apps, but I’ve seen some terrible implementations of community apps in the last months, particularly those aimed in the mental/physical health and wellness or pregnancy related audiences.

In all the bad cases I’ve seen, the community feature felt like it wasn’t thought out beyond being an inspirational buzzword on a pitch-deck. It seems like there was no resources available for dealing with real-life scenarios, like:

What happens when people prefer to ask the group questions that should be asked to drs because asking the group feels comforting while drs are scary?

– What happens when the top advice posters on the group prefer to offer platitudes rather than tell someone to go to the ER because their baby hasn’t kicked for 24 hours? Advice which is easily findable on the NHS, or from any hospital, website.

– in the above app for pregnant women to meet others like them locally, what ID or safety checks are available? Let’s take a moment to imagine the kind of user who has so few local contacts that this is their primary way of making friends (as I couldn’t help but wonder while using the app). It’s a vulnerable subset of users. No ID or verification was asked of me. The incidence of catfishing is probably pretty high in a ‘community’ like this.

Community Neglect Hurts Product Uptake.

The communities above felt….trashy. I deleted the apps right away.

Even though the people posting on the community tab and the people available locally to meet are almost certainly quite different demographically (US based for the message board, Madrid based for meet-ups), the kinds of posts I saw made me think I wouldn’t want to meet anyone from the app.

If your online community posters were in a room, would you want to go and hang out there for a few hours every week? If the answer is: no, then it’s not a selling point. It may even degrade from the overall app value.

Secondly, allowing these kinds of conversation to take place isn’t freedom of expression; it puts people’s lives at stake in some cases.

It also lowers your brand.

When google started to include Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness” as SEO ranking signals, they weren’t just demonstrating some bleeding heart ethics; they understood that the value of their brand was being lowered by people posting quackery and still floating to the top of search results.

The Take-Home

Online communities have been used as a lure to bring users back to commercial websites since the early 2000’s, when they were php message boards on commerce sites or blogs with sponsored content.

They persist as a feature in many apps today because they work. Because people want to feel part of a community and want a gang.

But much like a garden, a community is only attractive when it’s well maintained.

It needs vigilant full time moderators, strong but context sensitive community standards to be enforced, and clear community guidelines. Key words and phrases may need auto replies, like “see a dr”.

You may need to design around people’s negativity and tendency to argue, like shine does.

Complaints procedures needs to be clearly stated and trustworthy. Troll questions and behaviours need to be weeded out.

How to implement community features in apps when your team is small

For many startups, this kind of full time admin isn’t possible, or isn’t scalable as more users join, and that’s where the problems arise.

If that seems like a problem that may face your idea, I’d advise one of two moves:

A. Don’t include a community until you can afford to get enough experienced admins to moderate and monitor it as it grows.

B.  Open the community in small batches at select intervals during the year to onboard and “domesticate” newbies into how things should be done. It’s easier to weed out any problem users in batches this way, as older users tend to be pretty stable in their posting habits.

This approach won’t appeal to apps that are looking for that coveted hokey stick growth pattern, but for bootstrapped or crowdsourced funded ideas, it allows the community to grow at a sustainable pace at the budget you have available.

Thinking about adding an online community to your digital product or app, and would like more specific advice? Book a call with me


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