Just like an in-person community, an online community is a place for people to share their expertise and their dedication to a common mission. When Extension Engine partnered with Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) to scale their in-person model, we realized that this nonprofit was connecting committed and knowledgeable stakeholders across the country. But they needed a communal space in which to learn from, encourage, and inspire one another.
To ensure this online environment would reflect their goals and perspectives, Extension Engine and APPR first had to establish what “community” meant to them.
Letting a community define itself
APPR’s mission is to achieve fair, just, and effective pretrial practices in the American justice system. They accomplish this by offering comprehensive research, support, and training to legal professionals throughout the United States. To scale their proven in-person model and help even more jurisdictions, APPR approached Extension Engine to plan and implement their digital transformation.
A discussion platform does not result in an online community. Everything from functionality to visual design has to drive engagement. I joined this project as a Product Manager: I collaborated with both Extension Engine’s development team and APPR during every stage of the development process. We worked together to understand user problems and business goals. Then, as a User Experience Designer, I created dynamic and interactive digital experiences using both traditional and emerging technologies. That process is always informed by close collaboration with Extension Engine’s partners.
Conversations with APPR’s leadership and practitioners in the field, interviews with their users, and plenty of testing enabled Extension Engine to plan and build an online environment that people wanted to be part of.
Before approaching design or technology, we understood that APPR’s community is a “community of practice.” They convene to solve challenges and exchange best practices to help constituents achieve better outcomes. They had already established relationships through in-person events and over email. But digital access could break down the often siloed feel of relying on email, empowering program participants to collaborate organically in a virtual workspace and learn from each other. Unlike an in-person community, the online community we built can fulfill these goals despite any geographic barriers or conflicting schedules.
Creating an online environment
Extension Engine has worked on more than 200 projects with partners from diverse fields. The needs and challenges vary, but we always return to a focus on the people served. Our proven digital framework aligns program design, learning design, and platform/technology design to meet our partners’ goals, help them build capacity, and deliver high engagement at scale.
APPR's online community
In terms of learner outcomes, APPR’s program and learning design both focus on acquiring real-world skills and knowledge that justice system professionals can implement in their professional roles. The online community was built around the same premise: It had to be a place for justice system professionals to exchange knowledge and experiences that would enhance their work. It also needed to enable experts to both start discussions about key topics and current issues and respond to questions in a dynamic virtual conversation.
On a more practical level, the platform was designed to be easy to use so that this busy and dedicated community can focus on supporting one another (not learning new technology). Users can read and respond to posts, save content, and receive project updates from their email without having to take the extra step to log in to the platform. Technology design choices also reflect APPR’s need to monitor activity and assess the health of their community through analytic tools. This allows APPR to continue to meet the community’s needs and build on progress.
As we hoped, this online space has taken on a life of its own. In less than a year, visitor traffic has more than doubled. Now, more than 350 justice system professionals from across the country can come together and learn from each other. A look at the 160 discussion posts and hundreds of replies shows a rich discourse as members engage one another to improve pretrial outcomes.
Read the APPR case study to learn more about their digital learning experience and online community.