Understanding Civic Engagement
It is our understanding that voting, volunteering and being a sustainable member within neighborhoods and communities are all ways that residents can give their voice back, find resources for aid, and lean on their community for help in trying times. By focusing on how residents currently participate civically, or if they even do so at all, we can begin to find what problems, if any, residents are experiencing in this area. To do so, my team and I collaborated with the City of Austin Innovation office with the goal of understanding how low income residents articulate their viewpoints towards government and uncover more inclusive ways to enable civic engagement and representation.
We conducted research by speaking with residents in their homes, and in places like libraries and community events that presented opportunities to participate civically. During these immersive activities we heard stories from people like Diego who said, “The government is a kings sport. You need to be wealthy to play.” and people like Ellen who had this to say about interacting with government officials, ”It’s irritating. [people parking on the street] That was one of my concerns I told the councilman but he was like oh yeah I’ll get to it but he never has.”
Our team found that residents were hesitant to articulate viewpoints to government, and more than that, they were fencing themselves off from participating civically all together. After speaking in-depth with participant we saw that most residents carried distrust towards, not only government, but other members of their community.
“This is the most convenient spot that the whites let the blacks hold for a while, until they wanted it back.” -Hancock, long time resident living in East Austin.
Absorbing Behavioral Patterns
We noticed patterns between the stories and observations gathered from our participants, and as we went into synthesis we began to see unfold how the seeds of distrust and barrier to participation were planted.
Diego, who said himself that resident’s needed to be wealthy to participated in government, didn’t actually believe that himself; as he was an activist and has lobbied for and against issues he cared about with much success. We asked ourselves how was it that this man, a person of low income for many years, managed to break these barriers that we were seeing. When it seemed at first that a resident’s lower economic status had a direct effect on whether they were able to engage.
Our team surmised that, in fact, it wasn’t resident’s lower economic status that was causing them to see no results from participation but the very idea that they perceived that because they were poor they wouldn’t have a voice. When, in fact, in Austin this is largely untrue because large majority of government funding goes to funding programs specifically created to perform outreach towards the lower income communities. However, these programs are struggling to perform outreach because lower income individuals have put up barriers to participating due to their previously stated negative perceptions.
The problem is that lower income residents don’t feel that participating civically is worth their effort because Austin does not value lower income residents as much as they do the wealthy residents. These negative perceptions towards government and community are damaging to the current system because they actually create self perpetuated realities due to lack of representation within the city. Put simply, because residents feel they don’t get equal representation they don’t participate; and because theydon’t participate they don’t get equal representation.
After understanding that we couldn’t shape the way residents think and behave right off we asked ourselves how might we change the ways in which members of the community participate so that negative feelings towards interacting within local civics shifts towards greater connection and sociability.
What are ways we can change the way people participate? How do we shift the negative feelings about civic engagement into become feelings of belonging and sociability?
Using Humor To Shift Perceptions
We asked ourselves are their organizations and designs already doing this? Are their things happening right now that we can replicate or gain insights from? Yes, and many use humor as a way to communicate political and communal messages in a positive manner.
A big thing we are seeing in the world is the emergence of political comedy. (The Daily Show; Last Week Tonight With John Oliver; The Colbert Report) Our culture is more open to the idea of mixing politics and comedy than ever before. The idea that we can shift how we view a certain topic by the form it’s communicate lead our team to ask: What participating civically and getting involved was fun? What if it was something people did because they enjoyed it and not because of necessity or moral obligation.
Comedy can have a powerful effect on how people absorb and evaluate contrary or new information, and nowadays is often used as a communication tool to inform and engage without adhering to the same negative perception of the current system of political and communal topics.
We began testing a concept that involved a weekly event at neighborhood bars consisting of information and entertainment based on civic affairs and political topics. The idea was that by gathering people in casual bar setting for a night of local political trivia, topical comedy, and civically centered conversation people could engage civically while having fun with neighbors and other members of the community. Our assumption was that by offering an alternative to typical forms of getting involved residents would be far more willing for discussions with their community and local officials.
Testing Interest In The Concept
It was our assumption that people would be interested in this concept as a possible solution, and would be willing to participate in pilot type event at some point. Our first experiment consisted of creating a website landing page with informative content about our concept and measuring how many email subscribers we could get within a seven day period. We surmised that in order for the experiment to be successful we needed to get greater than 25 email sign ups on our website landing page. Within twelve hours 25 people provided an email address and at the conclusion of the seven day period we had received over 77 subscriptions.
