First Monday

Five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web-based communities by Linda M. Gallant, Gloria M. Boone, and Austin Heap

From a three-step analysis of online communities, a set of five heuristics emerged: interactive creativity; selection hierarchy; identity construction; rewards and costs; and, artistic forms. These heuristics were generated from concepts appearing in past research, and then tested by a content analysis with focus groups using the case examples of two well-developed Web-based communities, Facebook and MySpace. The users saw this type of social technology as a flexible form of their own expression to create their own identities, social relationships, and meanings. Overall, MySpace was seen as offering greater creativity and artistic form than Facebook. The users in this study used online communities for gaining social rewards; e.g., forming and maintaining friendships, with little concern for social costs such as time expended or privacy concerns. This study contributes to a set of heuristics that can be used to evaluate other Web-based online communities in social contexts such as gaming, communities of practice, and business.


Background: Communication & Web-based communities
Research question




With the development of the Internet and new media, shared physical space may not be an essential part of community formation as seen in the development of online communities. In a heavily mediated society, people move from mediated and non-mediated social interactions throughout their days. Online communities are also supporting social life offline (Wellman, et al., 2006). Since the late 1990s, researchers have regarded physical proximity as having less prominence in defining relationships between people than the nature and strength of relationships (Preece and Maloney-Krichmar, 2005). Web-based online communities include communities of interest, communities of practice, gaming communities, business-to-business, business-to-consumer, and consumer-to-consumer (Hummel and Lechner, 2002).

While much research has been done on how to build computing systems to meet the task needs of individual users in workplace environments (Huberman and Hogg, 1995; Wellman, et al., 1996; Butler, 2001; Ahuja and Galvin, 2003), more research needs to examine how Web-based community systems promote successful sociability. The purpose of this study is to investigate what features of online community systems foster their success. To do this, we investigate how people use rules and resources in online spaces to create sociability and maintain communities. For Web-based communities, we seek to develop a set of heuristics; i.e., design principles (de Jong and van der Geest, 2000; and Pfeifer, et al., 2005).

Five heuristics — interactive creativity; selection hierarchy; identity construction; rewards and costs; and, artistic forms — form the structural basis of Web-based communities. We develop these heuristics using a three-fold process. First, we examine past research to develop a 10-item list of elements essential to online communities. Second, we perform a content analysis of written responses from 18 participants. At this stage, we investigate how these 10 items relate to the participants’ use of Web-based communities. This analysis produces the five heuristics of Web-based communities. Third, we test these five heuristics on three focus groups with participants who are heavy users of two successful and highly populated Web-based communities, Facebook and MySpace [1]. These five heuristics of facilitating social usability for Web-based communities are verified in the empirical analysis.

After this three-fold analysis is completed, we connect it to past literature on social interaction in online communities. The ultimate goal is to provide newer insights into the social interaction and design heuristics of Web-based communities.



Background: Communication & Web-based communities

Web-based communities & social interaction

In order to better understand the social creation, maintenance, and organization of Web-based communities, we need to better understand the interplay between social interaction, context of communication, and technical features. The social interaction is more important than technology itself (Jones, et al., 2004). Human interaction is the primary definer, creator, and maintainer of online communities. Further, there is not a “simple deterministic relationship between technology and social outcomes… .” [2] Yet, research on Web-based communities should first consider how human action influences social outcome, then analyze how technology constrains or enables the social interaction (Jones and Rafaeli, 2000). On the whole, online communities as a social format must form ways of interacting and communicating to build groups.

Synchronous and asynchronous communication

People socialize in Web-based communities through learning a system’s social and technical rules by observing communication processes (Preece, 2003). Synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous information (delayed-time) technologies can be used as communication strategies to reduce communication overload (Jones, et al., 2004). Having the options of using real-time or delayed-time can lessen problems with information overload that might drive people away from using an online community. While Hummel and Lechner (2002) claim communication overload limits Web-based community size, the use of differing communication strategies allows communities to develop and maintain social ties. Furthermore, using synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication, online community members can still keep connected with a virtual community at a communication load, pace, and time that best fits individual user needs. As people form communication patterns with each other, social rules develop in online communities. People can also turn to information sharing in multimedia environments such as online communities to finish communication tasks with others (Miranda and Saunders, 2003). In turn, mediated information environments provide communication strategies that enhance decision quality (Miranda and Saunders, 2003).

