Building Community at 1871

Briet Tornes
Mar 17, 2017 · 11 min read

As a designer at DESIGNATION, I received a client project from the world-renowned startup incubator, 1871. 1871 recently integrated all their digital member tools onto a single portal. This solution hoped to ease frustrations around utilizing tools previously hosted on multiple websites. Unfortunately, navigating the new portal was also proving to be challenging for it users.

Before our kick-off meeting, we talked to a few members. Our goal was to bring a bit of the member perspective with us to the kick off. Overall members were overwhelmed and confused and avoided using the new portal until absolutely necessary.

In the kick-off meeting, stakeholders echoed the pains of members. Though they believed the problem came from usability they also wondered if there were opportunities they were missing. In the end, stakeholders identified three measures of success for the redesign:

  • Could both new and long time members use it equally well?
  • Does it maximize the value of primary tools and resources?
  • Does it engage members all day, everyday?

Based on mypreliminary research, I did not doubt that the site had usability issues but would fixing them accomplish these goals?

Continuing to develop our understanding of the problem and the desires of stakeholders. I found that new and existing members needed to be able to keep up with changes in 1871 without needing to attend an orientation for each change. There was also a concern for a third user, 1871’s volunteer mentors. If the portal was too difficult to navigate, stakeholders feared losing this invaluable resource.

Needing to identify the true problems for users, we needed to talk to members. My goal was to be able to answer:

  • What does the 1871 experience look like to members?
  • What are members’ goals at 1871?
  • What 1871 resources are the most utilized?
  • What are the pain points on and off the portal?

We also tested the usability of four areas of the existing portal:

  • Booking rooms
  • Mentor Hours
  • Workshops and Events
  • Member directory

To gather answers, I conducted interviews and usability testing with users.

Members struggled to complete tasks in all four tested areas of the portal. The culprit was the organization and communication of information throughout the portal. I found that information was not absent but when users needed it they could not find it.

The struggle of communication overflowed from the portal into the daily work environment. Communication issues started on orientation day and went deep into day to day life. These issues affected the procedures and interactions of everyone working within 1871.

The front desk serves as the heart and soul of 1871. Their interactions play a large part in the member experience. Members constantly relied on the front desk to solve their problems. When the front desk staff could not solve a problem, they asked members to send an email to another staff member. Members saw the front desk staff as a positive part of their experience but also noted that they seemed overworked. Members voiced that they were often unable to answer their inquiries in a timely matter.

From our interviews, staff was as entangled in the problem just as much as they would need to be in the solution. In some cases, staff inconsistently communicated with members adding to the confusion. For instance, when referring to the portal in conversation, staff confused the portal with People Vine, the developer. I was able to trace this back to vocabulary used in the portal’s introductory email. This confusion of terminology made members question,

“What is People Vine and do I need it to use the portal?”

We concluded from our interviews that lots of blame was being spread around 1871. Staff blamed members for not following procedures and not attending or taking notes during orientation. Members preferred to blame themselves but still had no clear way to solve their problems.

Now that we had spoken with members and staff, the perspective we were missing was from mentors. I found that mentors want to give back to their communities and they see value in in-person interactions. Mentors are not always active members of 1871 and struggled to keep up with current process for holding Office Hours. They wondered:

  • Who books the meeting room?
  • How do I find my mentee?
  • Can I set up my own profile or edit my availability?

Mentors provide members with invaluable learning and networking opportunities but there were problems with the system.

  • Thoughtfully choosing a mentor took a lot of effort.
  • Members could not contact mentors before their meeting.
  • Neither members or mentors knew where to meet, who each other were, what each other looked like or if they needed to book a room. The front desk became a mentor/member matching service (but they don’t know everyone’s name or faces either).

Through it all, members described mentor Office Hours as an invaluable resource. It was one of the main reasons many members had chosen to come to 1871.

“Mentors are potential investors, potential clients or people who can provide clients; they can make things happen.”

Though staff feared the loss of their mentors, the mentors did not appear to be going anywhere. Though they did express quite a bit of confusion about pretty much every part of the process of being a mentor. They did not know how to control their profile or availability. They did not know who should book the meeting room or how to find their mentee. It was not often that they needed to contact their mentee before the meeting but welcomed their mentees to contact them. For members, the current booking system did not encourage bookings based on much more than first availability. Researching a mentor took members off portal and was often unsuccessful. Therefore, although members valued these meetings, whom they met with was almost always random.

The mentors and mentee meeting process was really difficult. Without being able to communicate before their 30 minute meeting and without clear expectations for location, valuable time was often lost.

But mentorship was just part of the equation that brought entrepreneurs to 1871. Majority of members stated that they came to 1871 for the community. A community of members, mentors, businesses and staff helped entrepreneurs network and grow to achieve their goals. Just as mentors and members could not communicate, members and businesses also could not connect or communicate on the portal as they would network in the real world. However, hadn’t they all come for the community 1871 provided?