Testing Concept Format and Expectations
Before we went to prototyping the concept for a pilot test we still needed to understand what format people felt was best suited for this type of concept. A big thing that we found is people equated it towards daily show and last week tonight, both shows that mix humor and politics that don’t require much active participation from the users. So, our next step was to test to see if people would actually attend a live event. We looked for signals from user centered participatory activities that suggested our participants preferred the concept to come in the form of a live event.
In this experiment, we hoped to understand what people found attractive about Civic Night with the hopes of co-creating our pilot with them. We explored what they expect the night to feel like with regards to the place, the atmosphere, and the content. We wanted to know what residents hope to achieve by participating, what format they wanted it to be in, how much they wanted to participate, and what they hoped to gain through participating in this event.
We spoke with 27 people to test the format of the concept and their expectations based on four separate variations of the concept with scenario hero flows played out in each format. We focused the experiment on speaking to people who were middle or lower income.
We held an in-depth interview with one individual. She performed an act of placing thoughtful image stimuli into categories of topics to be covered, format, environment, style and personality, type of participation, sentiment, and what she hoped to achieve by participating. We then did ad hoc participatory interviews, wherein customers reviewed the formats (comedy show, salon, trivia, radio show) and were asked to think out loud as they went through the scenario flows.
The experiment indicated that a majority prefered a live show over other formats, and having it be delivered in a comedy show format with an interactive component that sparks community engagement. The only measure that wasn’t conclusive was the type of venue for this event. We inferred through behavioral patterns that most didn’t want it to be in a bar, but many felt they would expect it in a community center, brewery, or typical comedy venue.
Designing The Minimal Viable Product
We felt that after this last round of experiments our team had enough positive feedback to start prototyping a minimal viable product for testing. To do that we first needed to see if we could actually mix comedy and local civics and still have them be funny and effective at informing. Several comedians in the Austin area agreed to take part in co-creation sessions with us to see what was possible in their eyes as far as crafting this material. Through these sessions we concluded that crafting these jokes would take a great amount of time and effort on their part which meant more compensation. This lead our team to compromise our creative control for the pilot testing which in turn made us rethink what our minimal viable product could be.
The fact that we couldn’t pay comedians to write original material, combining local civics and humor, was something we didn’t account for. In order for our concept to work it needed to address the question, “how might we change the ways we participate so that perceptions towards articulating viewpoints and interacting within community shifts towards greater connection and sociability.”
We needed to find new ways in which we could have our event mix comedy and local civics without relying solely on our comedians.
After weeks of synthesis activities and ideations we used service design tools to map out a service blueprint and customer journey map to understand how to design for each touchpoint within the night. We prototyped interactive concepts like conversation cards, community games, informative stickers and artifacts, and we brought on outside civic organizations like The League of Women Voters and Open austin to provide actionable engagement activities (registering people to vote, signing up people to volunteer) during the event. The comedians were still apart of our pilot, however, we understood that by not having creative control over what their jokes were the success of our pilot needed to be on how the event itself mixed humor and civics.
Testing With People
We devise ways to test our pilot and each touch point within the event through a contextual survey, tally sheets for each booth to measure conversion rates from approaching the booth to actively engaging, a sparkline sheet, and qualitative contextual research done during the event with two seperate participants.
At this point we have yet to completely process our data from the pilot, however from an initial debrief our team has surmised that from our tally sheets from each civic booth that we were able to create actionable civic engagement from our participants.
Pulse of Austin: 24 Interactions; 14 Beta User Sign Up; 58% conversion
League of Women Voters: 12 interactions; 9 registered to vote – 75% conversion
Open Austin: 20 interactions: 10 signed up to volunteers – 50% conversion
A Functional Democracy: 15 interactions; 10 signed up for book – 67% conversion
Our team continues to process feedback from our pilot and going forward we plan on following up with participants to perform qualitative research so we can better improve the service design and experience of the event. We cannot, at this time, say whether this pilot test was a success or not. However, it is the feeling of our team that this concept has weight and merit given that we were able to bring over 90 people into this unique experience. It was purposefully not an ideal state. We feel that going forward we cannot iterate on many of the concepts and begin finding new ways to minimize the risk of creating original content for the comedians.
In conclusion, our shortcomings came from not thinking forward on crafting these original jokes, however we found new ways to combine local civics and humor that proved effective on a smaller scale. Next step are finding new ways to measure and test future events, designing better interactions for follow up testing, and ways to reduce time and effort of planning entire events.