Social & technical rules

Online communities are a mixture of social and technical rules. Deeply embedded social interaction rules produce and reproduce social action and social systems (Giddens, 1984). These social actions have the transformative power to create, maintain, and reshape social interaction patterns. Although people can use technologies in multiple ways as social tools, technical systems’ features and tools place restraints upon how people can use technical systems for some tasks and social purposes. “Further, it stands to reason that the range of social interactions enabled and constrained by different CMC technologies will vary.” [3] Based on uses of social and system rules, online community members have power to control and manipulate social outcomes.



Research question

In this study, we seek to develop a basis for understanding what social interaction and system features compel people to use and develop Web-based communities. Thus, our research question is exploratory in nature.

RQ: What social interaction and system features are important to the development and use of Web-based communities?




Web-based communities’ central concepts are cataloged by examining past research on Web-based communities’ uses and developments. The study has three levels of data collection and analyses. First, fundamental features, concepts, and processes of online communities are reviewed in past research. This produced a topical list of 10 categories related to both social and technical features, concepts, and processes. Second, a content analysis was done of 18 participants’ written reactions regarding how they viewed the 10 categories related to online communities of Facebook and MySpace [4]. Third, the five heuristics developed from the content analysis were tested with three focus groups of heavy users of Facebook and MySpace. This three-fold process upheld and deepened our understanding of a five category heuristic framework for developing successful web-based communities. Below is a more detailed explanation of processes.

Current research review: 10 concepts

Many useful insights into Web-based communities already exist in research literature. A list of 475 words, concepts, and phases were identified from 35 articles [5]. This list was checked for any repeated words, concepts, and phases. Next, these items were placed into three major categories: structure, communicative processes, and space. Structure had two sub-categories: social and technical. Under communicative processes, three sub-groups are listed: communicative channel, communicative activity, and communicative meaning point. Space held two sub-categories: offline and online. Open, axial and selective coding was employed to analyze the central concepts and structures needed for successful Web-based communities. We used open coding, which takes the data or concepts at face value [6], to develop the 475 item list. In the next phase, we employed axial coding to analyze data related to information other than the raw data [7]. The concepts previously reviewed on social interaction, communication, and social/technical rules are used as comparative information with the 475 item list. We compared the words, concepts, and phases to develop a topical list to use with focus groups. In this selective coding phase, the open and axial coding were developed into a final framework [8]; i.e., a list of 10 concepts: interactive, hierarchy, creativity, ritual, identity, selection, valuation, desire, form, and artistic.

Topical guide development

Based on the 10 concepts; (interactive, hierarchy, creativity, ritual, identity, selection, valuation, desire, form, and artistic), 18 college-aged heavy users of MySpace and Facebook were asked to write about the two Web sites. We define a heavy user as spending at least seven hours a week participating in online communities. A content analysis was done on these written responses. The coding process included open, axial and selective coding. During the coding, the written responses seemed to overlap in some concepts; e.g., interactivity and creativity. Others concepts; e.g., ritual, failed to generate many comments or reactions from participants. The content analysis of participants’ written responses yielded five categories: interactive creativity; selection hierarchy; identity construction; rewards and costs; and, artistic forms. These five categories were then used as a topical guide for the next phase of research, focus groups.

Focus groups on Web-based communities

Given the exploratory nature of our study, the topical interview guide approach is more appropriate than a standardized list of questions. In contrast to the standardized questions approach, the topical interview guide approach is more flexible, allowing the facilitator and focus group members to explore more fully numerous areas of a topic [9]. With topics to frame the discussion, the focus group facilitator “is free to explore, probe, and ask questions that will elucidate and illuminate that particular subject.” [10] Using the five category topical guide, a facilitator conducted focus groups until no new information was emerging. The topical guide served as a basic checklist of topics covered during the focus groups [11].

Focus Group Demographics & Sampling

For the focus group, 20 participants from several different colleges took part in one of the three focus groups. Each focus group lasted from 60–90 minutes. Ages of the twelve female and eight male students ranged from 18 to 28; three were graduate students; two, recent graduates; and, 15 undergraduates. The sampling strategy for the participants was purposeful in that it sought information rich cases [12] that consisted of heavy users of online communities.




The testing of the five categories with the focus group participants upheld the analysis of both the content analyses of past online communities’ literature and of the written responses to the social computing communities, MySpace and Facebook. This three part study yielded a set of five categories provides a design framework for building successful online communities. These five heuristics (i.e., interactive creativity; selection hierarchy; identity construction; rewards and costs; and, artistic forms) are described below with supporting quotes from focus group participants.

