Why traditional engagement sucks and everyone is going loco for So-Mo.

It’s really exciting to see how the So-Mo approach to engagement and user insight has been gaining more and more interest in the public sector.  Local Authorities, Housing Associations and Transport have all been sectors that have been benefiting from our approach.  It’s exciting because it’s a real sign that things are changing.  People are waking up to the potential of new and proven approaches to making engagement with the public more meaningful and effective. 

“So, what was wrong with the way we’ve always done it?”

It’s become popular to explain poor engagement results in terms of the general mistrust of authority or apathy.  Whilst it’s true that there’s a growing cynicism about the decision-making process this can only be made worse by methodologies that are difficult to do well when you have little to no resource.  Here at So-Mo, we’ve spent the last few years tackling this issue head-on and in doing so have developed something both innovative and reliable.  Our approach to engagement blends several previously distinct disciplines and borrows from the world of innovation, behavioural science and design.  

Bristol’s road safety officers designing engagement activity to support slower speeds

Bristol’s road safety officers designing engagement activity to support slower speeds


Behavioural science (or Behavioural Economics) is a genuine attempt to observe how people actually behave rather than how we think they should behave.  We know that when people are asked a question they respond to more than just the question they’re asked.  Social norms, expectations and insecurities can all play a part in how people answer questions.  Just see the OKCupid reports on how men report their height on dating profiles as an example. 

The average height of men on OKCupid is a clear 2 inches more than the national average. 

So how can we overcome the fact that we don’t always get an honest answer?  Behavioural Science addresses this by observing how people actually make decisions.  By not relying solely on self-reported data So-Mo has been able to gather much more valuable insights than are possible through classical engagement.  Another technique that has proven very successful is the development of personas.  This approach builds on a combination of data (such as mosaic or cameo) as well as observations to begin developing a typical personality.  These can then be used to test out approaches and interventions cheaply and quickly.  But how does that help us when it comes to developing creative solutions? Where do the ideas come from?

Most engagement exercises are run with the intention of being ‘people-centred’.  But this usually means counting how many people have turned up to a roadshow or workshop.  Design thinking on the other hand starts with the user in trying to understand the problem – before we even get to thinking of solutions.  By truly understanding what people say they want and observing how they actually behave we get closer to the best solution.  This is important because it teases out the truth about what needs to be addressed.  It’s also about unleashing creativity and using techniques that ensure that the answer isn’t tied to ‘what we’ve always done’ approaches.   Becoming familiar with design thinking has allowed us to expand our creative response to challenges and to prototype solutions rapidly, so that ideas can be tested and refined with end users. This not only ensures project momentum is preserved but also uncovers blind alleys allowing us to respond quickly and resolve.

Empathy maps - used to gain insight into user needs 

Empathy maps - used to gain insight into user needs 


Finally, we overlay these approaches into a proven framework; the innovation double diamond.  The double diamond is very important to us here at So-Mo as it ensures that the problem definition stage is given the time it needs.  Too often we make assumptions about what the exam question is. We then jump into ‘solution space’ and start dreaming up what we should do about it.  

For these reasons, we’ve got no interest in the traditional drafty church hall style of engagement.  For us, being excellent at engagement means blending methods that borrow from psychology, economics, design, innovation and our bedrock of data analysis.   We’ve found them to be more effective in getting true insights that lead to genuine behaviour change for a fraction of the cost of traditional engagement.

As more and more people are recognising the value that truly user centred innovations can bring we look forward to a future where the drafty, church hall style of engagement becomes (quite rightly) a thing of the past.


Nicola Wass