Journey to Improving Planning Alerts: A Service Designer’s Perspective – Part 2 Research, Testing and Insights

Guest post by Service Designer and Researcher, Sabina Popin

This post is part of a three part series about the recent project on Planning Alerts Service Improvement. In the previous post I outlined the entirety of the project in brief. In this post you get to read in more depth about the epic journey we’ve been on to uncover opportunities for improvement, the insights and learnings we gained along the way and finally what concepts motivated the changes you will eventually see implemented on Planning Alerts

From Email Inbox Research Insights to Concepts

The research for this project was done in two phases: email inbox data analysis followed by in-depth interviews with the people that use the service. An earlier two month inbox study, generated hypotheses and initial insights about people’s needs. For this project, I extended the exploration to consider a little over a year’s worth of inbox emails, that’s thousands of emails (February to December 2022). This amount of data, coupled with the length of time we’ve analyzed, was more than enough to give us a better understanding of how many people are affected by similar issues. It also helped in identifying the biggest pain points and moments of delight for both staff and the people using the service. From the analysis of this data, categories of needs emerged, which I then mapped along the Planning Alerts service journey stages, to better understand the context in which they were occurring. 

The biggest pain points for support staff and people interacting with the service

The Planning Alerts team works hard to be supportive and human in their responses to everyone who writes to them. Canned responses are used for some email types, which helps, but they often require adjusting to fit each enquiry. However, with only one person as support staff servicing the whole of Australia, the individual handling and sorting of emails, and the time and thought needed to respond to them means some emails get missed, or replied to late. On top of this, working through sometimes emotive or complex community issues raised in comment reports can be emotionally taxing and requires skill, focus, empathy and time. 

As for people using the service, I observed that the issues causing the most frustration were when either alerts or the service didn’t work as they expected, for example missed alerts, or when they found information to be wrong or missing. In addition, many were under the impression that when they contacted Planning Alerts they were getting in touch with their local planning authority.

Uncovering opportunities

Once I had some key insights to share with the team it was time to roll our sleeves up and really kick-off the magic of the design process. I worked closely with the Planning Alerts team in a series of regular collaborative working sessions. These sessions were fast paced, messy and iterative. We would simultaneously play back research findings, gain further insights, and generate ideas to tackle the issues at hand. It was a sizable departure from the typical service design approach where sessions are more structured and separated into specific activities. It was also high energy seeing ideas form straight out of insights, it gave us the necessary momentum to keep chipping away. This unique all-in-one approach was made possible as the people delivering and implementing the service were also the decision-makers. They could dive into the nitty-gritty details while also maintaining a high-level perspective.  

Opportunity questions

Through our collaborative sessions we identified several key opportunity questions to help us generate ideas for improving the user experience on Planning Alerts. These questions guided us towards imagining solutions to common concerns and challenges people face. They gave us the necessary structure to sketch out ideas and form concepts:

  • How might we support people to express their needs in a way that is relevant and focused, so that they are taken up by council?
  • How might we support people to self-serve for known issues so that they feel empowered and don’t need to email in as often?
  • How might we ensure people are never left wondering about the reliability of the service?
  • How might we encourage people to be respectful of each other, so that there is opportunity for cooperation?

How do we prioritise what improvements to make?

We were fast approaching in-depth interviews with people who use the Planning Alerts service. At the same time we were grappling with a puzzle: we had a plethora of ideas, ranging from small UX tweaks to broader, long-term strategies like partnering with authorities to improve comment reception. We wanted to cover this broad range of ideas, and we also needed to prioritise actionable tasks for the coming year or quarter. We chose a few key opportunities and ideas to prototype based on the key pain points from the email inbox study and support staff experience to put in front of people. This would help us learn more about their needs and test our improvement hypotheses. This pivotal moment allowed us to focus on short-term goals while keeping an eye on the bigger picture.  

I then combined and refined the ideas that came out of this idea generation activity into concepts, sketching them out digitally to make them approachable and ready to test.

