Often in the early days of digital development, it felt like there was a small group of big, innovative brains in one room all working on similar visions of how best to leverage the growing presence of the iconic Nokia 3310 across the developing world. Frontline SMS, Ushahidi, Souktel, and other groups were leading the charge from various corners of the earth, and design luminaries such as Jan Chipchase were interviewed in New York Times think pieces on how cellphones could end global poverty. When I moved to Palestine to work for Souktel at the end of 2010, I was often in the same room as ICT4D “godparents” Ken Banks, Adele Waugaman, and Erik Hersman, pleading our case to skeptical mobile network operators and Silicon Valley types who found our little ventures thrilling in a slightly Orientalist way. With texting as the tech du jour, everyone codified similar lessons in real time around the successful design of, for example, mobile awareness campaigns. The ICT4D sector grew rapidly across markets, simultaneously building strong use cases for users and development practitioners alike. I do have some hilarious stories of mobile campaign lessons learned from the Somali piracy crisis, but I will save those for another post.

Now, all these lessons are relevant again as we globally try to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the decade that has passed, and the almost unimaginable maturation and growth of both the global mobile sector and what we now call digital development, we once again dust off tried-and-true methods of engaging with users. Basic mobile solutions—from providing text and interactive voice response gateways, using shortcodes, and developing outreach campaign strategies—are again becoming a compelling way to both connect at scale and fight the noise and misinformation passed around on social media.

SK_COVID.PNGAn image of COVID-19 Epidemiological Investigation Support System from the Government of the Republic of Korea report on Flattening the Curve.

We have seen the success of this type of approach. In the peak of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases, the government used a hard-coded contact in each phone to send almost hourly, real-time updates across the country around both general COVID-19 safety and user-specific contact tracing-based exposure alerts. This hard-coded contact meant there was no question about its authenticity, alleviating concerns about pranks and false reports. This text-based information, aligned with television, radio, and internet campaigns, counteracted rumors and misinformation and was one of the driving reasons South Korea was able to mount a successful response.

The Center for Digital Acceleration at DAI has been working to rapidly develop quick reference guides for our projects around the world that now find themselves leaning far more heavily on digital solutions than previously anticipated. I’ve put a selection of our user engagement best practices below, which I hope will help folks who find themselves staring at the user interface of an online texting gateway system with trepidation about where to begin.

  • Meet users where they are. Choose a digital solution that your target users already use and trust. Provide clear instructions to users about how to use the solution.
  • Sensitize users to upcoming campaigns. User engagement is higher if beneficiaries and constituents expect a project to contact them on a digital device.
  • Create relevant local content. Use the local language and ensure that sociocultural norms inform your messaging.
  • Keep it short and simple. Clear, direct, and succinct messages work best on digital devices. If launching a text-based survey, use a maximum of five questions and ideally a reverse-charge shortcode so as not to burden your user with a fee for their response.
  • Use multiple outreach methods. If budgets allow, consider creating a multichannel campaign with a consistent identity that employs different digital platforms to reach the target audience (like South Korea!)
  • Maintain user privacy. Enact a clear set of guidelines governing data privacy and use.
  • Pilot and iterate. Conduct small tests with target users and make any changes as needed. Apply any lessons learned from the pilots before scaling up.
  • There is no perfect solution. Every option has drawbacks, but that should not stop us from trying.