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Building a Multi Platform Community Engagement Tool

🔗Intro

We’re building a community forum for our consumers to discuss our products here at A Latte Java. This is going to be a new greenfield project that is a companion app to our ecommerce site. Our team has determined that we really need both desktop and mobile presences and need to get a MVP to market in the next 3 months so we’re on a relatively tight timeline.

For this, we’re starting with just the basic product idea and are having our first round table discussion to think through the requirements and identify options for creating our solution. The only requirements from the business is to generate a space where people can safely discuss how they use our products and share their how-to guides.

🔗Mobile & Desktop

When we said we needed both mobile and desktop presences, what are some of the options to get us there? Do we have to build a website and a mobile application? Are there ways to share or reuse code across the different platforms?

Hybrid apps and PWAs are a few solutions that can get us to the solution that we're seeking. Hybrid apps let us use tools like React Native or Ionic to use web technology we're familiar with and compile it to native app code.

One of my first thoughts would be to create some kind of a hybrid app so people can comment on the go as they feel like it. Maybe they want to snap a picture of their coffee as they're brewing it in the morning or take a quick video. - Morgan Worrell

On the other hand, we have solutions like PWAs that allow us to leverage our existing website code to generate an app-like feeling version of our website that users can use instead.

I think what's popular nowadays is building PWAs. This will basically be an a web app, but it can act as a kind of native app within the mobile device. That would definitely cut us some time to deliver it more quickly, especially in the beginning. - Chris Trzesniewski

Going purely native requires us to hire speciality developers in Objective-C and Java and maintain 3 different code bases: web, iOS, and Android. But is it worth going down this path?

The average mobile user installs zero apps per month. - Rob Ocel

🔗Mobile Device Differences

A key problem with supporting multiple devices is the look and feel of the app on different devices. Users on different devices have expectations of how apps should work on their respective device. Forgetting some of these details can even be detrimental to your overall build and leave your app feeling boring or lackluster.

You can see a picture of the app without seeing the device frame itself and you can go 'that's an Android app' or 'that's an iOS app' and there's a lot of those subtle differences. - Rob Ocel

So how do we keep our app engaging? What can we do to drive traffic into the application and keep users active in the community?

🔗Gamification

Creating feedback driven interactive features can be the major differentiator. Look at how other companies or products in the same or similar space are doing things. On one hand, you could go the social route like Untappd where you can keep a rating of all the different drinks you've tried and share with your friends, which then gives you badges and other little gamey features. On the other, you could try to follow the Yelp model where you become an amateur food critic and others can follow you to get opinions on restaurants to try. You could also go the StackOverflow approach where different actions get you points in some internal "ranking" system.

🔗Do we really need both then?

For speed, we've decided that a website is the most practical approach. There are certain features of a mobile device, like its constant availability and camera, that make it a must have for our app. Because we decided on a website approach, though, that means our app is accessible from a desktop so it needs to look good here as well. Using CSS responsive design practices, we can easily achieve a site that looks good on both desktop devices and mobile devices.

🔗Post MVP

Eventually, we might want to have a native app to get some of the other awesome features that the mobile hardware allows that aren't necessarily available through the web version of the app. This will lead us to an eventual migration, but one we can focus on more intentiontally after the initial launch.

All migrations are effort. It's just whether you're going to spend the effort or not. Sometimes there's more mandatory upfront work and other times there's a lot of hidden work that's sort of labeled optional. - Rob Ocel

🔗Moderation

Our app is allowing arbitrary data from the community and isn't in any way curated. This means we could get some content we don't necessarily want such as expletives, rude or harmful messaging, or inappropriate images. What are strategies we could employ to counter this risk? Are there ways to automate these processes? How can we build these tools and processes in a way that scale with our community growth? Our business doesn't necessarily want to commit dedicates resources full time to this process long-term so how can we work around this problem?

🔗Basic Version

An early version of the app might do some simple content filtering and moderation. We could have a list of words we don't want to be posted and use a CMS system to keep that list updated. We then can filter out words that are on the list from appearing on the site through algorithms to censor those words or just to change the display settings on the site to hide these words.

We could also build some basic moderation tooling to allow admins to delete inappropriate posts and ban users from using the site. These features could be combined with a reporting system where community members can flag certain content as inappropriate.

We could also create moderator roles where we give certain figures in the community to purge bad content or users from our system. This comes with the risk of having moderators who fail to do the role or go on a power trip and delete a bunch of content or ban a bunch of users because they can. The system will need some checks and balances and some data security features like shallow deletes where content isn't actually purged but filtered from appearing on the UI.

🔗Negative Side Effects of Moderation

We have to be careful about our implementation of moderation as it could lead to a subpar community where there is snobbery or other forms of toxicity that we don't want. If we choose an AI or the wrong moderators, this could lead to a down turn in community sentiment. We maybe want to run experiments with tools like IBM Watson's sentiment analysis or other AIs to see what would happen.

We also have to be wary of what happens when our moderation mode of choice stops operating at optimal capacity. Do we have a fall back plan that works? Is there any redundancy in our system to prevent any outages in moderation tooling?

🔗Positive Moderation

We also want to encourage people for contributing positively. We could build quick and simple features of awarding a user a point in a commendation category where they prove to be an expert in certain areas. It encourages them to engage more and let's them become a community leader chosen by the community.

🔗Where does the moderation tooling live?

We can build the moderation tooling in its own separate admin application. Alternatively, we could follow the YouTube model where everything lives inside the main user interface. Given our goal to have a single app for users and desire to leverage the community, it probably makes the most sense for our application to have the tooling live alongside the main application.

Let's say performance. Yes, there are things like code splitting, but how many additional bytes over the wire are you going to send down for, to in-service of an admin portal that maybe 99% of your users will never see? And again, there are ways to mitigate that, but you know, that's another thing to consider: do you really want to ship two completely orthogonal experiences in one bundle?

That being said, we should absolutely evaluate how large this additional tooling is and how memory-costly is it going to be to send that to every user.

🔗Conclusion

I want to thank my guests Rob Ocel, Morgan Worrell, and Chris Trzesniewski with This Dot for joining me on Build IT Better. It was an amazing conversation and knowledge share. This article would not be possible without their time and insight. Thank you.

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