  • Understanding how the service works: A step-by-step How it Works section for the home page 
  • Getting help on the site: A dedicated help and support space on the Planning Alerts site that contains helpful articles, FAQs and a contact-us form
  • Getting help by contacting us: A contact-us form with links to helpful articles and guidance on how to ask for help
  • Getting help by replying to an alert: An automated email that would get sent to people who accidentally reply to an email alert with help articles and link to support pages
  • Proactive information when not receiving alerts: An email notification that would get sent to people who have not received alerts in some time to let them know why that might be the case
  • Commenting clarity: An improved comments section that draws attention to the important parts of a comment submission. 
  • Comment guidelines: Guidelines to help people write comments that have a better chance of being accepted by planning authorities
  • Comment preview: A built in comment preview function to encourage people to confirm what they want to say and to understand how the comment will appear on Planning Alerts and what will be sent to the planning authority
  • Report comment categories: A reporting feature that adds a few more categories to comment reporting to support people to make a conscious choice on why they are reporting the comment. 

While the inbox gave some great insights, I still had a lot of questions. The inbox was useful in creating a base for what might be happening, but I was still making a bunch of assumptions. I was really looking forward to talking to people to get their feedback on our concepts and to better understand what was really going on for them. Either busting those assumptions or validating them. 

All in one, research and testing interviews: a winning combo

First, a note on research participant recruitment

Next up, talking to real people! Early on I worked with the Planning Alerts team to identify the different groups of people who use the service to speak with. This included people who have alerts, who have registered for new email accounts (which the Team were concurrently rolling out), people who have made comments on Development Applications in their area, as well as people who work for planning authorities in Local and State Governments. We wanted to hear more about them and their needs to bring life and nuance to our understanding of their experiences. Yet, we also didn’t have long to bring the pieces together as we were heading into the long summer holiday season. 

Recruiting participants for research in larger organisations is usually done through a research recruitment agency from a list of people who have purposely signed up to participate in all kinds of research. When research recruitment is done internally it often takes a lot of time because it can be difficult to find people willing to participate even for a monetary incentive. I was shocked or should I say pleasantly surprised at how willing people who use the Planning Alerts service were to donate their time to participate in the research. We even heard a wonderful story where community residents shared that the Planning Alerts research was happening with one of their elected councillors and she signed up to participate in the research! WOW! This showed me how engaged the Planning Alerts community is, how much people genuinely care about what’s happening in their communities and that there is immense opportunity for planning authorities to work together with Planning Alerts for the benefit of communities Australia wide. Insert ‘smiling crying emoji’.

Gathering insights from people who use Planning Alerts

With the concepts and my trusty interview guide ready I was all set for research/ testing. I engaged with a total of 15 people, in 60 min 1-1 sessions. The people were a mix of people who’ve used Planning Alerts across residents, community groups and councils/ planning authorities. 

The first 30 min of the session was more of an interview format to understand their current state experience of Planning Alerts, their needs and aspirations when it comes to engaging with the planning process. I structured the interviews in this way to ensure we could learn in general about their experience as well as to get their views on our hypothesis on what could improve the experience. 

The second part of the interview focused on testing the ideas using the sketches and wireframes we created – this meant getting feedback to help understand what in their view works and what doesn’t.

We learned a lot from people about their experiences engaging with the planning process and with Planning Alerts. These higher level insights support our understanding of the complexities of the entire planning ecosystem and where Planning Alerts can play a role in supporting community engagement in the planning process.  You can read these insights below.

As for more immediate learnings that can help inform what short term changes we can make to improve the Planning Alerts service, well we learnt a lot about that too. The participants’ feedback helped to validate that we were on the right track with the kinds of improvements we wanted to make. Namely supporting a smoother and more transparent commenting experience; giving clarity around who Planning Alerts is; transparency around the service coverage and interruptions; supporting self-service with known issues and freeing up time for support staff to focus on responses that need more attention. 

Participant comments and feedback helped us to refine and improve the concepts further. As you read this you may have noticed some of these changes rolled out already!

