The rules of engagement

15/07/2011

This is an article I wrote for the recent Digital Review featured in the media and marketing industry publication, The Drum; in it I hope to encourage thinking about how web or mobile applications are most likely to achieve success when designed and built to engage with people:

We're all in the engagement business - you, me, everyone. Anyone in marketing, anyone managing a business relationship, anyone in sales, anyone in management, has to be able to engage with people in a way that works for all involved. When you think about it like that, engagement is as old as the hills. But it's also new - especially within the digital side of business, where opportunities to engage flourish where they weren't able to before.

If you're not designing for engagement, you're probably leaving money on the table. E-commerce, branding websites, social media, even intranets and online business applications - pretty much everything businesses do online is about engaging with people. Delivering all this stuff is about delivering either software or content or both - but thinking about digital business in only functional terms is just where lots of companies go wrong. We should know - we do web software for a living, so we see people make this mistake all the time. Instead, people should be building engagement systems, not just websites.

But what do we actually mean by "engagement"?

We sometimes use the following phrase to sum it up: "Engagement is the process of turning someone who wants something to be done into someone who is doing something about it."

This can be quite ‘shallow’ - for example getting someone to buy a product - or much ‘deeper’, say designing a service that allows owners of that product to communicate with each other and share their stories. Or it might not have anything to do with products at all. But we apply the same principles and the same empathy everywhere.

There are several components to engagement as we practise it:

Information

The data that tells a person what the current situation is and primes them for  undertaking what it is that they want to change. This information must be available in ways that make it easy to organise, analyse, digest and share, and, ideally, to gather new information and contextualise it, as engagement is a continuous, iterative journey and not a one time exercise.

Understanding

Information on its own is not enough but requires people to understand how they can act, especially if there are constraints on that action due to regulatory issues, financial or time limitations, or expressed objectives, goals, policies and processes.

Openness

Engagement at its best should be a conversion from passive consumption into active participation. To get the best results (and in many cases to get any results at all) the people we take on this journey must be not only willing to participate but keen to do so. This kind of conversion needs persuasion rather than instruction and requires open and honest communication.

Tools

We enable engagement by using software to mediate interactions. So choosing, designing and building the right tools to facilitate this process is hugely important. Any provision of tools will create an architecture in which some behaviours are enabled, but others are excluded, and so it’s always important to think about what people will not be able to do, and why, as well as what they will.

Responsiveness

The quickest way to stymie the process of engagement is to not react to the wishes of those being engaged - to not take on the changes that the process drives out. That is not to say that all changes will be sensible or will need to be implemented immediately. But whatever the outcome, quick, clear and open feedback is vital.

Iteration

Getting people to be engaged initially is only the first challenge, the second is keeping them engaged. It is easy to let an engagement go stale either through neglect or through bland, overly-regular communication. Added to which there is usually a natural peak of interest followed by a drop off in enthusiasm. Why this happens is a topic for a longer article, but suffice to say that sustaining encouragement, recognition and value in the engagement is vital. Fostering feedback cycles at different scales and frequencies is a good way of doing this.

Culture

In most cases, especially those where the engagement is most social and collaborative, there is a continual interaction between the culture generated by the host (expressed in copy, graphic design and the framing of information and interactions) and that generated by the participants in their interactions with each other. Being aware of this interaction, providing spaces for user-driven cultural expression and recognising it when it occurs are all important.

Recognition

Saying thank you for a person’s effort is important even if that effort is part of a ‘simple’ process like applying for a mortgage or submitting an article. Providing recognition mechanisms (even financial incentives) is a key component in gaining engagement as long as that recognition is commensurate and authentic. Some of these mechanisms will be visible to the rest of the community, some will be bestowed privately and some will be handed out by members of the community to each other. Designing the right mechanism in the right context is the important thing.

In essence, engagement is a perspective, a lens through which you can view a requirement, initiative, campaign or business application and see it in a different way - a way in which you are more likely to achieve successful adoption and are more likely to be able to draw out value that might otherwise be ignored.

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