Growing your business at 1871 means growing your business within a community who shares and supports your goal. The more connected and supported members are in their community the more likely they are to succeed. I set out to design a way that would increase and strengthen the connections between members of the 1871 community.

The current 1871 portal had two directories, one for businesses and one for staff. This did not provide members a way to connect to other members, but they were still using the directories for this purpose. They would pour through the directory digging through information to find ways to connect. This work-around had its own set of problems and the filter was the biggest. The filter featured over 50 different options divided into 5 large categories. Filter options that were too similar or repeated caused member distrust. Members turned to searching the directory manually instead. There had to be a better way.

From all our research, we identified our main takeaways from the mentor and community experience:

Unfortunately, it was not possible to solve all 1871’s communication problems. I used two different factors to narrow where to focus my efforts:

  • First, which resources were members using the most?
  • Second, where would I be able to provide members with the most meaningful value?

I found that the resources members most utilized were:

  • Room reservations
  • Office Hours
  • Each other

The room reservation system was member’s biggest complaint but for the most part, members were able to book rooms when needed. Therefore, I determined that our efforts would be better spent elsewhere.

Next, I used the Jobs To Be Done method to match member’s main reason for being a part of 1871 with the problem I chose to solve. I chose to create a design that would improve member and mentor connections and build a community of 1871 members both online and off.

Members need 1871 to provide community and mentorship to help businesses network and grow.

Next, we ideated multiple concepts which addressed our problem, scope and design principles.

Members were already critical of the portal’s current layout causing distraction. This prompted me to present my conceptual designs using Axure. Axure helped me apply consistent and standard visual treatment to my designs, keeping the focus on my concept.

Our prototypes diverged in:

  • Dashboard and Navigation
  • Office Hours
  • Business and Member Directories

Members projected an increase in portal use when testing out the new concepts. Though it was not enough to meet the all day everyday engagement our client was looking for, users still needed to have something to do on the portal that was daily. We heard about two things that members would need to engage in daily:

  • Daily alerts about disruptions or changes to the work space.
  • Direct communication with other members.

“I’m thinking there should be messaging capabilities. It would improve it even more if you can have conversations.” -Rachel

I also developed two different conceptual experiments I wanted to test in the physical space of 1871. These experiments not only address the needs of users but followed our design principle to make the virtual mirror the physical.

Coffee Corner was inspired by members looking for opportunities to connect and talk to each other. There was a desire to keep it casual with just enough structure to help take the edge off networking.

Meet your Mentor was inspired by the difficulty mentors and mentees had trying to find each other for their meeting. This concept provides consistent location to meet. Meeting at the “mentor couch” helps them find each other easily and allows the meeting to stay focused on its purpose, mentorship.

In conversation, there was warm reception to Coffee Corner. There were a handful of participants despite the lack of time to properly promote the event. Though members enjoyed the caffeine break, it was not enough to mark it an immediate success. Moving forward, I continued to hear user’s desires for more opportunities to have casual conversations with other members. I chose to document our findings to pass to our clients.


Meet your Mentor was overwhelmingly met with enthusiasm by members. Introduced in the concept test of my prototype (A), it was clear that members desired a structured system for meeting their mentor.

With our findings, we laid out the pages of our two concepts. We hand annotated where we would change and converge based on user feedback.


We needed the help of our users to complete parts of our information architecture. Our users helped us achieve this through three card sorts. These card sorts addressed the navigation, filter and a recently developed FAQ section. Once our information architecture was in place, we conducted usability testing. This measured how well users could navigate our solution. Finally, desirability testing helped measure member engagement. With this final feedback from users, we created our final solution.

Click here to view the prototype.

“Having a directory of everyone makes it easy to connect with the 1871 community. It is easier than LinkedIn.” -Vik

“I don’t know if the old one had all these features, but I would use this!” -Lauren

Our final prototype featured:

  • Streamlined navigation with only the information members needed.
  • Access to the 1871 Community where members could network in a way that mirrored real life.
  • A simplified, but enhanced, mentor booking experience.
  • A redesigned member dashboard encouraging member engagement and staff communication, including daily announcements regarding disruptions to member workspaces.
  • A FAQ section to help address day to day problems faced by both new and old members.

With the future in mind, I developed a product roadmap to help 1871 roll out their new Member Portal. They would need ways to gather the data and information needed for the new portal features. Finally, I provided conceptual screens of what a messaging system and message board might look like. These screens will serve as a starting point once 1871 is ready to move away from their off platform, third-party message board.

“We still use your research all the time!” -Deena

“I would like to see the messaging feature integrated.” -Kat

Three months after our hand off, the new 1871 Member Portal made its debut. Followed a few weeks later by The Buzz, embodying my concept, Coffee Corner. The Buzz provides a time and space for members to connect through casual conversation.