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Building Bulb

Design for digital engagement

A panel discussion on designing engagement

When you’re designing a product to be used regularly, how do you balance your organisation’s need for engagement with the user need for simplicity and peace of mind? Bulb Labs hosted an event to explore this idea with guests from the design and energy sector.

It may seem obvious that when we’re designing consumer products in 2019 we should design for ‘positive engagement’. That means creating products that are so useful or enjoyable to use that people choose to use them again and again. But the growing trend in the past couple of years around ‘digital wellbeing’ is a reminder that ‘engagement’ isn’t always a positive experience. Digital products can become distracting or overwhelming.

Back in May, Bulb Labs hosted an event at Method's studio in London. We set out to explore these ideas with guests from the design and energy sectors. The result was a nuanced discussion that moved away from ‘quantities of engagement’ and into the qualities that engagement can or should have. We’re sharing the main points of the discussion here.

Design products that adapt to their users

James Steiner from Method spoke about their self initiated project, Nightingale. This explored the issues that arise when patients fail to take their medicine, known as ‘medical noncompliance’.

James Steiner from Method, explaining project Nightingale
James Steiner from Method, explains project Nightingale

Nightingale connected physical tokens that could detect movement, like a patient picking-up a pill bottle, to a chatbot that allowed patients to talk about their medication. They also built notifications that would remind patients to take their medicine on schedule.

Because the chatbot was connected to the physical tokens, it knew when a patient had taken their medicine. And when they had, it wouldn’t send the planned reminder. The chatbot could also remember when the medication was taken. So if the patient asked, it could advise them whether or not to skip a forgotten dose if another was due soon. James explained how Nightingale engaged users by adapting to their behaviour, instead of bombarding them with notifications.

Understand the time users have available

Eliq use smart meter data to help customers engage better with their energy usage. They believe that better engagement with energy leads to greater customer trust and understanding. But Will Ephraim, representing the company, was realistic about Eliq's role in their users' lives.

"We don't want customers thinking about energy more than they have to. The one thing they can't get any more of is time."

So although the company's goal was greater engagement with energy, they could only push so hard. They found that gamification-style approaches failed to generate meaningful engagement over time. While game-like engagement techniques had immediate success, they didn't translate into lasting engagement.

Instead, Eliq found respectful notifications and genuine insight was more effective.

Design for different levels of engagement

Designer Harry Trimble and psychiatrist Emilios Lemoniatis looked at the more challenging end of keeping people engaged over time.

Harry, now a designer with the Red Cross, spoke about his work prototyping a new website and services for the National Problem Gambling Clinic. The clinic offered support to those in crisis. People coming to the clinic are in highly challenging situations, like a relationship breakdown, at risk of losing a job due to theft, or facing court cases for fraud.

And their problems came from systems like fixed-odds terminals or other gambling machines designed to manipulate their attention. Referencing Natasha Dow Schüll's book on gambling machine design Addiction By Design, Harry reminded us that addiction to these machines doesn’t happen by chance, it’s designed by someone, somewhere.

He explained that supporting the need to engage patients in a state of crisis without frightening them away, or losing their attention, was a huge challenge. The prototypes he worked on focused on absolute clarity: stating the goals of the clinic as clearly as possible up front, and removing any barriers to understanding. Potential patients needed to know they’d come to the right place for help. Harry also spoke about the clinic's need to prolong engagement during waiting periods. There's often a delay while people wait for treatment which means their attention can be lost. So before the 'greater' engagement of 'receiving treatment' can begin, a lower-level form of engagement needs to be maintained.

Emilios spoke of similar challenges. Patients waiting to speak to Gender Identity Disorder Services often face waiting times spanning several years. How do you engage with a patient during that period of time?

Emilios' case studies focused on the value of direct engagement. He reminded us of the NHS's statutory duty to consult patients on its services, and talked about Sherry Arnstein's ladder of citizen participation as a guiding principle.

He also showed the value of vulnerability in building trust with patients. Describing Problem Solving Booths, an experimental installation in Camden Town, he explained that we all have the potential to experience problems as well as offer solutions to help.

Understand what engagement looks like across a service

Everyone spoke about journeys to more meaningful engagement. What does that look like for an energy company like Bulb?

It's not just about offering more: more choice or more ways to interact with us. It's about offering clear choices that members are comfortable with. After all, not all engagement is positive. Many of the most vulnerable people in society are highly engaged with energy. It's a scarce resource that they evaluate every day. For some people, being able to engage less with energy day-to-day would be a positive outcome.

Our speakers and audience made it clear that designing for engagement involves understanding what meaningful engagement looks like across a service. And at Bulb, that's not just about designing for the present: we also have to consider our members' engagement with the future of energy, as the energy market, products and services evolve.

This post was written by Tom Armitage, a freelance technologist and former member of the Bulb Labs team.