8 critical features of online deliberation software

“If you want to create a deliberative space, you can’t simply launch a website and hope for the best,” says Dr Crispin Butteriss in his recent webinar on Digital Deliberation. Establishing online deliberation also requires overcoming the challenges of process design.

Yet often, when facing online deliberative processes, the issue of process design is muddled up with software selection criteria. To navigate this murky interface, and following on from insights from Crispin’s webinar, below are eight selection criteria that are crucial when considering functionality of software for online deliberation.

In essence, successful online deliberation requires software that:

1. Supports a variety of online activities

“Online deliberation requires creating space for reflection,” says Crispin. To create space for deep reflection, you will need software that supports various activities (other than deliberation) throughout the process. This means you need more than just online forums. For example, quick polls, surveys, ideation, idea ranking, collaborative authoring, digital storytelling, possibly spatial ideation, to round out the deliberative process.

2. Activates multiple deliberative tools

One of critical things to creating online deliberation is “asking the community to slow down and respond more thoughtfully.” This gives richer information and provokes community to reflect on different opinions. Various “deliberation tools”, then, should also be activated in parallel and sequentially to allow participants to raise questions, generate ideas and test their arguments etc. in as many forms as possible; including non-text forms, for example, “likes” or “votes”.

3. Allows for asynchronous discussion

In his webinar, Crispin pointed to behaviours that can emerge in online deliberation space such as sequential monologue (for example, feedback box) or, alternately, rancorous debate. To encourage reflective dialogue, asynchronous discussion forums are far preferable to synchronous “chat rooms”. They permit more contemplative time and encourage deeper deliberation, rationality, civility and inclusiveness.

4. Enables easy use for all capabilities

“You can’t force people to engage but you can make it as easy as possible for engagement,” says Crispin. The platform user-experience should be straight-forward enough to be easily used by people who are inexperienced with internet technologies.

5. Provides an ability to identify facilitators

To create the openness essential to online deliberation, there is a need to avoid anything that privileges any one participant or contribution above others (for example “kudos” or “labels”). Nevertheless, while usually self-managed spaces, deliberative dialogue “happens organically when a natural facilitator” reveals Crispin. There may be an opportunity to provide incentives for ‘quality’ participation. It is, however, important to clearly identify facilitators and invited “speakers or subject matter experts”.

6. Enables participants to engage freely

Getting people to think deeply also requires an ability for participants to engage freely and without judgement – and avoids conflagration on ‘hot issues’. The platform will need to have a “private” and/or “locked” mode to allow invited participants to engage freely. Questions around anonymity between participants certainly reduces the barriers to entry for “shy” participants and equalises relationships.

7. Provides automated notification

It’s essential to bring participants in on ongoing issues throughout the life of online deliberation process., The platform will require an email newsletter and automated notification system in order to bring participants back to the dialogue on a regular basis.

8. Ability for quantitative and qualitative analysis

Process and dialogue outcomes evaluation requires both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Quantitative analysis allows you to quickly see volume and relative scale around an issue, while qualitative analysis allows you to interpret the motivations behind participant positions. The platform, then, either requires, or needs to work very well with, qualitative and quantitative analysis and reporting systems.

Photo by timothy muza on Unsplash

Published Date: 7 May 2018 Last modified on September 2, 2019

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