Author Archives: robviously

Good Apps Make Good Neighbors

Strong communities are built one relationship at a time, and research has shown that personal well-being is improved when one knows people in their immediate local area. But these connections can be difficult to form for a variety of reasons — rental occupants may change regularly, individual lives have different schedules, and the population may reflect of variety of cultures, ages, and family sizes. Design a digital experience that a person can use to build relationships with their neighbors. {snip} Explain your design process and design choices, to help us understand your work as we view it remotely. {snip} Show the following:

– A low-fidelity overview of your proposed UX (wireframes or sketches are fine)
– A high-fidelity mockup for one widget or interaction

“the dotCommunity”
aka project: Knock, Knock!

My wife and I moved 18 months ago, my job relocated in the city, and I have a completely unfamiliar set of regional concerns and interests as a new father of ten days, so I found immediate, practical applications in this exercise. My perspective from two years ago, and how that counters (or overlapped) with my views as a newly-relocated parent, offered great clarity on the importance of a neighborhood and interactions within. Much more than a “network”, the neighborhoods, or online communities (dotCommunities), are an actual opportunity to connect, instead of just clicking a button that says “connect”.


For mapping the digital experience, I took cues from regional outlets like Patch, limited shared networks like MyBuilding, and interactive group experiences like Google’s Circles. I toured through each, researching reviews to gauge user reaction and get an idea of what was missing.

On to design! (NOTE: I often use Photoshop for core UX design, just as personal preference. I’m most familiar with the program and find it most efficient to tell the story I want. The mockups are not final UI treatments.) First and foremost, because of the intentional variety of demographics (old computers vs. new laptops, sleek tablets vs. office work stations, iPhones vs. Androids, etc.) this had to be accessible by everyone. A responsive design would cater to all user preferences and limitations. I’ve become very fond of “mobile first responsive” viewpoints, so I wanted to plan this as a mobile web view product, knowing this methodology would allow the most efficient translation to other devices and browsers (even native applications could spring from this framework, via a wrapper like PhoneGap)

NOTE: these are not final UI treatments. I often use Photoshop for core design UX, just as personal preference

Visually, I wanted simplicity and localized personalization. Users are already hit with Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and/or others meant to document your space, your life, or your updates. Rarely is the focus on your neighborhood or your surroundings – and almost never on a collaborative, localized community. Thus, I wanted the welcome screen to be starkly different; less about updates, more like a window to the world.

I played with the entire Welcome view as a local photograph. With geo-targeting, and crowd-source-style collections, a different, timely, neighbor-submitted image could always be in play. Rainy when it’s rainy out, fireflies during summer nights, etc. There could even be prompts to submit a better image to the queue, and share with your neighbors — imagine a communal “PhotoStream” for each area. The regional detection would tease your current location, and greet you with a scene you may have just passed that morning.

For the sign up process, I again wanted to force simplicity. Social networks are very heavy on collecting information, as are most sites. Phone numbers, zip codes, etc. Like with the home view, I wanted this process to feel very much like the real-world introduction counterpart. Your face, your name, that’s it. A barrier to entry just as low as a handshake at a meet and greet.

This personal twist will help adoption rate, making a minimal impact on the individual. Get the user into the site, and onto the community’s radar.

This also presents an interesting way to collect other bits of data, as certain dotCommunities could require different information. The process presents itself organically, rather than as a formal survey — again, more like meeting your neighbors at a holiday party, rather than a spreadsheet. Your town or city neighborhood might want your address, your office neighborhood might want your birthday and skill set, your building neighborhood might want your apartment number and work schedule. College or club neighborhood could use ice-breakers style requirement gathering, with open-ended or timely questions like “whats the last movie you saw” or “what did you think of Breaking Bad finale [great / not-great / didn’t see]).” All provided information is collected in a universal profile as it’s needed, readily available to share with other dotCommunities (and members) when requested.

The community selection is my biggest framework distinction in the project. As posed, the exercise asked me to detail a user and his neighborhood. However, that flow is not black and white in real life. To continue mirroring the socialized digital neighborhood, I wanted to present the user with a more realistic portrayal; being part of a number of communities.

I grew up in Randolph, NJ, where my parents still live. My job is in Manhattan, over looking Brooklyn. I’m in my third Hoboken, NJ apartment, having moved across town, where I still hang out regularly. My interests do not lie in a single location. Every town has sub-sections — boroughs, blocks, and regions. For example, NYC can be divided hundreds of times, with one location being part of New York, Manhattan, Midtown, Flatiron, 23rd Street, the Chapel Building, then the NicoMae Garment Company. There are concentric circles of neighborhoods for anyone in that region, and perhaps a dozen others they’re interested in.

I wanted to allow the simplicity of defining your neighborhood for you through traditional means (by zip code or city name) but also present an outlet where the user could customize the boundaries of their neighborhood — town is just a starting point. Some locations can pertain to the user, like shared-interest clubs. Some are strictly private communities, like schools. More populous areas would feature more options for gathering, and more private areas would have fewer groups — again, a mirror of real life.

Open, public dotCommunities can auto-accept a user within the region. Thus, if I am in Hoboken, the Hoboken dotCommunity could be auto-selected for me to join. Associating with a geographic region could also expose levels above and below. In other words, selecting “Hoboken” might automatically add me to a feed for Hudson County, North Jersey, and New Jersey. As the neighbor, I can continue to join these dotCommunities, or de-select and move on.

feedThere may also be some dotCommunities that are private, or feature restricted access. For example, the building I live in might appear in a list, but will not auto-accept any willing participant. This particular dotCommunity requires a manual acceptance from a community leader (or admin) who would have to confirm the residency of the applicant. Other dotCommunity distinctions, beyond public and private; special, regional, seasonal, etc. Users can also create dotCommunities for their own clubs, groups, buildings, blocks, or other designation.

The Feed:
The Feed is the main display of all the content. It’s the sounding board, the soap box, the bulletin posts, the mass texts, the alert system, and the central hub of all neighborhood activity.

This is where new parents can get recommendations on schools, where kids can find a lost pet, where an Amber Alert or suspicious activity can get direct attention from caring neighbors, where local effort can focus on rebuilding a park, where bands or events can promote, the local yellowpages for mom-and-pop business, etc, etc.

Things important to each dotCommunity take center stage: local restaurants, public activities, updates and notifications, team building exercises, photosharing, and more. This is not user-generated and user-customized, this is GROUP-generated and GROUP-customized content.

Facebook may serve as the “catch all” network to aggregate info, bursting with scale. However, that will never touch the inherent value and weight of the posts and comments shared by neighbors in the dotCommunity. Where Facebook and Twitter’s excess becomes white noise and fluff, the value of conversation and recommendations and assistance from a dotCommunity has a meaning. There is a connection to the local network, that you also see outside your door and offline, making it infinitely more valuable than the larger network’s “social grazing.”

The feed would have a customizable view, so that certain dotCommunities scored higher priority over others, groups could be skipped, and larger notices could remain “sticky” or anchored toward the top. Regions with fewer overlapping communities would have a slower crawl due to less activity, and those with multiple groups would be faster paced – a true reflection of real world neighborhoods.

This is also the main “propaganda” section of the site; where users would be most encouraged and most-motivated to bring others into the fold. As the dotCommunity grows and becomes established, the benefits for each person become more palpable. A notice for a lost dog or a petition to band loud music gains a lot more attention in a larger group. Similarly, holiday block parties or intramural sports leagues are more fun when more people are involved — the digital experience of a dotCommunity can help keep things streamlined and organized weeks and months ahead of schedule.