Think Like a User to Boost Online Engagement

Think Like a User to Boost Online Engagement

by Marlena Medford, Director of Government Outreach and Communications, Peak Democracy

In today’s age of information overload, time is precious and attention spans are fleeting. If you’re asking busy people to give you online feedback about a government project—rather than watch this week’s viral video—that can be a tall order.

Thankfully, there is a recipe for success when it comes to online public engagement. It can best be summed up in a few critical - but not always so obvious - strategies.

Essentially, it’s about creating a compelling online experience for the public. This is often where government agencies misstep. Most understand why they need to do online public outreach, but far fewer understand how to do it well.

This begins with thinking like an online user: the everyday people on-the-go who you are trying to engage. The following best practices illustrate how seeing online engagement from the user’s perspective can deliver big benefits for government.

Sweat the small stuff.

When it comes to creating an engaging online experience, paying attention to detail pays off. This starts with the introductory content. People should know within the first few seconds

  • what you’re asking them to do
  • why it matters, and
  • what will be done with their input

If you want to hook someone’s attention online, do it quickly and in plain terms—especially when you’re dealing with government issues.

Once you’ve captured someone’s attention online, you likely won’t have it for long. That’s why it’s important to design an exercise that moves users along swiftly and efficiently. This can often come down to small details, such as how questions are configured.

Case in point: The City of Lawrence, Kansas, asked the public to give input on the budget last yearand again this year. Both times, the exercises were basically identical—except this year, the City condensed a long series of questions into a matrix. That way, people could quickly scan the information to provide input faster, and in a visually more interesting manner:


The change seems simple, and it is. Yet it had a tremendous impact on participation. Last year’s effort received 45 responses, and this year’s effort garnered 332 responses—a staggering eight times higher.  City of Lawrence Communications Manager, Megan Gilliland, credits the big boost to condensing the form so that viewers did not get overwhelmed.

That’s an important takeaway, because if people feel overwhelmed, they’ll probably just quit the exercise. Remember, you have a small window of opportunity once you capture someone’s attention online, and designing with the user-experience in mind will help you make the most of that opportunity.

Try something new.

Variety is the spice of life, even online. People can only take so many online surveys before they’re burned-out. That’s why it’s important to add some variety to your online engagements, including exercises such as interactive mapping or participatory budgeting.

Also, look for opportunities to put a creative spin on online activities. The City of Brentwood, California, recently proved that this can have big benefits. Staff there wanted to engage the public in a conversation about how fire and emergency response times could be improved—but, they realized that most of the community wasn’t even aware that local response times were lagging. It was clear that education needed to be at the center of their online outreach.

This presented an opportunity for innovation.  An online questionnaire created that collects input while also actively educating people along the way.

The fresh spin is simple, yet effective: After residents answer a question, they are presented with a bit of educational information. In light of this new information, they’re invited to reconsider their answer.

The results clearly show public education happening in real time. For example, look at this sequence that follows. This is how people initially answered one of the questions based on their conventional knowledge:


After that, people see an information box. It says that according to national standards, there should be 15 firefighters on scene—but locally, there are only 9 firefighters on duty at any given time. This is where the public education happens. 

Once people had a chance to digest this new information, look at how their responses changed:

The results show that after residents learned that their local response levels are below the national standards, they reacted. In fact, there was a remarkable 42.7% jump on the option that would bring response levels up to national standards.

City of Brentwood Senior Analyst, Kwame Reed says he’s enthused by these online statistics.

“I am thrilled that people are actually changing their answers because it shows people are putting thought into this effort,” he says. “The most valuable lesson I have seen in this process is the fact that people are changing their perception of the fire district based on facts.  In this digital age of blogs and their ability to distort reality, it is refreshing to see people still appreciate facts.”

This is indeed true—and the way you present those facts online can often impact how much they resonate with a community. By offering something interactive, engaging and ultimately more memorable, you’ll see better end results.

Close the loop.

The online experience doesn’t end when people leave your public engagement portal. It ends when you report back to them, telling them how their input influenced the decision.

This is perhaps one of the most critical yet overlooked steps toward building online engagement. The public needs to be reassured that their time was not wasted and their voices were heard, even if the outcome didn’t go as they hoped. Acknowledging people’s participation makes them more likely to engage again, and it’s an important part of creating a satisfying online experience.

The Village of Orland Park, Illinois, has proven this by being exceptionally responsive to online input from residents. Staff created The Grapevine, a standing online invitation for residents to ask about any hot topics and rumors they’ve heard.

Every time someone asks a question, staff responds promptly—often setting the record straight. For example, a new housing development is creating a buzz, as evidenced by this question from one resident:


Staff wastes no time responding with the facts:


Or, take this example from another resident:


Again, staff responds right away:


There are dozens of these interactions on the Orland Park’s forum so far, and every time staff responds, it affirms that the public was heard. In essence, it closes the loop on a smaller scale—and all of that goes a long way toward building a satisfying online experience.

Orland Park Assistant Village Manager Joe LaMargo says that positive online experience is having good ripple effects offline, too.

“We cannot better our village without the help and participation of our wonderful residents and The Grapevine is making us stronger in this endeavor,” Joe explains. “We see residents candidly sharing their concerns and asking honest questions. We are pleased that residents feel comfortable using this online forum to bring important issues to light.”

That sentiment speaks to the value of creating a rewarding online experience for the public. Naturally, if a person’s online interaction is positive, they’ll be comfortable returning again and again—which is a goal of online public outreach.

Whether it’s sweating the details, changing it up, or closing the loop, those are the kinds of online public engagement best practices that lead to compelling online experiences, satisfied citizens, and increased public trust in government.

About Open Town Hall by Peak Democracy

Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall is a cloud-based online civic engagement platform that augments and diversifies public participation in ways that also enable government leaders to increase public trust in government.  Founded in 2007, Peak Democracy has worked with hundreds of government agencies in the US, Canada and Australia. The company has launched nearly 3,000 forums, attracting more than 445,000 people—and it maintains a 91% satisfaction rating based on user-feedback. For more information on how Peak Democracy can substantially increase validated citizen response rates, create meaningful questionnaires for your community, as well as design powerful online engagement tools, please visit, email or call 866-535-8894.

View Full Site