Interactive creativity

This heuristic encourages communication and interaction of participants; it is active, vital and dynamic. The best communities allow creativity by their members. This category encompasses the novel, the new, the risk, the mystery, the thrill, and the flow-like experience that can happen in using technology and content in new ways. Overall, most focus group participants felt MySpace was more flexible and interactive, and allowed for more creativity than Facebook. Comments from the participants exemplify this heuristic. “Facebook has limited flexibility…My Space is very interactive, completely flexible, [you can] design it how you want.”  Other comments included: “MySpace allows more creativity and with Facebook there is not as much room for individuality.”  Another user stated: “MySpace is very interactive, allowing direct communication both in forms of immediate interaction and timely postings.”  “Facebook is less interactive because of the restriction of the site to students, but it does allow for creativity through picture posting.”  Several users stated, “In Facebook, you can post more pictures than in MySpace.” Other users stated another aspect of creativity Facebook allowed was “writing on people’s walls.”  Both sites received praise for allowing people to “stay in touch with friends.”

Selective hierarchy

Here access, membership, information filtering and related factors are explored. All social systems develop structures that unite, divide and assemble people into groups, systems, and networks. Selective hierarchy establishes leadership, pecking orders, and roles such as mentor, information provider, and social coordinator, and allows the ever present notion of in-group and out-group. This insider and outsider structure is reified in the system of membership within Web-based communities. Web-based communities have formalized membership systems that provide different levels of privilege for premium content and membership fees.

Selective hierarchy applies users’ preferences on system features. This process helps develop systematic ways users can more easily store, sort, retrieve, ignore or filter information important to them. This selective processing reduces the risk of communication overload, which can deter people from using information systems. The process of selective hierarchy groups people and information into more meaningful clusters to users. Users or system developers can place people into selective in-groups and out-groups. People in the designated groupings have access to certain levels of personal information and access to other users. For example, the number one comment from focus group participants was Facebook allows access only to college students, not other friends or family. In order to gain access to Facebook, users must register using an active college or university e-mail. Other examples of selective hierarchy for the participants included praise for MySpace as it provides “easier access because anyone can join.” Both Facebook and MySpace sites were praised for “allowing you to join groups.” Yet, “Facebook seems easier to assign administrators,” while MySpace was judged as slightly easier to create groups; however, some criticized MySpace because of problems with storage and feedback.

Identity construction

People want to express their identities, individuality, lifestyles, and collective interests in communication patterns. The best online communities encourage identity posting; e.g., biographies. Participants may create, manipulate and recast these identities. Lively Web-based communities can develop playfulness. In order for people to engage in a lively manner, recognition and organizing of common interests, backgrounds, demographic groupings are important. Users can gravitate toward others with similarities. This common ground allows users to be actively engaged with others.  From a user’s point of view, the most frequent comment by focus group participants was profiles allowed them to express their identities. Many felt because MySpace was more flexible with postings, people were freer to create their identities. Many used the phrase “more personalized” to describe MySpace; the word freedom was more often associated with MySpace. “With Facebook, your identity revolves around the school; in MySpace, [you] have complete freedom.” Most participants felt they revealed their identities through their likes, dislikes, hobbies and interests. Their posting constructs display their personalities online.

Rewards and costs

Web-based communities have rewards and costs. Almost all users noted the rewards for posting on both sites. These included: staying in touch with friends, making social plans, communicating with others and “finding out” about them, and “dating.” Very few mentioned any cost or negative attributes such as privacy concerns or trust issues. A few mentioned the cost of time involved in interacting with Web-based communities.

Artistic forms

Artistic forms make the experience of the Web site interface more personalized, resulting in formats that encourage easy use. Moreover, personalizing features create the participant’s desire to use the different components. These personalizing features and activities satisfy people’s need to develop individual style and create a social statement through the design of their personal community Web space. Web-based community members may individualize their spaces with a variety of features such as sound, movement, design, art, and photos. All focus group participants agreed Facebook lacked artistic form. People described Facebook as having the same plain and simple format on every page. A few users mentioned MySpace had more options for artistic form and it included music, movement, “your own song,” and “more updates [to] allow the site to stay trendy.”




Our study is in line with research that suggests that online communities have the capacity to increase social ties and interaction (Wellman, 2005; Wellman, et al., 2002). People engage in social interaction with others, establishing their identity in their profiles, responding to the identity of others, complementing social relationships, information seeking, and completing tasks. The users in this study viewed the technology as a flexible form of their own expression. To create their social relationships and their social meanings, participants used the social and technical rules of the two online communities MySpace and Facebook. Overall, MySpace was seen as allowing greater creativity and artistic form than Facebook. The technical and interface constraints of Facebook in membership access and in a “bland format” were seen as hindering the creative control of users. The users in this study liked forming and maintaining friendships with little concern for social costs such as time expended or privacy.

