In this paper, we argue for and present an empirical study of putting citizens into focus during the early stages of designing tools for civic participation in a mid-sized German town. Drawing on Contextual and Participatory Design, we involved 105 participants by conducting interviews, using Photovoice and participating in a local neighbourhood meeting. Together with citizens, we built an Affinity Diagram, consolidated the data and identified key insights. As a result, we present and discuss different participation identities such as Motivated Activists, Convenience Participants or Companions and a collection of citizen needs for local civic participation, e. g., personal contact is irreplaceable for motivation, trust and mutual understanding, and some citizens preferred to “stumble across” information rather than actively searching for it. We use existing participation tools to demonstrate how individual needs could be addressed. Finally, we apply our insights to an example in our local context. We conclude that if we want to build digital tools that go beyond tokenistic, top-down ways of civic participation and that treat citizens as one homogeneous group, citizens need to be part of the design process right from the start. Supplemental material can be retrieved from https://osf.io/rxd7h/.