Users Are People, Too: The Next Frontier of Digital Engagement

This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Planning and Technology Today from the American Planning Association's Technology Division.

When digital engagement first piqued the interest of civic agencies in the late 2000s, it was an aspirational but somewhat impractical notion. As technology capacity has skyrocketed over the last half-decade, online participation has become more feasible, but there is a danger of development for technology’s sake rather than for user benefit. While the possibilities may seem limitless, it is the end user experience that is the true measure of success for digital engagement. Citizen experience is enhanced through the use of intuitive imagery and design, integrated content and feedback, and by creating input opportunities during every project phase.

Highly visual economic development strategy in Pennsylvania 

Meaningful participation involves educating the community about relevant issues and opportunities to create context for their feedback. Planners must distill inherent complexities and help people understand how participation now could impact their quality of life in the long term. Visual elements like icons, infographics, and imagery draw users into the engagement experience and improve comprehension of technical details, decreasing the knowledge barrier required for meaningful participation and broadening the potential audience.

Integrated content and input opportunities in Fort Collins, CO

Advancements in technology now make it simple to ask for input beyond open ended questions like how can we make the city better? Consider, instead, an activity that consolidates complex information and presents alternatives in a clear, appealing format alongside targeted questions about the alternatives. The user is empowered to offer specific, actionable insights, transforming a potentially frustrating experience into one focused on problem- solving and bottom-up engagement.

It is easy to envision an early stage, digital engagement tool that asks big picture questions and places the responsibility for ongoing participation on the user. As projects progress to later stages involving alternative scenarios, design concepts, and trade-offs, feedback tools must modify engagement activities to reflect this increased complexity. Interactivity becomes paramount, helping users understand the impacts of their preferences through trial and error.

Digital participation tools hold immense potential for reaching and engaging broad audiences, but attention must be paid to the public experience of those tools to ensure constructive, meaningful interactions with government. By focusing on visual context, integrated content and feedback opportunities, and consistent calls to action throughout the project, digital engagement tools have the power to elevate user experience and improve the quality of civic interactions.