Hackney’s drive for a digital ‘Submit My Planning Application’ service

Doesn’t time fly!

It seems like only yesterday (Nov ‘17) when we were holding a Planning design sprint with @euanmills and his Connected Places Catapult team. Since then we’ve been fortunate enough to win an MHCLG funding bid to take forward our ambitious idea for the ground breaking Submit My Planning Application digital service (SMPA).

For the past year Hackney ICT have been working tirelessly with Snook and their technology partners Hactar to deliver a really high quality prototype for our SMPA digital service. Thanks to some great help from the Hackney Planning team, local businesses and residents the service has been fully designed around user needs. working collaboratively with the Open Systems Lab and the Southwark Planning team has saved us reinventing the wheel by utilising their digital Local Planning Policy engine approach.

Going back to the original brief, our goal was to either build a new service or stimulate the market into providing excellent digital Planning services.  We still want to meet the real needs of the Planning Authorities, businesses and residents that are suffering from a stagnant software market -our digital service will be the first step in that direction. However, I really didn’t see Northgate’s acquisition of Snook coming, a really interesting partnership and something to keep an eye on!

So after several sprints, retrospectives, all the iterative user research, many weeknotes and of course the obligatory show & tells we now have a working prototype and plan to deliver a Live minimal viable product later this summer.

So what are we doing now?

Basically, lots of building, testing and deploying! We have six sprints scheduled to take us to a live working product. See our previous show & tells, even better see all the whole project, here’s our project site alternative you can follow us on Pipeline.

Our aim is to have a Live working digital service by the end of the summer ‘A service so good people prefer to us it’. This is a bold statement, but we know demand failure is hitting a high of over 50%, therefore plenty of room for improvement. Imagine Amazon getting 50% of deliveries wrong! Also in this case the people do actually have an alternative i.e. the Planning Portal and iApply hence we intend to deliver an excellent alternative.

Normally when developing a new system from scratch, a lot of the work done is behind the scenes. Nowadays it’s not so much behind the scenes anymore, Hackney being part of the digital declaration, projects posted on Pipeline and working in the open you can find the code is stored on GitHub. You’ll see we’ve also been utilising existing capabilities such as gov.notify and developing excellent simple to follow documentation such as our API walkthrough. Currently we have 90% of the MVP under test and using real life applications to make sure the software works as expected. 

Our LLPG and GIS systems are now integrated, not to forget the most important integration i.e. with Tascomi our soon to be back office Planning Management system. We’re also keeping a close eye on the GLA’s London Development Database. Our service will need to capture all the right data up front in a standard format that can be seamlessly used right through the Planning process and not locked away in those closed and difficult to use PDFs.

What’s coming up and worth looking out for

The next couple of weeks are all about finishing the build and testing, testing and more testing!

As well as building the MVP we’re focussing on the not so exciting logistics of making the service Live within our new DevOps ways of working and if timings work out well, we’ll be integrating with Tascomi!

Key dates to look out for:

Come and join us at our offices or remotely, we’ll be around afterwards for deeper discussions on how we can shape the service and how others can adopt it 

  • 17th Sep Connected Places Catapult (Plantech Week)

We’ll be presenting our new digital Service ‘Submit My Planning Application’, Book your tickets through Eventbright

  • 19th Sep GLA – Event (Plantech Week)

14:00 GLA Plannig Event , Plantech for Local Government

(Venue City Hall)

  • 19th Sep SMPA Product Launch! (Plantech Week)

18:30 Connected Places Catapult Third Thursday

(Venue Urban Innovation Centre)

Friday 1st December episode 7: We’re on the sprint home straight!

Team Catch Ups: Any thoughts of demoralisation are gone, the prototypes are in fact really good and innovative. The prototypes are very important and fully underpin the event but not the main outcome. Everyone is now considering the prototypes in the context of the project brief which is to provide the following outcomes:

Three service design patterns (apply, view, comment) showing the preferred customer journey and user experiences for a digital planning service
Evidence and validation that the service design patterns meet user needs
Commitment from suppliers to build these into their roadmaps over the next 6-12 months

All back on track. Some quite major changes now required for the viewing and commenting prototype. These are mainly structural to ensure everyone understands it’s the same web module we’re demonstrating irrespective of the was it’s initiated i.e. it the same if you launch it in a library, supermarket, at home, or just passing a Planning Notification and using a smartphone. The original demo made it look like there was only a phone app and nothing else had been considered.
The submission prototype now named PAM had more than just validated the Southwark work, the extra effort the team put in on Thursday really paid off. There was still a lot to do this morning, they were busy and timings looked tight. The timetable changed slightly to accommodate their extra design time in the morning with some early afternoon interview testing lined up.

