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Improving Engagement by Understanding People

I’ve been studying and/or working in government and technology (“gov20) since 2007. My original interest in the field was around improving the efficiency and effectiveness of governance. The idea was that if we had better data and information about our work, engaged with the people our policies were designed to impact, and used the best technologies to manage the process, that we could create better government. I still carry this fundamental believe, and over the last few years have had the privilege of working on a variety of different technology and engagement projects with nonprofits and government institutions as well as studying how the best practices in the field from an academic perspective.

Much of the work to date has focused on pushing the use of technology to further engagement, improve the delivery of services and information, and help organizations meet their goals and missions.

In my experience, it is important to think about several layers when designing gov/tech/engagement projects:

I. Ecosystem

Although there is currently some question around the federal commitment to open government, we are pretty good at creating an ecosystem that encourages engagement. From the Open Government Directive released in 2009, to Mayors across America experimenting with and pushing engagement, to the newly formed Open Government Partnership, we have leadership at high levels expressing the importance of open governance. We also have a robust system of contractors, journalists, advocates, an citizens pushing us in the right direction.

II. Organizations

I think we also understand that it is critical to get the entire organization involved – its not just about the PR or tech shops; for engagement to work there have to be feedback loops that are integrated into the fabric of the organization.

III. Projects

Projects themselves have also become much better aligned with important goals, and are structured to create productive products.

IV. People

However, I still think that we can much improve our understanding of people – how they want to engage (i.e. in-person town halls, online, via mobile, or some combination thereof), what they actually need and expect from their interactions with organizations, and what will motivate them to participate in meaningful and sustained ways.

In developing engaging projects it is important to understand the deep motivations and interests of specific communities as well as the overriding motivations and interests that appear over and over again.

In fact, a lot of my client work focuses on understanding the specific groups with whom agencies want to engage with. The tools we use can range from surveys, individual interviews, focus groups, data analysis, and ethnography, and work really well in terms of understanding specific groups of people in a really deep way, ensuring that we are engaging equitably in ways that excited, motivates, and delights them.

Outside of my client work its super important to spend time thinking about and studying the research around engagement to ensure that my thinking is fresh around how to best captivate audiences.

Experience Hacking Salon (#exhack)

That’s why I started the Experience Hacking Salon.

ExHack Salon an opportunity for folks to get together for dinner once a month and discuss research findings in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, linguistics, ethnography, and sociology to design better and more engaging experiences for our communities, constituents, and customers. We know so much more than we ever have about what motivates, captivates, and excites people from a scientific perspective, and we should use that knowledge to design better experiences and interactions for the people we want to engage.

The goal of the salon is to dig into this research in a fun and productive way, figuring out how to apply this research in ways that makes our projects more impactful.

We get together with a small group of people once a month for discussions, and beer // wine // soda // pizza. The only requirement is to read the materials distributed ahead of time, and come ready to discuss them with the group. Social policy makers, product developers, technology strategists, politicians, business owners, consultants, and game designers are encouraged to join.

Anyone can sign-up, but sessions are limited to a small group to promote deep conversation. Our goal is to be inclusive, yet intimate.

Our first meetup focused on Game Design, and we had a fascinating discussion about the power of game mechanics, which was a perfect first topic because it reaches across so many diverse fields. We are narrowing in a bit for our next Salon (August 11th @ 7pm) when we focus on the concept of flow (http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html).

We’re organizing via meetup and hope to see you soon: http://www.meetup.com/experiencehacking/

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