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Designing and Facilitating Online, Web-Based Events:
A Very General Checklist
Nancy White, Full Circle Associates (http://www.fullcirc.com)
Last Updated 8/02
When communities are dispersed in any sense, things can fragment and diffuse until, poof, there is nothing left. Migrating groups to online space can also be a "lost in space" experience if there is no structure in that time or space.
Online events, like offline events, can provide a focal point for an online migration, or regular punctuation for communities to stop, reflect, touch base or work intensively for a short period of time. Like a tall cool beer in the afternoon, they can make a break from ongoing activities to connect and focus. Or like a workshop, they can focus a group on tasks and deliverables within a fixed time frame.
What follows is a very generalized checklist for creating and running an online event. See also Online Events Assessment Tool.
- Articulate the purpose of the event. Is the purpose it compelling enough to draw a group online? Inspire people to come back more than once? Is it simple enough that one participant could describe it to another person easily? Does it articulate or make sense within the target audience's domain, practice and community? Does it reflect the community and emerge from the community’s ongoing collaboration?
- Assess the users/participants needs. Don't just start designing, but create a design that reflects purpose, duration and user needs. Better yet, include members in the design process (participatory design) if possible. Some questions to think about:
Define the agenda and duration of the event. If you think of an online event like an offline event, generally one week online compares with one full day offline. This rests on a few assumptions: a) people will log on 1-3 times per day, every day, b) there are about 3-4 main discussions or areas of focus, c) the space is facilitated and d) email alerts are used to "pull" people back to the web space. From this you can think about what activities will occur during the event. Will there be introductions, presentations, breakout groups, surveys, general or specific discussions, tasks or problem solving? Again, think about good offline meeting practice. Balance different types of interaction, including synchronous and asynchronous and even consider mixing "media" by including a telephone conference calls and online chats.
Have both a content and social agenda. Events are about content and people. Have an agenda that provides both a timeline and links to each component of the event in an easy to find/access place. Highlight daily action items or happenings on the event "home page" to draw participation where it is most desired at any time during the event. It is often helpful to have separate social and content interaction spaces. The social spaces tend to evolve organically while the task or content areas benefit from some structure. But make sure they are present!
Design the space. With your audience assessment and agenda, think about spaces and flow of activity over time. This is where you think about look, feel and navigation! If you have a team of facilitators and other support folks, bring them into the design process!
- Are there bandwidth issues?
- Is there a steep learning curve for the tools available?
- Are there firewall issues?
- How busy are the participants and what will it take to get them online and into the space?
- What information or pre-work do they need in advance?
- What information do you need from them (such as bios or background materials)?
- Do the participants know each other already or will there be need for group formation processes?.
- Do you need to invite some people from outside the group to add richness to the event?
- Is there an email-centric culture that might be a barrier to web participation?
- Are there intercultural or language issues?
Consider your presentation, facilitation and hosting team. Recruit facililtators for areas and topics. Orient and prepare presenters so they are at ease in the space prior to the event. Make explicit roles, plans and reveal the intent behind the event design. Ask for feedback and use their wisdom. Give everyone a practice space or hold a little "dry run."
Test the space. Call in a few favors and get some users to try out the space. The longer you work at setting up a space, the blinder you become to the "average" user experience. Let them get you back in touch, then make adjustments as needed. It may also be appropriate to have them help you "seed" topics with a few juicy first posts that invite follow up.
Issue the Invitation. Entice and inform with an invitation that makes the benefits of participation clear, provides the who/what/when/where and why and makes explicit any participation expectations. If you expect them to log on twice a day, ask them to do so–directly! Suggest tips for easy participation. In ongoing communities, track and invite previous participants in ongoing communities. Ask them to contribute ideas. If you can, send some hard copy accoutrements via snail mail - a mousepad, a toy related to the theme of the event, a "do not disturb I'm in (an electronic) conference" sign or other tangible reminder that will sit on users desks. Make your event visible to them even when they are offline!
Open the space prior to the event for users to try it out and do informal interacting. Like that opening cocktail party, let people mingle and "try out the chairs." This provides group building time and a safe way to try out the software before things "get serious." Speaking of playing, have a test topic or "sandbox" where people can really play with the software without looking "stupid."
Facilitate the interaction. At the start of the event, work to engage each user. Online presence tools and instant messenger tools can be opportunities to get people to introduce themselves or contribute to a conversation. During the event use both "push" and "pull" tools to get people to come to the site such as daily email summaries, telephone invitations, time delimited surveys ("Don't miss your chance to vote!") and small group projects. Some voices are harder to make visible. A community's growth may depend on bringing in these voices. Richness is often at the edges.
Capture data as you go. If it is a large event, work to capture key data along the way for post event analysis. For example, you may want the facilitation team to offer daily reports of their work. Use web-based forms that send the data directly to a database for later use. Make the reports visible to the entire support team and use for ongoing tweaking and improvement of the event.
Summarize and Harvest. Close each individual discussion with a synthesis or "weaving" of what evolved during the interaction. If it is an action or task oriented discussion, make clear any steps for follow up or closure. Encourage participants to add their summaries.
Provide a visible closure for the event. Online events can dissolve into nothingness and dissipate group energy. Don't let them go on and on. Define an end date and mark it with a closing activity. This could be something synchronous like a chat or partnered with a conference call, or a time-delimited asynchronous discussion thread dedicated to closing comments or evaluation of the event. Final surveys can help inform your subsequent work.
Evaluate and follow up. "An event is just a blip in the life of a community" - John Smith. Consider how it makes sense as part of the ongoing life of the community. Analyze logs, produce a document of the event or capture it on a CD. Organize follow up for subsequent tasks or events. Convene the group that looks at design together and talk about what worked and what bombed. Why? How will this inform future events?
- What are the boundaries?
- What things would work best "close" to each other, and what needs a very clearly defined space.
- What activities lend themselves to synchronous and asynchronous approaches?
- How can you design in multi-modal experiences to accommodate a range of learning styles?
- How can you acknowledge and build on what has gone before which may be captured in background materials?
- Think about introduction spaces where people can connect and reconnect. Provide a space where people can say who they are and find out how they are connected. This helps make visible the structure of the community. Have places for bios and directories.
- Consider how you can give tools and delegate control to presenters, facilitator's and user's so they can control as much as possible and appropriate. Can you design to give control out into the community?. Do they want it? Will they take on responsibility to do it? Can they do it? Experienced groups may be able to use more tools than newly formed groups, where more attention must be paid to building shared context and experience.
- Create a "backstage"" space for presenters, facilitators and organizers.
- Design space that reflects function. Is the event about moving the group or community forward or about solving a problem? Which side "leads?" (For example, if you are concerned about building social capital, games and group building activities might be very important. If working on projects, designing "small work group 'spaces"" may be at the forefront.)
- Think about including presence indicators. This not only helps group formation, but also helps build a sense of obligation to the group. Knowing when someone is or was last online also helps trigger outreach to those who have not been participating. Find out why! All we have is "us." People are bound together by accountability.