Beavering away. Both teams were off finalising their designs. So I took the opportunity to discuss the View &~ Comment prototype with Dennis from Southwark. We are on the right path with this as Community Engagement is still very low for the younger demographic i.e. people aged less than 35. It turns out a lot of comments actually come from a people representing a group of people basically several people will discuss an application with a group of friends down the pub, or at community event or in a Facebook group set up to discuss all concerns on their street! The main thing we agreed on was to take this forward was to get a critical mass of like minded Local Authorities (Planners and Digital reps) with enough impetus and resource to club together and take this forward. Pretty much what the Evening show & tell is on Monday 11th

More Interview Testing. The PAM team held their interview testing sessions and had really good feedback. The feedback at this late stage gave the team more food for thought and the extra work needed to consider and update the prototype with time already short. Watching them you physically see the pressure they were under, but there was no procrastinating, decision, decison, decision then deigning again. A slightly shorter lunch to give us all time to prepare for more the prototypes and presentations. The seaweed looking pickled kale was okay, but I’m going to miss that quiche!

Although the submissions team were slightly behind schedule and the view \ comment , you could see both designers working full on. Presentations were now taking shape. Except hands up for volunteers a deftly silence!

Presentations: The presentations looked like starting later and later. The pressure on everyone to be ready on time was intense. I’m really glad the show & tell event was moved to the 11th, Imagine having to now present straight to the large crowd of important people this early! At the final moment we were all ready for aout short presentations and prototype demonstrations – it all came together. The prototypes looked good, the presentations got their points across and they finished spot on 5pm. There were hardly any questions at the end, I’m unsure if it’s because we’ve had so many reviews, improvement iterations and basically most have already seen them to some extend. Or could it be the next point on the agenda was the pub!

Finding the Pub. After saying some thank-yous and goodbyes, we took a scenic route to the pub, we were slightly lost and started asking for directions – we may have come across a little desperate for a drink! We all sat down with a happy sigh of relief All knowing we can have a rest for now….

Next week, presentations to finalise for the big event!

Friday 1st December
Goal for the day: Expert review and preparation of final presentation

9:00 Before final day starts proper:
Amends to prototypes as needed
FCC people only
Recap and plan for the day
Start for external members of core team
10:30 Finalising prototypes together
FCC people to present their amends made earlier
Collaboratively do finishing touches
Discuss work and process
11-11:45 Testing 1 – Dennis / Southwark
12:00 Lunch
13:00-13:45 Testing 2 – FCC person
14:00-14:45 Testing 3 – Matt / Hackney
14:30 Coffee break
14:45 Create presentation for Monday 11th
Create presentation outlining process and final concept
Finalise wireframes
Decide who is presenting
1 hour presentation
Divide and conquer…!
16.30 Final retrospective
Ask for group feedback on week process and outcome
16.45 Pub?

Thursday 30th episode 6: We have a prototype to present

Sticky Tabs Consolidation – Another lovely start to the day many many more sticky tabs to review in yet another iteration for improvements. As well as many of the functional and cosmetic changes, the biggest area of feedback could all be resolved by showing the prototype in context. The prototype starts at the point the user has identified a building with Planning permissions. Therefore any time it’s shown we need to be emphasising the input points to this process i.e. walking past a site and pointing a smartphone, a link from the Local Authority website, a link from council correspondence, possibly a scanned QR code (don’t shoot me for this) or even a display in a high footfall area such as a library, school, hospitals supermarkets etc.

Changing my Focus to Project X (temporarily). The design team were on a roll with the changes so I had a chance to catch up with the Planning Policy Manager at Southwark as they’re really trying to progress the digital programme for Planning with their Project X. They’ve done an awful lot of document digitalisation and have all the buildings in the borough 3d imaged. Any larger developments submitted to Southwark must now comply with their new digital 3d standard and the 3d components need to be available as part of the Planning process. In fact the developments are reviewed in Augmented reality in the Southwark Planning Committee meetings, heads sets and all, so it’s essential!

Are the prototypes coming up to scratch? As we know coming into this sprint process there’s a huge amount of work already done in this area. However, it’s been completely at different levels across the board and quite different depending on which back end Planning supplier has been involved. Also as we know the pace has been very slow and the Planning Portal doesn’t appear to have taken these popular requirements into consideration or at least delivered them yet. The sprint teams have now been questioning their work and comparing against the work previously done separately in Camden and Southwark. The conclusion is there’s a major overlap on the submission prototype. The plan is for them to now take the next step forward based on their current work.

Back to the testing. The technology was a little rough and ready but enabled us to watch and listen to the tester giving the prototype a runthrough from a different room and take even more notes! Fortunately the second tester had a major overlap with the first but still raising a significant amount questions and good suggestions. The third and finals tester found several more items to which we could note, by this time it was quite noticeable the amount of repeated comments. Surprisingly some comments from testers were quite contradictory surprising, but at the end of each testing session we had the opportunity to ask the tester some questions so we could clarify any misunderstandings. The 101 sticky tabs way of working is good but some times the context of the comment was lost hence extra questions.

