With Mass Customization design democratized, more people can make more things. They are able to work in new mediums and with new tools, to create unique products.
A graphic designer could use her skills to customize a table for example. A software developer could use code to make physical products. In this sense the combination of mass customization and digital manufacturing is a powerful one because people can acquire new skills or repurpose existing skills in order to create products that are; as they wish them to be. Acquiring new skills requires learning and experimentation as well as some play and work. If the right balance is found between choice, difficulty, interaction and the utility or beauty of the final product, mass customization can be an enjoyable worthwhile experience. Aside from just enabling individual expression however, mass customization can also channel collective expression and communities. Communities are a powerful tool for expression, innovation and collective problem solving. Communities can bind people together around a brand or company and unleash a lot of creativity on your platform. If this is done correctly then people will be bound to your platform whilst becoming ambassadors for you.
Communities form around shared interests
Traditionally communities are something ‘by the fan for the fan.’ A forum for the collection of rare stamps brings together people from all over the world to virtually share their hobby. Watch forums allow people passionate about watches to find like minded folk who appreciate watches just as much as they do. A narrow interest which may not be shared by many people generally, can lead to a vibrant community once people discover ‘people like me.’ Arcane discussions or matters of little importance outside the community, can become heated discussions inside of it. Connecting people to diverse others and finding that their niche passion is something that thousands around the world share, is very empowering. Usually communities are rather chaotic. There may be leaders in some sense but it is generally a peer to peer interaction based on equality. Not one person is best, or the most knowledgeable or the most interesting all the time. There are many areas in that subdomain for people to shine. By helping one another out and creating interesting content the community can become a fun gathering place for people from many disparate backgrounds.
Generally, the more niche the interest, the stronger the community can be
A general Sports community will be rather amorphous and inspire little feeling of communality. A more specific community on Football would ignite more targeted interaction. One centered on a specific team would be more enmeshed still. If that team is obscure, the community will feel even tighter. It does not only have to be a subject based community however. People with certain viewpoints or certain ways of expressing themselves or people who react emotionally to boredom similarly will also find communities just for them. If a community is too general, the discussions in it will be very general as well. But, very specific discussions and very specific feelings or ways of interacting will find passionate adherents. This will in turn allow for a passionate close community. If a community is too specific it may not find enough adherents to keep it viable however. Those members of that community will be very happy that they have found that specific place though.
With casemodding, STL files are shared in a small yet strong community.
Difficult barriers to entry equal strong but small communities
If a community is exclusive, coached in terminology, incomprehensible to outsiders or requires a lot of effort to join, then the people inside that community will be more tightly integrated and happy with that community. Keeping a community small and exclusive in some way is appealing; because it will make it feel more special and unique. It will be difficult however to walk the fine line between finding new members and somehow going ‘mainstream’ or losing the people keeping this small community going. If there is a very strong wall between those inside and outside the community the people inside that wall will guard it. This is essential to preserving their passions for that place, but also will keep the community small.
New communities often form at the nexus of new problems that are shared
In addition to shared interests and shared emotions, communities often form where new shared problems emerge. If you’re sitting in a crowded train you are a solitary person who happens to be in the same space as many other individuals. If the announcer all of a sudden announces a thirty minute delay to your train; you become a group of fellow sufferers and travellers. Discussion emerges and people collectively voice their dislike for the train system. Sighs are shared and jokes made. You have gone from being an unconnected group of people to a more cohesive group who is finding commonality in shared suffering. People who share very few of the same backgrounds, interests and values can find common ground and community when they are faced with a problem that affects them all. If your washing machine is broken, then any forum will do to help you out. You may never return or have nothing in common with those there. Indeed this very community could be a very transient one. But, if they help you and you find someone there to discuss the washing machine problem that you have in common; you will find shared problems and shared solutions. If a design tool is complex, complicated and difficult to use, this tool will bring people together around it. If a toy or object is broken enough to annoy you but not broken enough for you to toss it out, finding fellow sufferers will alleviate your pain. You are not an idiot for buying this thing, there are lots of other idiots and together you’ll find ways to make this toy work. Many people think of communities as being only about shared interests and values but transient communities around shared problems are commonplace as well.
Rapid learning of new concepts galvanizes communities
If a community gels around a certain issue or problem, a collective rapid learning may emerge. This community will as a whole incrementally solve the problems that they are faced with. Mary from Dayton will come up with a part of the solution which will be reworked by Lie Wei and documented by Abdullah. The payoff for these people in the solution chain will propagate throughout the community. There will be a real sense of ‘pay it forward’ as a result. If certain people are contributing and people on the whole are cooperative, more will be prompted to contribute. Once they contribute their knowledge and this is shared, the community starts to learn as a whole. People add their skills into the mix and bit by bit complex problems are solved. If problems are overcome and contributions increase it will cause learning to spread. As a result of this more people will have to work harder in order to be noticed. If this happens a community will become a place that is rapidly collectively learning about a subject. If this subject is exclusive to this place or limited in scope, this community could become the definitive place to learn about this one thing. A collective learning environment such as this can be a very powerful place to be and galvanize you and the rest into collective action.
