Lessons in Community Engagement

August 18, 2014

This summer, the Significance Labs fellows took on the challenge of designing products for low-income New Yorkers. To do this successfully, we knew we needed to engage in meaningful, in-depth conversations to get to know our audience. We also needed to establish a relationship of trust in order to get honest feedback throughout development. The depth of our community engagement drove the design of five incredible products, and positive feedback from participants and fellows alike.

We’d like to share some valuable lessons we learned along the way:

Convey a sense of legitimacy

We needed to recruit participants, but as a new organization, we knew that gaining people’s trust could be difficult. Within each of our three recruitment strategies, we sought ways to address potential concerns. For those who came to us through online ads, we linked to a polished website that would answer obvious questions. When doing direct outreach on the streets, we equipped our team with attractive print materials, rehearsed pitches, and smiles. When recruiting through our network of NYC nonprofits, we gave our partners clear, concise language to share with interested clients.

Reach people where they are

Our teams traversed the city, from the Bronx to eastern Brooklyn. We wanted to make each person we spoke with as comfortable as possible, so we offered to meet with them in their homes or at a favorite neighborhood spot. The hope was that having conversations in a familiar place would foster greater openness and sharing. What transpired was incredible generosity in the form of personal stories about people’s deeply held hopes, fears, and frustrations, as well as spirited debates around the best film in the Rocky saga (by consensus, Rocky IV).

Explain what you’re doing, and why

We view participants as experts: they share the processes of their daily life with our fellows. In turn, we feel a responsibility to share our processes with participants. “User research” is a nebulous term that means little to people outside of the design world. Translating tech and design processes into layman’s terms remains an ongoing focus for our team. We coached our fellows on ways to explain what they are doing, and what participants can expect as a result of their conversations.

How did we do this? The fellows explained that they were in the business of building meaningful new technology. They weren’t going to build a new selfie app or sushi finder. Instead they wanted to create something for a working mom or a community college student or a recent immigrant, etc. We would then encourage our fellows to talk about how when you are building a new product, you look for patterns of frustrations among potential users. Then you build something that addresses commonly-found frustrations. Getting to know someone via a casual, friendly conversation is a great way to understand the small pain points in their life.

Show your results

We tried to be as explicit as possible through the ideation and building phases of the fellowship, but explanations only go so far. It’s hard to fully conceptualize the design process until you hold the final product in your hand. We invited many participants to take part in user testing sessions for the first versions of our fellows’ apps. Here they got to see how some of the ideas were beginning to take shape. Also, all participants who were actively involved over the summer were invited to our product showcase, where they could see live demos of the products. It is still difficult to explain succinctly how a conversation over coffee in May led to an online tool for the unbanked in August, and this is something we as a team will continue to improve upon. However, we have tried our best to not just explain, but show how participant input has shaped each stage of the design process.

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