Chris Pedregal, co-founder and CEO of Socratic, knows a lot about building a successful company.

But Chris is a product builder, not a community designer by background. Up until a few years ago, he said he had never thought about building products through the lens of a community. This time around, Chris wanted to make an impact in education, and he realized that the only way to do so was to empower a community.

“Good teaching is an incredibly powerful force,” said Chris. Socratic’s aim is to make learning easier, to change the way that learners consume information online. “So we have a huge mission, and we are tackling that mission through community,” he said.

Over the last few years, he has grown the Socratic community with incredible patience, intention, and openness, and today, he shares with CMX members what he has learned.

There Are Two Types of Products that Community Can Be Built Around

First, Chris defined two types of products.

1. Community-Peripheral Products

Chris’s background is in community-peripheral products like Google Maps. These products use community as marketing engines or support tools. If you took away the community component, you’d still have a product.

2. Community-Centric Products

There is a true litmus test that defines community-centric products: If you took away the community, there would be no product. Imagine your own product. If you took away the people getting to know one another and conversing, would you still have a product?

After having built community in both worlds, Chris now sees that the most impactful products are those that are community-centric.

How You Design Community Products

1. Build for what people are already doing.

“Don’t try to change people’s behavior,” Chris says. Instead, look for what people are already doing and build tools to help them do that.

2. Ask: should this problem be solved with product or community?

“If you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Chris said. Product people see the world through product fixes, and often think that the only way to solve problems is to create product changes.

This was a huge realization for him a product builder: if you have a community, you have all kinds of new tools at your disposal. You don’t need to solve every problem through product. Solve it through people’s empowerment.

Chris shared an example of a hacker attack that happened in the community just a few short weeks ago. “The community didn’t have the tools to stop a hacker attack,” he explained, Instead, they stepped up and worked together to trade off responsibilities. They had the ability to “ghost ban” users and they organized to shut the hacker’s content down.

“We didn’t build any crazy product to stop future attacks. We just gave them tools to band together to fix problems through the community.”

3. Get the right people in your community.

Having the right people in your community is actually a product priority, Chris argued.

“Your community will set the culture. You can justify whatever it takes to get the right people because they will set the tone for everything else you do.”

This is a radical notion for many product people, but it’s one we need to get our product managers bought in on.

4. You should build to empower your community.

In a traditional product, you get to say “I want people to do X.” Success is then measured by how often people do that action.

When you build for community, you have to build functionality that lets you do things that you can’t even imagine. You want your community to surprise you with what they’re capable of.

In effect, you must “design for open-endedness.” Socratic, for instance, created “Socratic Meta” as an open-ended discussion space.

5. Design must reinforce the sense of community.

Using a product online can feel like a solo experience. Socratic wanted to make people feel that they were making an impact as part of a group.

Socratic created spaces that recognize the work that their members do– together. Chris shared some of the product features that make their platform an amazing space for belonging.


How to Test

Once you’ve designed and built these product features, it’s time to test them with your community– but it’s not always so simple. In fact, testing should begin before building.

1. Test features manually before building.

Becca, Socratic’s Community Lead, tests everything manually before they build things into the product.

She recently launched a mentor program, and tested the program manually beforehand. The team learned from the experiment and will then build based on what they witnessed with the launch.

2. The community must be mature enough for your features.

Your timing must be right. Communities should feel like lively spaces. Socratic, for instance, launched a Discourse forum early on that felt like a graveyard. It turned out that the community just wasn’t ready for a forum yet. Instead, they turned their focus toward building strong relationships before creating community spaces.

How to Measure

“What you measure determines what you optimize for,” Chris said. So it’s important to analyze everything that you’re measuring and breaking it down into personas and subsets.

When they finally broke down their users by type of contribution, they noticed major trends happening only in certain subjects. It became clear that sub-communities were forming that they never would have identified

Final Takeaway

Chris finished his talk with a final call to action: “Go find the product folks in the organization and make sure that they get this because it affects all parts of the system.”

If you are unable to do it, find Chris and he volunteered to do it for you.

Carrie Melissa Jones

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