Three Simple Hacks for Making Delightful Virtual Spaces

This is Katie Krummeck. She’s the Community Experience Coordinator at Stanford’s What exactly does that mean? It means a lot of things, but you can get a tiny taste by reading her sign, which sits on her desk on the first floor of the building.

I am in love with the space at the, which — not surprisingly — is beautiful and functional. But Katie’s sign might be my favorite thing there. Why? Because it’s low-tech, it does what it’s supposed to do, and it adds a touch of humanity (among many) to the space. If you’re wandering around the lobby, lost or looking for something, you will eventually run into Katie and her sign, and you will not only know immediately that she can help you, but that she is happy to help you. It’s the difference between a functional space and a delightful, inviting space.

Creating delightful, inviting spaces is simple, but not easy. Unfortunately, we often make it unnecessarily complicated. I don’t expect most workspaces to have wide open, reconfigurable spaces with natural light on two sides and moveable whitewalls and furniture. But why can’t all workspaces have signs like this? How many actually do?

Here are three of my favorite, low-tech hacks in the same spirit as Katie’s sign for making virtual interactions more human and delightful.

Welcoming People to Online Forums

This is one of the oldest, most powerful tricks for making even the crappiest online forums inviting. When people post for the first time, respond to their post, and welcome them. It’s simple, requires no training, and it works with all tools, including face-to-face.

Distributing a (Silly) Printed Team Picture for Conference Calls

Our intuitions about video are largely wrong, and the technical costs and inconvenience are still quite high. (Think about the 15 minutes that we often waste at the beginning of each call, because someone can’t get the tool working.)

Here’s a trick I learned from Marcia Conner. Take a photo of the team, preferably a silly one, and distributed printed copies to everyone to post on their walls during conference calls. It’s cheap, it’s just as good (if not better) at creating a sense of connection and fun, and it works with both synchronous and asynchronous tools.

Theme Your Online Tools

Groupaya was a virtual company, even though we all lived in San Francisco. We took advantage of our physical proximity by coworking twice a week, but we wanted a way to stay connected virtually as well. We tried Yammer, Salesforce Chatter, Google Plus, and None of them ever got any traction.

Then we tried WordPress with P2, a hack whose features paled in comparison to the other tools. But one thing we could easily do was re-theme it. So I spent about 20 minutes making the background orange — the same color as Kristin Cobble’s beautiful kitchen, where we often worked — and choosing and cropping a meaningful, delightful photograph to serve as the header image.

That was the difference that made the difference. It rapidly succeeded where the other tools had failed. Our usage numbers only told part of the story. Everyone simply loved using the tool.

Kristin's Kitchen

BlogHer 2006: Thoughts from an Observer of Observers

I was bummed that I couldn’t make the BlogHer conference this year. Last year, I had project commitments up the wazoo, but I made some time to meet up with Nancy White at the conference site, whom I had never met face-to-face. We sat at a table outside of the Santa Clara Convention Center and embarked on a fascinating conversation. As we talked, more and more folks — all women — saw us, said hello, and joined us, further enriching the conversation. A few hours later, I had to rip myself away from that table to make it to my next meeting, and I swore that I would attend the following year.    (KVL)

Well, I didn’t. I was in Staunton, Virginia for the 1Society team retreat. I was even more disappointed after having met Elisa Camahort, Lisa Stone, and Jory Des Jardins at the June Collaboration SIG meeting.    (KVM)

Fortunately, as you might expect, folks blogged about the conference. Here are some of my thoughts on their thoughts.    (KVN)

Welcome Neighbors    (KVO)

Nancy White shared this gem from Caterina Fake:    (KVP)

A lot of online community building is like you are the host of the party. If you show up and don’t know anybody and no one takes your coat and shows you around, you are going to leave. The feminine touch there really matters. That is how we greeted people at flickr. Creating a culture in an online community is incredibly important. What’s ok in a fantasy football league is different than what we wanted to cultivate on flickr. Then those become the practices of the flickr. Everyone starts greeting people., Get the ball rolling. You want people engaged, feel strongly enough so they are the community police.    (KVQ)

It’s another instance of the Welcome Neighbors pattern!    (KVR)

Christine Herron    (KVS)

Christine deserves her own category, because I’ve been relying more and more on her blog for her excellent summaries of other gatherings. We haven’t actually met, although she blogged one of my talks way back when.    (KVT)

Christine wrote about community design and evolution and the importance of constant engagement:    (KVU)

Even the most intelligent design will miss the mark, if community members are not involved in setting purpose and norms. This implies that a healthy community will bake in “continuous listening,” and its purpose and norms will evolve over time. It’s noteworthy that many communities develop spontaneously, rather than according to plan.    (KVV)

Listening was an ongoing theme in a lot of the BlogHer summaries.    (KVW)

On communities and continuous learning:    (KVX)

Susannah Gardner, the author of Buzz Marketing with Blogs, has become the center of a blog newbie community. As a case study, this serves as a model for most of the folks in the room. Gardner quirkily revealed that “My community is inherently flawed.” Most people coming to her community come to learn, but once they’ve learned what they need, they leave. This also means that the community is constantly renewing itself and forming new relationships to each other — that over the long term, no longer require Gardner’s bridge for sustained connection.    (KVY)

Finally, Christine blogged about a session on identity that actually had something to do with identity!    (KVZ)

A powerful and relevant final thought on this issue comes from Amartya Sen, a Nobel-nominated economist and the co-author of Identity and Violence — we all have multiple identities, but when we marry ourself to just one, violence happens. When this nugget was shared, the bubbling room fell into a thoughtful, silent pause. Would the world be a better place if more and more of its peoples participated in sharing identity?    (KW0)

Conversations and Conferences    (KW1)

Tom Maddox also wrote about the prevalence of listening at the conference:    (KW2)

Because the usual male-female ratio was inverted at Blogher, male display was almost entirely absent, replaced by friendly, open conversation. The prevailing atmosphere — the oxygen — was friendliness, openness, inclusiveness.    (KW3)

It’s not that Blogher was perfectly organized and run — if you want to see a list of complaints, just look at the Technorati-tagged blog postings. But in the larger picture, really, who measures the conference’s success by whether the wifi was overloaded or that there were too many commercial pitches from the main stage? What the organizers got right was creating a space where people could talk to one another easily and freely and openly, without being defensive or aggressive.    (KW4)

I’m of two minds of this reaction. BlogHer is a traditional, hierarchical gathering, but there’s obviously a strong culture of participation and interaction. Culture goes a long way. If you have good culture and good people, it’s hard to throw a poor gathering (although it’s certainly been done).    (KW5)

However, just because you manage to throw good, even great gatherings, doesn’t mean that you can’t do better. As I wrote last June:    (KW6)

There’s also a lot they can learn about even more powerful models of collaboration and transparency. For example, I liked their approach to the BlogHer conference, but I couldn’t help thinking about how they were going through the exact same process that HarrisonOwen went through 20 years ago before he invented OpenSpace. It’s not an indictment of them, but a constant reminder that those of us who are passionate about collaboration are still not close to knowing what everyone else knows, and it’s further reinforcement that BlueOxenAssociates‘ mission is an important one.  T    (KW7)

My not-so-secret plot is to suck Elisa, Lisa, and Jory into the growing Blue Oxen community (probably starting with the next “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshop), so that we can all learn from each other and leapfrog the great work that many of us are already doing. Be warned, ladies!    (KW8)