New mediums and ways to express yourself grow communities
A new medium such as the internet, blogging or scrapbooking poses its own challenges to people. Not only does one not know how to scrapbook, but one is unsure where scrapbooking ends or begins. In addition to the shared problem of how to scrapbook and the payoff from finding people also passionate about this thing, there are other issues. Does one scrapbook for themselves, or for others? What is a scrapbook and what is permissible within scrapbooking? What are the key concepts? Does a scrapbook always need to be neat and well styled? What are the limits of this medium to express oneself? Communities often do not confront or solve these kinds of problems directly. Instead they are solved over time as the new medium becomes defined. Neater scrapbooks receive more attention and others are completely ignored. Codes of conduct emerge around this medium. Certain concepts are ingrained in the community and other ideas briefly mentioned and discarded. The community distills meaning from thousands of expressions. Certain ideas and concepts become ‘law’ or common behaviors. Ways of interacting become the norms in that community. Behavior outside those norms is not tolerated. This dynamic process of creating and reinforcing laws and attitudes is key to people making a community a new place that is different from all of the other places. The more open and ill defined the use of a particular medium is, the more these kinds of behaviors are needed and do in fact emerge.
The strongest community is their community, not yours.
If you have built a community tool, forum or place to gather than you as a founder are in control of that place. You establish the rules, the ways of interacting and initiate the discussion. You are however only the initial builder of the infrastructure. The residents will determine how in the long run the place will interact and be governed. The better that place feeds people’s needs and the more passionate people are about that community, the more it will govern itself. New norms will be discovered and adopted. People will interact accordingly and you will have less control. This is a scary thought for many companies. There may be legal implications for what people do in your community. It is good to be careful initially to determine what and how people can publish. Having people log in under their own first and last names or via Linkedin or Facebook is also a great help in this respect. People are on the whole more civil if they’re not hiding behind an avatar or nickname. Good community moderation and a civil atmosphere are key to developing and maintaining healthy communities. A few bad apples spoil the whole bunch, is especially true in communities. There will always be trolls and people trying to excite opinion. On the whole however their number will be very limited. By not feeding the trolls, by giving them attention, you will keep this kind of behavior to a minimum. Good expressive safe communities can be very inspiring and have a positive influence on a company’s image.
Tools and people
A community takes place at the intersection of tools and people. Careful consideration must be taken to how a tool interacts with a community member. Tone of voice, UX and design all have influences on which kinds of people you will attract and bind to you. A well integrated brand coupled with tools that are a logical extension of that brand will promote a community. It will cause it to feel true. A dissonance between your communication and the functioning of your design tools, will keep that community from growing. Claims and perception must be reinforced by the design tools themselves. If the look and feel of a website is clean and has a lot of whitespace then the content must feel ‘clean’ as well and the tools must function flawlessly. Hygenics of a brand must be strengthened by the UX and design of your tools in the context of this community interaction.
Offline Communities & Online Communities
Currently much attention is being directed at online communities. Some of the strongest online communities however also have an offline component. Meet ups and events let people meet likeminded persons. Feedback on the functioning of the site and tools can be obtained directly without any kind of filter in between. Serendipitous ideas and suggestions can lead to significant improvements to tooling. Friendships can emerge more directly from people who thereafter will interact almost exclusively online. Your brand or design process will through these processes more readily find true adherents who will spread the word for you. An offline component can reinforce and greatly enhance online communities.
Through design software, offline communities can be created as well. An airport lounge can be transformed into a creative space by the addition of some touch screen terminals and a laser cutter. Disparate people who have nothing in common but their downtime, can explore design and making. This unanticipated interaction can bring a meaningful experience to someone’s life. The community itself is a temporary one. Transient in nature, these communities will probably not outlive the physical event. Tangible products could be carried home however (or sent by mail) to act as mementos to the interaction with your brand. This can be a revenue generating activity in addition to being a marketing or branding one. By focusing on people with downtime or who are looking to ‘chill’ away from a central event (quiet area at a club or a lounge area at a festival) you alleviate boredom and bring a person into a wholly unexpected creative process. This process could be a collective one, where people all of a sudden find themselves collectively creating with others whom they have never met. In terms of costs they are comparable to a sampling or other interactive event. The difference is, that people are given a sense of community while their creativity is being enabled.
Ambassadors and creatives
Collectively a good combination of community building and online design tools can unleash a lot of creativity around your brand. By binding people with your mass customization tooling you can enter into a relationship with them and their peers. If the experience, the interaction and the relationships are all strong you will not be someone selling them something but rather will be a partner. By being a partner you can develop a fundamentally deeper relationship with your customers. If this overall experience and the ensuing product is deemed to be a good one by the customer then they will recommend you. Many companies are thinking about word of mouth, NPS and recommendations nowadays. People are continually being prompted to share on social media or asked if they would recommend a brand to friends. A lot of firms however are turning to borderline disingenuous methods to accomplish this. Meanwhile new generations such as millenials and younger; are hooked consistently on one thing: authenticity. Authenticity and originality is what they appreciate and care about. Authentic and new content is what they like to share. Rather than put a few bearded tattooed people in your commercials or use ‘younger language’ it would be better if brands aspired to be more authentic. Artisanal language and home brew esthetics abound, but they are mostly hipsterwash. These sorts of campaigns are unlikely to have any real impact on brands’ bottom lines. Worse still, they also may alienate older audiences. At the same time authenticity is so important to younger generations, that they have developed strong skills to detect inauthentic expressions.
With mass customization and digital manufacturing, companies can, be authentic however. By enabling customization and design by the individual and tieing that individual to a community, authentic expressions can emerge from your platform. The consumer will feel empowered and enjoy creating. Meanwhile they are interacting with others ‘like them’ and learning as a part of a community. If this entire experience is an enjoyable one they will happily share their own and other’s creative expressions. Rather than prompt people to share or spread the word, mass customization coupled with digital manufacturing and communities will give them meaningful things that they will want to share. By letting them develop unique authentic items collectively, your customers will transform themselves into ambassadors for your brand.
At Twikit we’ve successfully created and launched design communities coupled with digital manufacturing and mass customization before. We’d love to speak with you to see if that could add value to your business. Contact us today for unique, hand made artisanal local authentic advice on mass customization.