Trivial naming of each prototype actually caused quite a bit of confusion, we had chosen PAM (Planning Application Mentor), this was a mistake as we originally intended the ‘M’ to be Monitor but in the hustle and bustle of the day we forgot.

PAM unsurprisingly led them to believe the Community Engagement module would guide them through the process, which wasn’t good for the viewing and commenting prototype but excellent for the submission prototype. The other team then liberated the name from us! PAM was supposed to be the avatar for any bots we wanted to use or voice control equivalent of Siri and Alexa but for Planning Applications. If we make it to market with the prototype we’d no doubt only want a single Avatar for the whole system rather than a name for each of the prototypes \ modules. In fact we could have a family of avatars for each council service!

We finished the day a little later than expected but broke the back of the notes consolidation to give us a good start on the prototype in the morning.

Nobody likes to rock the boat. With the focus solely on the prototype some of the team are understandably now questioning the quality and how innovative the prototype actually is, especially when compared to the high standards set for normal work they’d intend to present for business as usual work. Somewhat losing focus of the brief has started demotivating some of the group. Nevermind that what we’ve achieved in a few days is an achievement in itself and even more so by validating the previous work carried out. Where the team have got to now, is much less significant than:
A) The value derived from the analysis of the challenge and
B) The fact that we’ve built a common understanding and impetus around what needs to change.

We’re planning to discuss this tomorrow….

Thursday 30th November – Testing with real users
Goal for the day: Reiterating and testing of the prototypes with real users
Agenda Item
09.30 Continue with wireframes
12.30 Lunch
13:30 Active testing session 1
13:30 – 14:15 Citizen planner (confirmed) – Active tester
14:15-14:30 Group discussion
Aisling to stay in room to watch live stream with core team, Anja to carry out active testing in separate room
14:30 Active testing session 2
14.30 -15:15 Planner (not part of the core team)
15:15 -15:30 Group discussion
Aisling to stay in room to watch live stream with core team, Anja to carry out active testing in separate room
15.30 Active testing session 3
15.30 -16:15 Planner (not part of the core team)
16:15 -16:30 Group discussion
Aisling to stay in room to watch live stream with core team, Anja to carry out active testing in separate room
Discussion of testing results
Working session with coffee and biscuits
17:15 Thursday session close

Day 3: Building a prototype

10am is a nice leisurely start, being an early bird it’s giving me the time to keep the business as usual activities ticking over and stop the emails from getting out of hand. It’s also good to start the day with a recap of the previous, especially the HMWs (how might we). This time we started discussing the personas most relevant to our chosen process and how they would really like to interact.

Wireframing was a good discussion and the jotting down of more even notes on the way to drawing some actual picture of what the the prototype should start to look like. This stage was really about iterating each step until we all reached a consensus. Once we had some consensus the wireframe sketches were started. After more and more discussion and re-iterations the mock up sketches were sufficiently detailed and ready for the designer and tech expert to run with.

Balsamiq was the prototyping tool of choice for our team working on our prototype. The designers went off on their way, but as a team of four, two of us started work on Friday’s presentation, the precursor to the Big Show & Tell session on Monday 11th December.

The pace of work is intense everyone is fully concentrating on each task and at intervals we re-convened to clarify any inconsistencies and unclear points. I have no idea what tool the other team chose, I think it was due to Vanessa (UI \ UX designer) using the existing Camden tools.

A quick run through and we were ready for a live prototype demonstration with FCC experts whom hadn’t been involved to date. With their fresh views there were again many more comments to take into consideration. We did find out that QR codes are like Marmite, they really divide opinion. Technically they’re great for linking information (massive in China) but on the other hand as they need an app to be used, nowadays hardly anyone uses them.This time the feedback was more than influencing the content but being specific about what worked and what didn’t and apparently a lot didn’t. Our prototype demo had to start somewhere and we chose someone using a smartphone and viewing a Planning site as they walked past. This didn’t set the context correctly and therefore raised many questions about it being on a phone and what about other options i.e the QR codes, links from correspondence and all other initiation routes which we had considered. The demonstration was also in front of the whole core team (anyone not involved in wireframing) therefore this time round there were many many more sticky tabs to review in yet another iteration for tomorrow!