Lessons Learned

Part of the prioritisation was already done, we knew that the concepts we took out represented the key things to solve in the short term. But before we could be ready for implementation we needed to iterate the concepts based on feedback, flesh them out so that they had enough detail to be designed and developed. And lastly, yes you guessed it ANOTHER level of more granular prioritisation. What goes off the rank first, like now, this quarter? 

I found this immensely satisfying; I so rarely get to be involved from the discovery and research all the way through to writing a detailed specification for design and development. The end of the final concept prioritisation truly felt like a moment of celebration for everyone. 

But that wasn’t the end

With the concepts now fleshed out and prioritised I now needed to help the team get all this useful work into formats and artefacts that they could actually use ongoing. I wasn’t about to let my service designer nightmare come true and let all the precious insights go to waste! We began to think of this suite of insights, needs, opportunities and concepts as a toolkit. 

And toolkits need clear instructions. They need to be well organised and approachable, they should neatly house all you need for the task at hand. 

By treating the suite of insights, needs, opportunities and concepts as a toolkit, we ensured that the Planning Alerts team could continue to put these valuable insights to work, and maintain a human approach to their service.

What did we actually learn about peoples experience with Planning Alerts?

Planning Alerts keeps communities informed

Staying informed is a key reason that Planning Alerts is valued by residents, particularly as planning authorities are not required to inform directly on all applications. With Planning Alerts, community groups and residents are able to form their own understanding of the shape of their suburb.

For the council and planning authorities that participated in the research, Planning Alerts play an important role in keeping their community informed when they are not able to or when their systems are harder to navigate. This can however cause additional work when the planning authority is not required to advertise but the applications are still picked up by Planning Alerts.

Easier to engage with Planning Alerts

Oftentimes Planning Alerts is seen as easier to engage with than council and planning authority portals. People appreciate being able to easily find a DA, comment on it, see other people’s feedback and be kept up to date on planning information in their area of interest.

Planning Alerts also makes it easy to share applications with the community via email and Facebook to discuss and rally together.

Confusion about who Planning Alerts is and what it stands for

Some people who use Planning Alerts think that it’s run by a local planning authority. This leads them to write to Planning Alerts with the assumption that Planning Alerts can provide them with information only a planning authority can, or to express frustration.

People want to be able to hold planning authorities accountable – thinking that Planning Alerts is run by the government and doesn’t allow them to do that. There is a desire for Planning Alerts to bring clarity about who they are and what they stand for and emphasise they are not connected to Planning authorities.

Research participants have expressed that emphasising the ethical pro-democracy, independent, not-for-profit nature of Planning Alerts is important for building trust and for understanding the gaps of each planning authority.

Biggest pain points relate to perception of service reliability

People appear to get most frustrated with alerts not working, showing wrong locations/images or not being able to find additional information and documentation to fully understand the application.

When privacy is in question, for example with comments being posted publicly this can be a source of frustration for people as they want immediate action and resolution.

People feel they need to understand the planning system to engage with it

People find the planning process and development applications and their accompanying documents difficult to understand. The more people engage with the process the more they learn. While some do their own research others are relying on more knowledgeable members of their community. Councils and planning authorities feel they are doing their best to support residents to understand the planning process.

Residents and planning authorities agree that developing an understanding of the planning process is important to be able to engage with it. They acknowledge the importance of engaging directly with planning authorities. Experienced residents have learnt through experience that the next steps to making a submission is to form relationships with council planning staff and write to elected councillors and state representatives, ministers and shadow ministers.

Finding information on an application can be challenging

People looking for more information about an application have found the experience to be convoluted and time consuming. When they go to a council or planning authority website they often have to copy the DA number as some council links go to their homepage rather than to an application directly. Once they get there, the documents are hard to understand for anyone who is not well versed in the planning process.

People with more experience with the planning process feel that there is not enough information on Planning Alerts to understand an application fully, which leads some people to make comments based on little context.

Discussions and comments on applications

People appreciate the presence of other people’s comments. It allows them to get more information, to understand the experience of those in close proximity to the development. One community group that participated in the research is even using it to recruit new members.

