04 Apr

Six Principles of Designing for Engagement

Designing for local engagement within the context of net locality is a multi-faceted process.  Building systems of interaction that are capable of sustaining a user’s attention both to other users and the locality of use, requires the consideration of a wide array of features and modes of participation.  The following six design considerations provide a framework for transforming participation and maximizing engagement.

1) What’s the Reason for Engagement? Too often, community-oriented tools are built with the assumption that simply because they exist people will use them.  In fact, there is nothing inherently usable about a tool – a hammer is good at pressing nails into a hard surface, but not ideal for opening cans.  Good tools are built to address recognizable problems.  The nail is a recognizable problem; the can is a problem forced to fit the availability of a tool. In the case of a community, bad roads and rising crime are recognizable problems; lack of local bloggers is a problem oriented around a tool.  A good tool should reorient its user to the nature of a problem, but it should not create it.

It is one thing for a problem to exist, it is quite another for a group of people to be able to articulate the existence of that problem.  It is therefore imperative that along with the introduction of a tool, there is a clear articulation of the problem to which that tool will be applied and a general consensus on the importance of that problem.

2) Who’s Listening? A community’s engagement with solving a problem is dependent upon who is paying attention to the community’s efforts.  When designing for engagement, it is important to consider not only the internal machinations of community building, but the external considerations that ultimately play a greater role in defining the identity and task of the community. A group of people in a neighborhood can talk all they want about their opposition to a new zoning ordinance, but it is in the externalization of that conversation through a blog, public forum, or some other means, that defines the identity and the goals of the community. 

It is important to make explicit the internal and external features of a community’s participation.  A sense of community stems from personal connections and identification with shared problems; but the sustainability of that identification is dependent upon their being an audience.  Designing engagement, therefore, is partly a matter of designing the context whereby a community can find and approach an audience.

3) People Comprise Locations; Locations Don’t Comprise People. In designing for geographical locations, designers tend to approach the problem as a geographical one.  What are the concerns in New York, Paris, or Boise?  While this is a good place to begin, the location often supersedes the people that comprise the location.  There are people in New York, Paris and Boise that, in addition to the geographic specificity of those places, define the locality’s meaning.  The challenge for designing engagement is articulating the connection between a geographic space and the people that participate in its definition. How can a user of a local social software platform, for instance, feel as though their participation matters in the larger context of defining a place? Digital tools are quite good at aggregating user data into something that can reflect the general make-up of a located community.  But engagement requires that in addition to making a user aware of aggregated data, they are perpetually aware of the individual actions that comprise aggregation.  In some respects, this is standard protocol for social software – user data makes the network more usable, but mutual sharing between identifiable individuals makes the network meaningful.

4) Design for the Community you want, not the community you know.  When employing ICTs in any local design problem, there is a component of aspirational thinking.  There is a sense, that goes along with digital technology, that the solutions generated through the intervention will be bigger, better and more sustainable.  This assumption is rife with ideological implications that new technology is associated with progress and even progressivism. These can indeed be dangerous assumptions.  But, the reaction to the possibilities of these assumptions can be equally as dangerous.  To not employ new technologies for fear of bending to these ideological assumptions is equally detrimental.  Simply put, the tool should fit the problem.   And new technologies are both potentially efficient means of doing so and productive means of understanding the scope of the problem. For example, a hammer provides the solution to pressing nails into a hard service; an electric hammer provides the means of doing so on a much larger scale.  The electric hammer transforms the problem without necessarily erasing the original context of the problem.

As such, when designing for engagement, it is important to understand how the tool transforms the reach of engagement.  Digital networks can reach large amounts of people in a distributed fashion.  In some cases, the quality of engagement is contingent on reducing the numbers of those engaged.  In other cases, the quality of engagement is premised on expansion.  Participating in a neighborhood meeting can be more meaningful if those participating feel as though their neighborhood is adequately represented.   Designers of engagement need to consider how scale will factor into user perceptions of their participation.  If the scale is too large, they might not feel connected to others involved in the process; if the scale is too small, they might feel that their participation is not meaningful enough for those listening.  Quantity is not in itself a positive attribute of a process; it is a variable that should be considered in design.

5) Face-to-face Matters.  It is a general misconception that when using ICTs for community engagement, there is no need for face-to-face connections.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that online networks are bolstered by offline networks, and vice versa [2,3].  Intermittent physical presence can have a noticeable affect on giving a community of users a sense of each other and the directionality of online communication.  It can provide a useful visualization of an online network and a human face to many-to-many correspondence.  This can work in two ways: as an introductory framework for online communication; or as an anticipatory framework for online communication.  If people meet face-to-face before they engage online, they can better understand to whom they are communicating; if people know they are going to meet face-to-face after they communicate online, it can serve as motivation for productive and meaningful exchanges.

As a design consideration for local engagement, face-to-face meetings can be quite effective for motivating sustained attention to an online community.  These face-to-face encounters can be used as periodic reminders of the physical context of online communication or can occur only once.  In any case, good design should not just arrange for these meetings to happen, but give the design of these meetings equal and complimentary consideration. 

6) Design for Distraction. Engagement does not imply undivided attention.  When people are engaged in a community process, they are doing multiple other things simultaneously.  They have families, social lives, jobs, and other interests.  To engage them is not to have them sacrifice their commitment to any or all of these things.  It is to have them direct a limited amount of their attention to a particular matter. Designing for engagement is designing for distraction.  Engagement implies sustained attention, but it does not imply absolute attention.  Attention is spread out across time, not just across space.  The ideal user is a multi-tasker, switching from one thing to another with ease. In this regard, civic engagement implies the ability to take from multiple contexts and apply towards a specific matter when nudged by a well-designed system to do so.  With the civil uprisings in the Middle East dominating the media discourse about technologies and local engagement, it is easy to assume that successful media engagement must lead to social revolution.  In fact, in a much more prosaic fashion, civic engagement simply means being aware of civic processes and their corresponding communities and contributing some level of care to decisions made about them.

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