Does good design lead to better writing and deeper engagement?
That is the question YWP began pursuing in 2014 as it began a project funded by a family foundation to transform the design the organization's main youth-led site, youngwritersproject.org.
UPDATE 2018: The answer is yes. More at the bottom of this post.
WRITTEN IN 2014: The key to our work is what we've learned about youth engagement and community building on the web for the last seven years -- B.F. (before Facebook) to now. The process for our work will be to shift from our usual procedure for web development -- user study/brainstorming >> feature changes >> prototype >> testing >> design tweaks >> iterative changes -- to one led by design: visual design (make it beautiful) >> functional design >> (make it engage beautifully) >> coding (make it work beautifully) >> prototype >> user testing >> tweaks >> iterative launch.
We are first gathering, mostly on an individual basis, visual designers. We are asking them to dive into the site (affectionately referred to by users as "cute and clunky"), help us present us visual ideas and guide posts. Our next step will be to assemble a group of inspired site users to offer us ideas, critique our progress and offer us more ideas for improvement when we're "finished." (One is never finished with site design.) Then we'll look for some coding whizzes who can define the design and uses into something that looks and works in a way that it draws people in to explore, connect and create.
The aim for our work with youngwritersproject.org is to create a space with intuitive navigation and alluring construction that it promotes concentration and collaborative exchange, revision and creative risk taking. And, of course, that it helps youths become better writers against the backdrop of the YWP writing process: idea formation >> purpose >> draft >> feedback >> revision >> presentation to audience.
Digital technology has transformed the writing process. They typewriter was nice, but it was solitary; audience was secondary. Digital spaces allow a writer to gain information and focus on each step of the process. Writing becomes a living, breathing process. That is presuming that the digital experience is in a creative digital community that is respectful, articulate and, beautiful.
UPDATED in 2018: So here's what happened: In the fall of 2015 we launched the rebuilt site and then, in 2016, we launched a major upgrade. The kids have loved it. The tale is best told by the numbers: Our active users jumped to 4,000 from 1,500; the amount of time spent by ALL visitors to the site on each visit went from an average of slightly more than ONE minute and two page views to nearly FIVE minutes and six page views and when the active users log in, they average 13-15 minutes on the site per visit. Number of posts are way up. Number of comments are way up. They are more engaged.
BUT, while YWP likes to think that visual and functional design had a lot to do with it -- and it did -- we also know that several key things make the site a community and the community a success:
- A band of 50-60 kids serve as community leaders and actively comment, post and offer ideas for prompts and select work for highlighting and publication.
- A small group of kids puts out a weekly newsletter highlighting what content they like.
- We publish kids' work.
- We have a fleet of adult mentors who come on to provide feedback and support.
- The site remains, after 425,000+ posts and comments, civil and respective and supportive; to the kids it's an oasis from the meanness of school, of social media.