Listen, Listen, Listen

“If you build it, they will come” is a frequently quoted but also frequently misguided philosophy for the design and development of technology and software. This approach puts the developer or organization creating the product in front of the needs and desires of the community and intended users. As organizations look to increase engagement with communities they often think technology is the answer, and many move quickly to choosing a platform. In the nonprofit sector often, the result is wasted resources in an already resource-scarce environment, and, worse, the creation of a product that few use.

How do you avoid creating a tool that ends up in the internet graveyard of good intentions? My participatory research on the process of technology development by and for communities revealed a principle that I want to shout from the mountain tops: Voice matters. The community of intended users, the developers, and the leadership are all stakeholders that contribute to the success of the tool, and a listening strategy to account for these voices has to be incorporated from the beginning. We must listen first, and ask, what matters most to the community we want to use this tool? In doing so we account for their values and needs, clearing the way to make informed technology and design choices. A tool is more likely to be adopted if it reflects the values of and meets the needs of a user. Listening to and accounting for different stakeholder voices early on makes all the difference.

To illustrate why voice matters and what putting a community listening strategy into practice looks like, I’ll use my most recent engagement with the Agora Journalism Center and Journalism that Matters. The two organizations put on a conference, Experience Engagement, in October to bring together journalists, civic leaders, and citizens who share interests and a commitment to community engagement. The leadership behind the conference wanted to build a tool to support and sustain the community beyond the conference.

In advance of the conference, I spent time with the leadership and listened for their intentions and goals for the technology project. Initially, we discussed a simple resource tool that centered on the value of information exchange and creating a repository of resources that anyone could contribute to or search.

With the support of leadership, I used the conference to apply my listening methodology to explore community voices and surface their desires. The leadership understood that listening now would save time and energy, and perhaps resources later. If the needs of the community jived with the originally envisioned project, wonderful! Full steam ahead! But if potential users wanted something else (or maybe nothing at all) the leadership team wanted to know before devoting funds, time, and energy into the project.

During the conference, I actively sought out insights that would inform our understanding of the potential tool. I listened as community members talked to one another, and I sat down with several of them throughout the conference. I discovered that the value other stakeholders saw in a potential tool went far beyond the idea of information exchange. This community wanted to build a tool that yes, supported exchanging of information, but they also wanted a place to collaborate with one another and network, as well. The civic leaders and non-journalists especially voiced the desire for the creation of “safe” place where they could connect and share stories with one another and with journalists in order to spread knowledge and and share lessons learned. The community clearly wanted something more than the conference leadership’s initial idea of a resource repository. In fact, the repository idea was challenged by several attendees. “It’s going to take a lot for me to regularly check in on a website… and if it’s just a bunch of links, I’m not going to bother,” one told me.

Often the only “listening” strategy for technology development is put into practice during “user design” or usability stage—after resources have already been spent. As we saw with this project, incorporating the listening strategy much earlier in the process led to important insights that are continuing to shape and inform the development process. Just two weeks out of the conference, we are now actively examining what types of platforms already exist that can support the different values and functionalities sought by various stakeholders.

And listening doesn’t stop here. As is the case in this project and whenever I work with an organization to develop their technology and communication strategy, I make sure we incorporate elements of listening first and listening frequently throughout the process. If an organization is planning on building or implementing a community tool, make sure to start first with the community and not the tool. Time and again, it’s the best way to make sure the organization and the community it serves will both reap the rewards later.

Sheetal Agarwal
Dr. Sheetal Agarwal is Principal Communication and Community Strategist for her company, Kwilt Strategy. Using qualitative approaches she develops community insights to support organizations with their communication strategy and technology goals. She earned her doctorate in Communication at the University of Washington and studied the intersection of communities, communication, and technology. Prior to her academic life she was an award-winning investigative journalist for the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.