People are actively sharing Planning Alerts links on Facebook, where there are discussions and feedback is shared. These discussions may not always make their way back to Planning Alerts nor to the relevant planning authorities. Some community groups however suggest and create guidelines for members to create their own submissions to planning authorities.

While other people’s comments are largely helpful,  inflammatory and/or abusive comments do not go unnoticed. For some, seeing commenters ridicule or argue with others deters them from commenting, for others it raises concerns about their own and others’ privacy.

Comments based on little information may not be valid*

There is a small amount of text on the Planning Alerts email alert and application page to describe the nature of the application. Many people do not go through the process of fully understanding the development application before they comment. They are making comments based solely off what is written on the Planning Alerts page. This can lead to misunderstanding of the nature of the application and an increased amount of comments that planning authorities may consider not valid or irrelevant to the application at hand. These comments ultimately have no set process on the planning authority side and may not get responded to.

People (both Planning authorities and residents) have said that it’s important for the community to have enough of an understanding of the application to be able to create a valid response without having to pour over the minutiae of all the documentation.

People sometimes make comments that they acknowledge are not a direct objection or approval, sometimes they want to provide important context for the community, or have questions and want more information. In addition planning authorities have noticed that some comments are not related to planning at all eg. commenting on the nature of the person applying.

Engaging directly with council or planning authority

Residents who have experience with the planning process are tactical with their commenting. Only commenting on what is really important to them. In addition to commenting through Planning Alerts, they will make a submission directly though the respective planning authority and contact them directly as well.

They cited that they have had more luck in getting a response when going directly to the planning authority.

Getting to know the Planning staff at council is helpful for getting information or forming understanding about the development process. It provides a direct contact to turn to about issues and a better chance to make change.

People wonder what happens to comments and why they don’t get responded to

People want to understand what happens to the comments once they are sent to the planning authority. There’s a strong sentiment that planning authorities and councils rarely respond or get back to people. This discourages people from commenting.

Some participants have suggested that council could respond directly to comments publicly to express why something has been resolved the way it has. To continue to feel motivated to engage and take action, people need to see a response from their local planning authority or state member. Research participants have shared that it seems to them the best way to get a response is to engage with councillors and state representatives directly.

Volume and validity of comments from Planning Alerts are challenging for Planning authorities

There is a much higher volume of comments that comes in from Planning Alerts compared to Planning authorities’ own channels. It’s challenging for planning authorities to distinguish between valid responses and non-valid ‘chatter’.

Ensuring comments are going to the relevant people at planning authorities and are being submitted in the appropriate format is essential for them to be responded to and counted as valid. For a comment/submission to be counted Planning authorities have a list of requirements. Depending on the authority these may include: within the submission timeframe, full name and address, specifying approve/disapprove, reason for approve/disapprove and how it impacts the resident, relevance to planning requirements ie. built form, landscaping quality, and is a unique submission not copy paste, and mailed directly to planning authority or form submitted on their site.

How Planning authorities respond to comments

Planning authorities have different rules for responding to feedback depending on the legislation. Most are only required to respond to valid feedback, non-valid feedback is recorded but may be lost and never responded to. Residents are not always aware of these rules. For some authorities different volumes of feedback trigger different processes eg. more feedback, gets escalated.

Due to organisational limitations planning staff are not always well resourced. This means that comments that are not valid or relevant to the submission are recorded but not always responded to. They don’t always have the capacity to send them to where they need to go and some inevitably fall through the cracks.

There are also developments that don’t require consultation. When they receive comments from Planning Alerts for these applications, it makes the back end process labour intensive as they don’t have a process in place for dealing with unsolicited comments.

There are different rules around advertising in different jurisdictions. In some jurisdictions where they are not required to advertise for certain developments, yet they still get responses from community through Planning Alerts. This adds extra pressure on them even when they’re not able to do something about it.

What’s next you ask?

Well for that you’ll have to tune into the next blog post where I’ll go into detail about the artefacts we created, why we created them and how we intend for the team to use them ongoing. Also I suspect you’re wondering what happens to my relationship with the Planning Alerts, well we thought of something interesting. Wait and see!

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