While past research on social computing has a strong history of focusing on computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) groups (Leinonen, et al., 2005), the Internet allows people outside of workplaces to communicate and organize as groups and form communities. Our findings show people formed online identities through personalizing their individual Web spaces. They picked certain technical tools to use and categorized in-group and out-group members by allowing access to particular personal information. New technologies — like video posts, remixing of media, and the creative use of music — were documented as important to users of online communities. Although participants did show slight preferences for one online community versus another online community based on social and technical features, the analysis of both online communities provides a basic framework for design features of online communities that compel people to use them.

Not only do the five heuristics found in our study have high reliability for general social Web-based communities, they also provide a design structure that can facilitate participants’ usage of online communities in multiple contexts such as healthcare, entertainment, government, and every aspect of social life. Future researchers should study how these five heuristics work in the analysis of multiple online social computing contexts. Furthermore, since people are developing their self-identities in Web-based communities, these self-developed psychographic profiles of the users are a rich area of data to use in target marketing. In addition, there is a proliferation of e-government and e-health initiatives. The creators of these newer specialized online communities should look at our study for guidance in designing systems that promote usage. Simply stated, users of online communities will be more inclined to engage in online interaction if the online systems have social and technical features that our study identifies. The five heuristic categories found in this study are important socio-technical properties of social computing systems compelling participation. Our findings can help with the design, study, and understanding of many different types of online community Web sites.




Jones and Rafaeli (2000) acknowledge the need to develop “positive heuristic, or rough guidelines” to analyze and develop Web-based communities using varying forms of social explanation. Using explanations that provide for social context, collaborative technology features, appropriate level of analysis, cognitive processing limitations, and usability as a group level concept is emphasized as imperative “because it links communicative behavior and social structure to technology without resorting to technological determinism.” [13] Our current research project has presented such a heuristic framework of what best meets the usability needs of general Web-based communities, thus starting a foothold for design guidelines for online communities. End of article


About the authors

Linda Gallant is an Assistant Professor of Information Process Management at Bentley College. Dr. Gallant’s teaching and research interests include the application of research methods to social computing, experience design, and the maximization of information and communication technology (ICT) to advance human communication in multiple contexts – work, home, and social environments. She has published previously in Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, Academic Exchange Quarterly, and Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. She has presented numerous papers at national and international conferences such as the International Communication Association Conference, National Communication Association Conference, General Online Research Conference, and Critical Issues in eHealth Research Conference. She has worked as a consultant and usability specialist for corporations such as Hewlett Packard and ChannelWave Software. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska — Lincoln.

Dr. Gloria Boone is a Professor of Communication at Suffolk University in Boston, Mass. She teaches classes in Rhetoric, Information Architecture, Usability, Web Design, and Advertising. She has published books on Rhetorical Communication and on Business Communication. Her recent articles deal with Communicative Informatics, Usability and Rhetoric. She has presented academic papers and consulted with businesses and health care organizations on information architecture, usability, communication and integrated marketing communication. As a classically trained rhetorician, she believes that the arts and the humanities inform "new" developments in Web design, technology and communication. She holds a Ph.D. from Ohio University.

Austin Heap is an entrepreneur and technologist, whose works centers on developing Internet based technologies for establishing rapid transfer of knowledge between people, groups, and organizations. Building on his past work, he is currently working on designing and developing Internet- based technologies that simultaneously optimize users’ networking and personalization within and between online communities and organizations.  He holds a B.S. degree from Bentley College.



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2. Jones and Rafaeli, 2000, pp. 3–4.

3. Jones, et al., 2004, p. 196.

4. MySpace is open to anyone while Facebook, at the time of this study, is only associated with high schools and colleges; both sites allow users to construct profiles, upload pictures, form groups and engage in a wide range of social computing.

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11. Patton, 2002, p. 342.

12. Patton, 1990, p. 169; Tuckett, 2004.

13. Jones and Rafaeli 2000, p. 9.



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Editorial history

Paper received 8 February 2007; accepted 22 February 2007.

Contents Index

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Five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web–based communities by Linda M. Gallant, Gloria M. Boone, and Austin Heap
First Monday, volume 12, number 3 (March 2007),