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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Three myths about scaling digital platforms for social action

At Nesta we work increasingly with a number of platforms that aim to combine all the good things about local community networks with the organising power of an online platform. The idea is that through engaging on the two levels, the platform will be able to promote deep engagement in local areas, whilst mobilising many more people and extending networks much faster and further through using a web platform.

These hybrid platforms tend to offer social, and often local, benefit through creating communities around online products or services and we have recently supported a few quite different approaches to this. A few examples of the many projects we work with include:

  • Streetbank, which helps people swap, share and lend products and skills with those living in a one-mile radius
  • Casserole, which supports link ups between cooks and other local people who would like a hot dinner
  • Solarschools, which helps people get together to fund local solar installations on school roofs

There are very many others like these who are using the power of online technology and social networks to increase their impact beyond small pockets of action in order to reach large numbers of people and inspire them to take action.

When it comes to designing for scale, there are three myths that need to be debunked:

Myth 1: Design for your users

The plans for growth are frequently driven by a discussion about 'users' – what will our users think about changing the position of the ‘signup’ button?  - will they like the new logo we’re designing? – what will they do when travelling through our new navigation system? Common, and seemingly important questions when designing a web experience. It is not that these are wrong-headed questions - users are important, design is important, but not as important as people and context. However, the majority of people you need to engage for scale are not your users.

If your platform relies on inspiring people to act and take part in a social network involving a new behaviour then you need to go firstly to where these potential users are engaging, and understand what their motivations for participation might be. You simply can't jump into a ‘user experience’ mindset whilst forgetting that you haven't converted people into users and that they are not ‘modelled’ as personas on a design spec. They are real people, they live in houses, not at an IP address and they have a lot of competing demands on their time. Focus on engagement and motivations of these non-users is crucial or you may find your model of motivation and beautiful user experience site just won't scale because you are only serving users.

Myth 2: Get national press!

So, you’ve been mentioned in one of the broadsheets as being the next best thing? Fantastic, well done! Right? Well, sort of… Consider whether your platform idea depends on units of local interaction that require a certain density to function effectively e.g. number of tools listed in one-mile radius or willing chefs who can cook dinner and deliver it hot to your home, or enough parents from the same school who care about solar energy etc. If your call to action is too focused upon getting national coverage then you could reach many individual users who will hop online only to find a couple, or even no other users online in their area.

The type of platform we are talking about needs to understand timing and strategy of scale - and how to make the networked nature of your product or service work alongside the creation of local nodes of density. Doing this through existing local infrastructure of early adopters before pushing out to call for more users is one way that seems promising. Facebook grew in this way through university campus invitations in its early days. You only have a certain number of chances to convert a person into becoming a user – and you don’t want to waste one of them by reaching out too early.

Myth 3: Don’t worry about scaling until you’re established

If you are ambitious for your project and want to create a sustainable operating model you simply can't afford to put off the question of a scaling strategy. It might seem premature when you haven’t even built your web platform in full yet, but if you are serious about making scalable change it is never too early to consider designing for scale. It will affect everything you do. 

One way of attacking this question early on is to get out your ‘back of the envelope’ mindset and make a few good estimates to help imagine a model of scale. For the hybrid platform type we are thinking of, part of this approach is around quickly establishing what the ‘vital statistics’ of your local network node looks like – in other words - what is the optimal size for a local community of swappers, cooks, funders to create a vibrant ‘node’ of action in your network? How frequently will they interact, will the same relationships interact a number of times or will they be many and varied relationship interactions? Once you understand this, times it by whatever number takes you to your goal for scale. Then, consider how can you support this to be replicated in an organic way (rather than a highly-rigid, franchised way) which is going to enable some local customisation of the network nodes as you increase in scale. A major reason to consider scale from the outset is to understand if your planned revenue model is going to continue to support your growth. When do you get to the point where unit cost makes your core cost viable?

If you can consider all these things from the outset, then you’re off to a good start. Let me know what you think...


Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Head of New Operating Models

Alice led on a portfolio of work looking at how technology is transforming communities and civic life.

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