Many online communities parade their community size stats as if it were the only measure of success. As a result it’s easy to think that’s the most important metric for every community. This can trip you up, and force you to chase the wrong goals. For some communities, size isn’t the most important metric. Take OpenIDEO for instance, sure at some point we knew that global participation was important, and you need to maintain a balance between different kinds of community members (we value diversity or participation), but we’ve learned in the last year that encouraging smart, active, and engaged participants is vital to the success of the social challenges that we run. That’s the reason why last year we were delighted to hear from Tracy Brandenburg, professor at Wells College in New York. She wrote to us to tell us the story about how she had been using the OpenIDEO food challenge we ran with the Queensland Government as the backbone to her design course. We quickly got her on the phone and we learned that she had asked her students to go above and beyond what regular participants do. Here’s Tracy talking about the task she set her students:

The assignment was for students to work in teams on the OpenIDEO challenge and use the design thinking methodology taught in class to come up with a solution. In addition, students were required to post their solution on OpenIDEO and communicate and interact with other online participants. To help inform the students’ work and validate their initial prototypes, the students also reached out to a group of local farmers. They asked questions, gathered qualitative insights, and got feedback from this key audience as they developed their ideas.

This was exciting for the OpenIDEO team, when we heard that the students were being evaluated based on how well they collaborated with the global community, we were inspired. Imagine then how we felt when we heard that they didn’t end the process when the winning concepts were announced (one of the students made it into the challenge shortlist), but created a usability lab and invited in some of the farmers who took part in their research to give feedback on their physical prototypes. We almost fell off our seats. This exceeded the expectations and quashed our assumptions. We tend to think of OpenIDEO participants contributing individually, and mostly think of them as desk–based contributors. Suddenly here we were presented with teams of dedicated individuals, facilitated by both the classroom experience and online process, reaching out beyond those four walls and browser windows, to engage end users in the process.

Inspired by this work we wondered how we could encourage more university professors to engage their students and so last summer, OpenIDEO community manager, Ashley Jablow began a project to do just that. Since that time, there are now over five student groups and at least three more professors using OpenIDEO as a tool in their curriculum. Tracy herself continues to use the challenges whenever they overlap with the academic year. If you teach a class of students and want to get them involved, get in touch with us at, we’d love to hear from you, and head over to our forum to join the conversation. We are building a toolkit to help professors and students get started, and here’s one resource that Tracy has shared: a rubric to help evaluate students on their participation. Interestingly it measures students against the following criteria: Empathy, Definition, Ideation, Prototyping, Testing, and Summarizing. I love this rubric, but particularly like the Summarizing ‘Mode’ that Tracy has created. It measures how well the student took criticism and evolved their idea based on that feedback. The student team at NYU Poly recently won best student chapter and student run initative. Congrats to the team Lei Niu and Ashwin Gopi. 

What does this mean for community design?

First of all I think you have to have a clear purpose of your community, in our case it’s about creating a dent in some of the big social and environmental problems that we face as a planet. However, maintaining that focus without paying attention to what your community cares about can cause you to pursue tactical steps to implement that goal that may be out of kilter with how people really behave. So you need to combine that clear focus with a constant mode of listening and empathy for your participants. Listening is something that gets talked about a lot in management literature and in design, but it’s easy to overlook the difference between truly unbiased listening and ticking the box. I believe this is something that every digital community and business needs to do, whether they are brand new or well established. Unbiased listening means being ready to be surprised, to start with a mindset free of judgement and of pre-existing ideas. You have to be ready to be wrong. This is hard and takes practice.

At IDEO we hire people who are innately good at doing this, and in our OpenIDEO challenges we try to foster a culture of storytelling and listening. It was thanks to this careful listening by our community managersAshley Jablow & Meena Kadri that helped spot this opportunity to go deep and encourage more university collaboration. We are encouraged daily by the inspiring efforts of our community. Haiyan Zhang, who leads the design and development of the OpenIDEO platform pays careful attention to how community members are interacting with each other and has been cooking up some great new platform features to be launched in the coming weeks.

The best way to keep track of all the good stuff happening is to log on to and dive into one of our challenges.

Look forward to seeing you online, Nathan