Wednesday 29th November – Wireframing and prototyping

Goal for the day: Reminding ourselves who we are designing for, start of wireframing/prototyping session


Agenda Item

Additional notes


Coffees and networking


Presentation/plan for the day

•Recap, especially the HMW


Recap personas

•Teams to look again at the persona they are designing the idea for

•What experience do participants want to create for the personas – Template


Wireframing session

•Teams to start creating wireframes, starting with quick sketches but potentially moving into a prototyping tool




Prototyping – Animating the wireframes 1

•Pick the right tools

•Divide and Conquer if necessary

•Stitch together

•Trial Run




Prototyping – Animating the wireframes 2

•Pick the right tools

•Divide and Conquer if necessary

•Stitch together

•Trial Run


Sharing / feedback session

•FCC team to feedback to core sprint team

•Everyone who didn’t participate in wireframing to feedback

Maybe second developer / tech person to drop in? TBD?


Retrospective: what do we know, what more do we need to know, what do we prioritise tomorrow?


Wednesday session close

Day 2: Consolidating ideas – with a way to go!

A leisurely 10am start or it would have been if I didn’t have to have two long calls explaining to interested parties, about how they’ve missed the boat for this week but can still be involved in taking this forward – not that we have a real plan as yet but just a very lot of interest. A couple of the team had last minute problems and sent a substitute, this may have been a problem but in fact turned out for the better giving a wider view. Some of the focus now on Policy with a little more movement towards the consultation and general user inclusivity was good to see. This balanced against the Development Management planners whom naturally tended to focus a little more on their case management and getting the application through the process.

The Four-Step Sketch. Now this was a strange one, an ideation session starting with:

Step one: Notes – a review of the yesterday’s work. We spent a good amount of time to reviewing in detail all the components and took note of the best bits we liked, those we thought we should pursue and those which could be expanded upon. Once we’d finished reviewing the the process map with all the sticky tabs and the consolidation of ‘How Might We’ ideas and the lighting demos we had a consolidated set of notes to build our sketches upon.

Step two: Ideas – was a private summarisation of the notes into coherent sentences with a few rough sketches done in silence for another twenty minutes.

Step three: Crazy 8s – The Crazy Eight process, crazy due to the time restriction. Only 8 minutes to write down eight of your best ideas with a mix of words and sketching. Then another 8 minutes to elaborate on our favourite idea.

Step four: Solution Sketch – the three stages of the favoured process were sketched out with corresponding plain english explanations.

Working in isolation is to ensure the the stronger characters and senior leaders don’t steamroller their ideas through. The whole process was like being back at school doing a test under pressure, no doubt compounded by the tight deadlines for each stage and handing in our papers at the end.

Critique time.

Returning from a quick break, our sketches were artistically lined up gallery style. At this point they were still anonymous, we then took 10 sticky spots and went round putting them against the part of the sketch we liked or against the title if it was generally good. Once all the sticker were gone we in effect had a heat map of good ideas. The Scrum Master gave a quick synopsis (speed critique) of each and gave the artist had chance to explain their view. We then put our big sticky spot against our most favourite single aspect a further emphasis on the heat map. The good ideas were consolidated into themes \ options to focus our prototype upon. The lesser ideas were sidelined and the main ideas consolidated.

Decisions Decisions. All the notes, demos, and sketches, pretty much a day and a halfs work was whittled down into a few key themed ideas to take forward to the prototype stage. Data, policy and tracking seemed to be cross cutting, so two lead ideas came to the forefront: Community Engagement and Submissions and Processing. We the split into two balanced groups to take these ideas into a form that could be presented – basically a magazine front page later to be used to ‘sell’ our Idea the the other team, some decision makers and some experts not involved in the day to day sprint.

First show & tell. After the idea was presented, each group would critique the others work also in attendance were some external experts @realnickperry our Hackney Planning Forum representative and @daviddurrant a Business Analyst from the GLA. as part of the feedback process we received a whole whiteboard of feedback which included what they liked, disliked and other considerations we might like to take on board. The prototypes decided by the iterative cycles and collaboration further matched the process we set out to improve i.e. Submission, Viewing and commenting. Finally a quick retrospective and run through the plan for Wednesday. And time to break for the day.

Coming next: Wed 28th episode 4: It’s actually happening – Wednesday


Detail schedule for day 2 (Tuesday)

Tuesday 28th November – Ideation and initial sketching

Goal for the day: Allow for individual ideation and sketching, deciding on the ideas that will be executed


Agenda Item



Coffees and networking


Presentation/plan for the day

•Recap, especially the HMW


The Four-Step Sketch.

•Explanation of the exercise


Group critique and unpicking through 4 approaches:

•Art museum

•Heat map

•Speed critique

•Straw poll

•Maybe later vs. winners




Decision time

•Discussion about how many ideas we want to elaborate on

•Formation of groups

Ideally this will not take the full time – but just in case…


Headlines and key info needed to convey ideas

•Planning Mag exercise for the selected projects (teamwork with UX/Service Designer)


Show & tell for the extended team

•Sharing / feedback session invite experts to critique

Opportunity for external people to drop in (remote not possible)


Retrospective: what do we know, what more do we need to know, what do we prioritise tomorrow?


Tuesday session close