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.

11 Sep

Community PlanIt

While it has been announced in a number of forums, I have not yet written about the Engagement Game Lab on this blog.  In August 2010, the Engagement Game Lab was born as a virtual research organization at Emerson College. The lab is a place to hone in on the production and research of local engagement games (LEGs); more directly, the work of the lab is to advance games that seek explicitly to foster local civic engagement and local community.  This includes the design of new games and the design of research methods that address how the experiential qualities of play correspond to the pragmatic concerns of local life.  We want to explore ways of evaluating the success of these games that go beyond the isolation of simple variables.  Does playing a game result in increased voter turnout?  I think that’s a silly question.  I would prefer to ask questions such as, does playing a game cause players to rethink how they approach their vote?  Games do not prompt new behaviors, in most cases.  They can, however, provide a new lens through which to view familiar actions.  In the case of LEGs, they can provide a new lens through which to view one’s neighborhood and the social and political structures therein.

Our current game that we are designing with support from the Technology for Engagement Initiative at the Knight Foundation is called Community PlanIt.

Community PlanIt

Community PlanIt is a LEG that uses web, mobile phone and tablet interfaces to engage communities in local urban planning issues.  We are building a game platform so that it can be used in any locality.  The foundation of the game is a mission system that gets players exploring their own neighborhoods in order to share the local knowledge they possess. They compete and collaborate with neighbors to create and gather data that will then factor into an official planning process.  The planning meeting itself will be augmented by the game.  Players/participants will demonstrate their understanding of the neighborhood and the issues by giving a virtual character a tour of the neighborhood.  They will have to see the neighborhood through someone else’s shoes before they are able to make their personal recommendations.  The platform we are designing will allow for the customization of characters and missions to make the game maximally appropriate for the local context.

Community PlanIt can be used for any community planning process centered on physical space.  For instance, planning a town square, creating a transportation plan, identifying healthy lifestyles, or mapping sub cultures.  We are building the platform in partnership with four communities so that we can anticipate possible uses and cover the widest array of necessary features.

We are planning a 9 month development cycle and hope to have a prototype available by April 2011.  


29 Mar

Urban Communication Meeting

UCF Logo

So I’m down in DC this weekend, not for the cherry blossom festival (although the cherry blossoms are quite nice), but for a board meeting of the Urban Communications Foundation (UCF). We’re meeting today primarily to discuss the nature of the “communicative city.” The question is: what does it mean for a city to excel at communication? Digital infrastructure? Innovative use of public spaces? Safety? Neighborhood cohesiveness, perhaps? The question is important because the foundation is keen on creating another framework by which to judge urban health and prosperity, beyond the typical economic factors. Upon first blush, the concept is nebulous. But with further contemplation, it is seems perfectly logical to insert communication in amongst issues of design, flows, and markets. Of course, communication is implicit to those issues, but by making it explicit, it potentially foregrounds the humanness of each. Designs, flows and markets, while operating within their own internal logics, have an external logic of communication. There is a grammar and syntax to each.

So, what does this all mean? What can an organization with a little bit of money do to alter the course of urbanism? It can lobby local or federal governments to promote healthy communication in cities; it can fund innovative, interdisciplinary research, that can translate to policy white papers; it can promote a certain brand of scholarship through establishing a journal or web presence. It’s an interesting dilemma, really. There is lots of great work being done on issues of urban communication, urban semiotics, etc., but there is a great need for an umbrella organization to mobilize that intellectual work towards real changes in political or cultural priorities. There are some great organizations that currently exist: most notable is the Project for Public Places. They promote place-based growth in cities. Their Great Cities initiative is making great strides to work with actual communities in promoting a certain philosophy of development. The UCF is working towards similar ends; it’s really a matter of how it can compliment work already being done.

08 Jan

Mobile Places

I’ve had this question running through my head for some time now: what’s the connection between mobile computing (i.e. cell phones, PDAs, GPS, etc.) and local computing (neighborhood networking, digital civic forums, etc.)? On first blush, these are entirely separate phenomena. But, the more I consider it, the more I see them as parallel. What is truly significant about mobile computing is, in fact, not computing. What is peculiar about mobile computing, is that the computational device is far less important than what the device enables. The device enables people to move without having to carry along their data. As more and more of our data is stored on placeless networks (from Google to Facebook to Flickr), individuals are more free to move from place to place, with the capability of accessing their data wherever they happen to be. But how does that alter the concept of neighborhood networking? Well, if people no longer need to be tied to their data, we might be able to say the same about places. Places are becoming less dependent on spaces. Data about a place, the stuff that enables a meaningful engagement with space, is also stored in a placeless network and accessible from anywhere. This is not to suggest that space no longer matters; only that space is annotated by mobility. The discussions that take place in online forums, the commentary left by bloggers, the reviews of a local restaurant – all of this data, accessible to the individual from multiple locations, thickens engagement with place.

