How can apps encourage citizen engagement?


5 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

People who are used to smartphones will have a natural affinity with the tech. For that reason, they are the perfect platform for building and engaging a community of citizens who want to find things out, share information, or engage with one another.

It sounds counter-intuitive. How can an app – something on your personal device which keeps your attention on that device, not the world around you – help to engage people? It’s a fair question, but digital communities are part of our everyday lives. Often the most powerful uses of these citizen-focused apps bring people together, both digitally and physically.

So which apps do we like, and how do we approach the issue of citizen engagement ourselves?

Success stories

BathHacked collects all sorts of data. Electoral registrations. Accessibility for wheelchair users. House prices. Energy usage in public buildings like schools. The collected data is available for use by anyone who’s a member of BathHacked. Volunteer groups, local government, researchers, anyone with a data-driven Bath-based project in hand – including app developers.

Hush City users report on the luxury of quietness – and the prevalence of noise pollution. They evaluate the quietness of their favourite relaxing spots by uploading a short recording of the sound and a picture, and answering a questionnaire. The app then shares this data with other users who are looking for somewhere to relax.

OLIO, meanwhile, helps people and businesses with a surplus of food and other household items share it, providing a platform to co-ordinate exchanges, arrange pick-ups and so on. It’s very similar to Helpfulpeeps – which calls itself “a community where people share their time, skills and knowledge to help each other for free.” This is possibly the simplest kind of citizen engagement – putting people who need help in touch with people who want to help.

Note that all these apps offer something to the user – they serve the user’s interests somehow. It’s not all about what the developer wants. This is absolutely vital if you want to create an app that people will actually have a reason to use – as our team’s collected insights will tell you.

How we do it

Over the years, the Calvium team has designed and developed a range of apps that enable people to engage with their environment. Here are a few things we consider essential for any team aiming to design a successful app for citizen engagement.

Remember what the project is about. It’s about citizen engagement, not app technology or user interface design. As such, it’s important to create an experience with which people would wish to engage. The tech and UI is an enabler. Let the experience you are seeking to foster drive your design decisions. Don’t fall into the easy trap of letting a personal whim, new tech gizmo or UI trend, guide your design decisions.

Research. Give yourself the best chance of creating a great app for citizen engagement. Know what has gone before, what has worked or hasn’t, and why. This information shouldn’t drive your design, but it should influence it, and provide a basis for vetting your decisions. You’ll feel so much more confident in the whole project if you have laid your foundations through research.

Know your audience. Your project is about encouraging people to interact actively in some way with their environment, through their smartphone. Why would they want to? Make sure what you’re offering is of interest to your target audience. What is their ‘reward’ for using your app?

Choose the right platform for the experience. Don’t assume that a native application is the way to go, or that it just has to be a web-based solution – find out which technical solution will provide your users with the best experience. We’ve written about this in detail recently….

Harness user insight. Despite ‘seek user feedback’ being a mantra of design, in practice – often due to the pace of development – it doesn’t happen. It should. Do it. It’s invaluable. It tells you what they want, and it forces you to challenge your own choices.

Support and maintenance of your app once it’s live is part and parcel of the design. Put in place the processes that ensure your great app experience continues to be great for the duration of the project. This is all about fluidity too – relying on user insight, and allowing the scope to add new elements or change existing functionality to make the app even better over time.

Market the app experience. You can design a great app, but if the target audience doesn’t know it’s out there ready to be used, then it won’t be used. Helpfulpeeps’ marketing is a good example of how to do this and keep it user-focused – it promotes engagement with the app through the real life stories of the users. If the app’s community driven, the promotion should be community-focused too.

What’s the bottom line? Apps are perfectly placed to provide people with multiple ways to engage with their environment and society. To provide the best experience for citizens, design teams should look at what’s been done before, what’s been tested, what works and what doesn’t. Draw inspiration, challenge and check yourself – and always remember to enjoy the creative adventure!

Ready? Great. Let’s talk about your project.


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