Doing Effective Online Public Engagement: the User Experience

This selection comes from the upcoming book, Online Public Engagement, due out in 2016 from Routledge Press.  You can learn more about the Wise Economy Workshop’s strategy for doing more effective public engagement — whether online or in real life — in Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come).  

the user experience

Of course, a sound technical underpinning that enables a poor user experience will hardly meet the intentions of any legitimate online public engagement initiative.  For an online public engagement strategy to meet its objectives, the process has to not only create an appropriate public participation effort, but it must avoid creating any unnecessary barriers to participation.  A few common risks to effective public engagement include the following:

Mobile access.  As discussed in a previous chapter, use of smart phones and tablets to access online public engagement sites (as well as pretty much every other kind of internet content) continues to grow at a prodigious pace, to the point where public participation managers in many communities should probably assume that the majority of participants may be accessing the engagement activities through mobile devices.  At this point, this claim appears as likely to be true of impoverished neighborhoods as wealthy ones, and as common in rural areas as urban.  In fact, in locations where “digital divide” issues exist in terms of access to standard computing tools and internet, mobile access may largely replace conventional computer-based internet.

Many online public engagement providers offer an interface that is designed for mobile devices – generally, the software senses whether the device accessing it is mobile and delivers the content within the mobile interface automatically.  In most cases, the mobile user can opt to change the configuration to the desktop site — an option that may be necessary if the mobile site leaves off functions that the user needs, but an alternative that usually results in a difficult-to-use, hard to read or otherwise unsatisfactory user experience.

Mobile interface design appears to present a two-edged sword: although web-based pages may prove hard to read or navigate, or load poorly onto a mobile device, the limits of mobile device memory and screen size often lead mobile interface developers to leave off some functionalities.  In certain cases, such as a simple survey or an app that asks for limited text entry, the functions that are not included in the mobile version may not be missed by the user.  But if participants are being provided with complex information, or asked to give long text responses, or being provided with multiple options and functions, a mobile interface that different substantially from the desktop site can not only create frustration, but it can imply that mobile users are not of equal value as desktop users.  Since there may be an age, race, economic or other divide between desktop and mobile users, this can be particularly problematic.

Narrative vs. visual participation methods.  Conventional, in-person public participation primarily (although not exclusively) relies on two communication methods: public speaking, and written commentary.  As we have discussed previously, online public participation methods have the potential to overcome many of the barriers that these methods present to several segments of the population, from those who are not fluent in the dominant language to those who are afraid of public speaking.

However, many online public engagement methods still over-rely on written commentary.  Interfaces that require written comments, especially those set up to prefer longer-form responses (such as by providing an paragraph-length block for the user to type in) may have the unintended impact of discouraging participation.  For many participants, the prospect of writing a paragraph seems intimidating or unpleasant, or the participant’s use of a mobile device may make a lengthy response physically difficult.  This can also be the case for elderly or disabled populations, and even persons who know how to write a paragraph may find the prospect so undesirable that they avoid doing it, particularly if they fear being embarrassed.

Online public participation interfaces have the ability to enable a wide variety of public engagement methods, ranging from photo-based surveys to budgeting simulations that require no typed commentary at all.  With relatively little technological development, it should be feasible to develop public engagement strategies that fully capitalize on mobile devices’ ability to use touch screens, record audio and video responses, provide feedback through photographs, etc.

Accessibility.  As we discussed in another chapter, online public engagement methods can be more accessible for a wide variety of community residents than in-person engagement, but a poorly – designed site can also create barriers to engagement. To avoid unintentionally creating such barriers, the client should make sure that the following are addressed:

  • All web sites, apps and platforms should be designed according to the  Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium.  This standard makes certain that persons using audial access (for example, persons with visual impairments) do not miss elements of the site that rely on visual features, such as photographs, graphics or videos. It does this by embedding a text summary in any items that are visual in nature and managing how those are presented so that they do not disrupt the main content.
  • Similarly, any video or audio content should be accompanied by a text summary for non-hearing users.
  • While Google Translate and similar services can provide a roughly intelligible automatic translation of a site’s  content, the translation can often be garbled and difficult to sort out.  If you expect to have a number of users who are speakers of the same language, or if participants may come from a language group that is not clearly translated by one of the standard automatic translators, you may find it beneficial to recruit guidance as to the best way to faciltiate the population’s online engagement from members of the community.


Online identity.  One of the overriding current challenges with online commentary of any type is the issue of anonymity, which is frequently implicated in confrontational exchanges, trolling and other unconstructive commenter behavior.  As recent studies have begun to indicate, the public anonymity provided by many comment platforms (where one may  use a pseudonym and an avatar to hide one’s true identity) can lead some  persons to express statements, insults or threats that they would not voice if their true identity were known.  Not only can trolling be insulting, hurtful, frightening and threatening to the participants, but it can also destroy the potential for constructive exchange of ideas– and chase people seeking a constructive experience away from the site.

Although these issues would seem to indicate that online public engagement platforms should not permit anonymous participation (and some do not, although most of those do not attempt to verify the identity that a participant provides), it should be noted that the option to remain anonymous can be crucial to some people’s participation.  If a participant feels that they must voice a concern that may be unpopular, or they fear retribution from an elected official (or employer, or landlord, or parent), or if for any other reason they feel that they cannot speak freely under their own name, then not providing an anonymous option may stymie their participation – and prevent their potentially valuable insights from coming to light.

As a means of balancing these two concerns, some sites require an internal sign-in that identifies the participant’s true identity but allows that to be shielded from the public site.  While this approach may prove satisfactory, it should be noted that recent internet history is littered with sites that promised to keep sensitive data private, but were later compromised.  At this point, it is not clear whether such exposures will lead the public to view data privacy breaches as a fact of life, or as an issue so threatening as to lead people to place additional protections on their online identity.  Since most types of public participation do not represent urgent and immediate needs, it may be reasonable to expect that participants who fear making their identities public may be more likely to resist online public participation when they do not feel confident in their ability to remain anonymous.

Of course, one way to address the impacts of bad behavior while also permitting anonymous or pseudonym-based participation is to employ consistent moderation, which will be discussed in the next chapter.

Security:  As noted previously, online public engagement apps and platforms are the creatures of private for-profit businesses and nonprofits, and they can range in technical sophistication from very robust to well-intentioned but under-capitalized.  As any casual computer or mobile device user knows, software of any type carries its own variety of risks, from introduction of worms or viruses onto a user’s device to enabling someone to steal private data.  Most online public engagement app or platform providers take these risks very seriously, and maintain the best available protections against hacking or other sources of trouble.  However, the safety and security of a web presence can never be assumed, and even something as innocuous as an expired SSL certificate can scare off participants.

Social media connections. As we discussed in a previous chapter, social media outlets generally do not work effectively as an online public engagement platform in themselves, despite their ubiquity.  However, it is this pervasiveness that gives social media a crucial role in online public engagement: it allows participants to help publicize the public engagement effort, drawing additional attention and participation to something that these people have already deemed important enough to them to spend time participating in themselves.  Most commercial public engagement platforms make it relatively easy for users to share questions, activities, and even their own comments across various social media platforms.  Since social media outlets rise and fall in popularity, these sharing functions must strike a reasonable balance between providing a sufficient range of options (a sharing function that only offers Facebook, for example, may discourage young adults, who have generally shifted to other platforms), and overwhelming the viewer with choices.  As the initiative’s adminstrator, you should also have the ability to share with your organization’s followers, an issue that we will discuss in the next chapter.


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