So I’m trying to say something like this: mobility, a cultural phenomenon enabled by new technologies, is transforming how we think about our cities and local places. While it is by no means pervasive, it suggests a promising model for local and community politics.

02 Nov

CCTV MediaMap

cctvCCTV is a community media center in Cambridge, MA that is doing some fascinating work in the integration of web media to the mission of community television. My grad student, Colin Rhinesmith, is doing his master’s thesis on this topic and has done some exemplary research thus far on the implications of this integration. While Colin is exploring this topic in extensive detail through analyzing the culture of access centers, I want to take a moment to reflect on just one aspect of CCTV’s efforts – what they call the mediamap. This is basically a Google Map that is placemarked with local video, including everything from a cyclist’s perspective to a promotional video for a new coffee shop. The result of this mediamap is a collection of local video annotated with GPS coordinates. In this context, the video works in service to the map. So what you end up with is really a map that is annotated with video. The primary object of engagement is the map – the video, like place names or boundaries, becomes the data that enhances the map. Why does this matter? Well, it would seem that this particular model of community television uses ‘television’ to qualify community, as opposed to using community to qualify television. This is a rather distinct shift from previous models of ‘community television’, where localism was premised on the practice of production primarily.

Is Mediamap a push or a pull technology? In other words, does it push the notion of localism out to the globe, or does it pull the globe into the local. Based on what I said above, it is a pull technology. It pulls the map into the video, it pulls television into the community. Localism, I would argue, has long been premised on push technologies. Self-identification happened within defined boundaries and then, if blessed with a media infrastructure, communities could push that identity outward. Networked media has introduced opportunities to reverse that paradigm. Localism can now be a result of external influences, re-contextualized and reformatted to fit local needs. This is both an exciting prospect and a threat to local cohesiveness. If the ability to pull is that strong, then there is little incentive to produce meaning from the directly proximate. Meaning can be pulled in from elsewhere to define local life. Consider, Facebook’s neighborhood widget as an example.

So, what is the perfect balance between push and pull technologies for localism? I don’t know the answer, but I’m advocating here that we should start asking the question.

26 Oct

Community Networks

In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).

His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.

Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:

“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).

So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.

01 Oct

Report on Localism

Information Society

Knowledge Politics just released a pamphlet on the topic of “Localism and the Information Society.” This collection of brief essays is motivated by the desire to see better integration of ICTs into neighborhoods and cities. As stated in the introduction:

“new communication tools actually have the ability to strengthen traditional, local relationships. This premise rests on what I believe to be a fundamental truth: that people care about their communities, they feel pride in their home town or village, they want to know the people around them. We may be approaching an era of extra-territoriality, but a community is much more than just a territory.”

This collection provides a wealth of references to local networking organizations in the UK and suggests that there is considerable momentum there on the level of local and regional governments to find positive solutions for the integration of technology into local life. The concept of community networking is distinct from the existing discourse on e-democracy, in that the goal is to orient people locally, not just to enroll them in a-spatial democratic organizations.

As Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone, membership in organizations is actually on the rise (i.e. web-based, interest driven communities), but membership in local groups (i.e. neighborhood associations, local clubs, etc.) is on the decline. So, participatory culture does not necessarily equal civic engagement and, as Putnam explains, does not necessarily lead to an increase in social capital. The intention of sites like UpMyStreet.com and Areyoulocal.co.uk are to provide local connections between people – conceived in direct response to the more generalized community groupings of Myspace, et. al. This kind of site is much more pervasive in the UK than it is in the United States. I’m not sure why. But I find this to be an intriguing question. Perhaps Putnam is correct in assuming that Americans are less socially engaged and therefore less interested in local engagement. Or perhaps it comes down to funding mechanisms that are less established in the United States.

In any case, there are questions that remain about these community networking sites. Do they succeed in creating more engaged citizens? Do they succeed in connecting people to location, or do they merely extend location out into the web? And what does the engaged citizen look like? Do they simply attend more neighborhood socials? Or do they organize other neighbors for political action? The big question for me is: what is the measure of success?

This report is a great place to start to answer some of these questions. One of the proposed solutions to the varied applications for community involvement is the Top-Level Domain (TLD) – a domain that is defined by cities and therefore more capable of organizing incentive for involvement. I’d like to explore this idea further: Do city sponsored domains command more participation than private domains?