Review by Sonja Hyde-Moyer
What makes the site successful?
The simplicity of the layout and navigation of the site belies a powerful set of tools that were very well thought out. Instructables is about content and about community, and the layers of involvement move the user smoothly between being a user of the content to being a participant in the community.
The site has a strong and active community.
- Coming out of Squid Labs, a group that had a need to post its how-tos, Instructables already had a crowd of interested participants. The site also partnered with Make Magazine, which attracts many tinkerer-geeks of its own. Why does this matter? Rather thank seeking to build a community from scratch, it sought to provide a service for people who needed it and poised to use it.
- The most obvious way to be active in the Instructables community is to add your own how-to. But trying-out and commenting on activities, rating favorites, and participating in Forum discussions are other elements that contribute to a vibrant site.
- Most instructables are commented upon by the community at large, with some activities triggering lengthy discussions about how to improve or modify a step. Authors are usually open to feedback, and sometimes update their activity accordingly.
- The site’s administrators run small contests, which help drive excitement and contributions. The prizes are small, but useful. The current Homemade Gifts Contest will award the top entries a choice of, among others, a Cuisinart food processor, a Dremel tool kit, or a Singer sewing machine. The small prizes make the contests cheap and easy to run, and yet very appealing to members.
Layers of involvement ease the visitor from the status of learner, to commentator to instructable contributor.
- The site allows the user to start out by taking small steps in the community. It’s a way for Instructables to pave the way for users to feel like they belong enough to post their own how-tos, and thereby becoming fully realized participants. From your first visit, you are invited to post your own activity, but I expect most do not. By allowing you to personalize your profile, comment on activities and join groups, it allows you to become engaged through a lower commitment level. Once you have spent some time to Instructables, you are more likely to spend the time documenting your own project, and post the results. The multiple-steps in place are not linearly prescribed, but they can be a very successful ramp for new users to get in on the action.
- By allowing comments to appear directly on the activity page, and enabling a "Forums" section to discuss broader issues, the site demonstrates that it has as much interest in its members as it does in the activities themselves. The message is clear: You can belong to Instructables even if you haven’t (yet) posted your own project.
A number of Web 2.0 features are very successfully incorporated into the website:
- By rating activities, favorites are automatically stored in a user’s profile, and used to help filter and rate popularity of a given instructable. This means everyone benefits from individual ratings. Collaborative filtering has been in use on large sites like Amazon for years, and works well here.
- Using the Web 2.0 practice of "tagging" using with keywords makes it easier for users to find activities they like.
- By enabling community features such as "Groups" that users can join and to which they can contribute activities, the site still enables individual users to interact in smaller numbers, based on interest. A group is one the one hand an aggregation of activities that fall within a topic such as "Office Gadgets" or "Robotics", or, my favorite "Painfully Stupid". In fact, Groups are aggregates of users who share the same interests. By joining, you can become a less anonymous contributor, a bigger fish in a smaller pond. On a more "meta" level, this means an individual user doesn’t have to identify with Instructables as a whole, but can identify with a sub-set.
What elements and features might be more problematic for WDILers?
While there are terms of service and content guidelines that users must adhere to, there is no apparent voice of authority judging the content. The sense that users are part of a community of equals helps its success, but may not appeal to some Museums that want to maintain curatorial control over user contributions.
Instructables is not afraid to go to the edge in terms of what’s acceptable. Some of the activities fall under Groups called "illegal" and "most to very dangerous". Pushing the content envelope is not necessary for a site to be successful, but in a sense, allowing for some counter-culture is a sign that your community is authentically diverse. Some might frown on teaching lock-picking, but each organization can and must draw its own boundaries.
Google Ads run down the right hand side of Instructables in a way that makes them unobtrusive, but evident enough to be successful. In terms of sustainability, some educational sites may not want or need to replicate the ad-driven revenue-model.
Overall, Instructables both understands its members and is very good at attracting new ones. Considering this, one of the most striking aspect for me is that while 2500 activities is a good catalog, it’s not huge by internet standards.
On the other hand, scaling might be an issue. While many elements like groups, keywords, and ease of use, should in theory allow graceful growth, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Expansion is probably both desired and necessary for sustainability, and the question is whether more partnerships will be leveraged, or whether the site will continue to rely on word of mouth. Paced growth will be safe for performance, but maybe not for long term viability. Like most internet companies, Instructables likely must walk the tightrope of business-need and community-desires. I’d say they’re stacked for success.