Making Planning Documents More Engaging

NCDD supporting member and urban planning specialist Chris Haller recently wrote a great piece for EngagingCities on creating more engaging planning documents. We know his insights could be good food for thought for many of our members, so we encourage you to read the piece below or find the original here.

engaging cities logoPlan documents. You know the type – long, squinty PDFs that can take forever to download and even longer to read. Agencies want to share their plans and priorities with the public, but they’re typically not at the top of anyone’s reading list, and they certainly don’t provide opportunity for feedback. What’s a community to do?

Believe it or not, plan documents actually CAN be engaging. The problem is not with the information itself, but rather with the presentation of it. People want to be drawn in, not forced to wade through long, text-heavy pages in search of points that are relevant to them. People want to experience information, not just read it. And if the content can be accessed on-the-go, quickly and easily, that’s a big plus too. Organizations that go the extra mile to engage the public through dynamic plan documents will reap the benefits of a more interested and involved audience.

Take, for example, this information sheet published by Plan East Tennessee (PlanET), a partnership of communities investing in the improvement of the Eastern region of the state. While the information in the document is important, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression or invite feedback. PlanET was on the lookout for something better. So they built their new Regional Playbook on a platform that would allow them to present their information online, in a more interactive and eye-catching way.

The app, called BrightPages, features a building-block format that can include interactive text, questions, and feedback options. The new PlanET online document brings the original PDF to life, inviting exploration of the subject and even including trivia questions relevant to the project. This is a “document” that will stick in the minds of users, and provides PlanET with valuable input from citizens of the region.

Similarly, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Cleveland, Ohio needed a method to engage the public in a study to determine the best options for improving transit in a region of their service area. The original plan document bears the imposing title “Alternatives Analysis Methodology Report” and contains 22 pages of insight about the possible transit plan options. It’s a well-written and informative paper, but the likelihood of its being read by many laypeople is very low.

So the RTA, redesigned the plan document into an interactive, playful experience that users can access online. The new Explore Alternatives game presents the transit options in a question-and-answer format, making it easier for citizens to understand how different alternatives solve their needs. Further, information is displayed through engaging infographics and maps.

In Bannock County, Idaho, the Bannock Transportation Planning Organization (BTPO) is working on a long-range transportation plan of their own. Seeking the best solution for public outreach, the BTPO used BrightPages to create an engaging online activity for exploring scenarios, encouraging users to identify their top priorities and observe – in real-time – how their choices would affect which transportation plan matched their needs. With citizens gaining an in-depth understanding of the various options, the BTPO will have a greater chance of receiving well-informed feedback.

These organizations understood that complex information can be made engaging – and even fun – by thinking outside the .pdf box and taking 4 steps to create highly engaging documents:

1. Content Discovery

Who actually reads an entire plan document? Not many people, because the traditional presentation of a plan – even if it’s put online – is wordy, long, and technical. Breaking a document into readable, eye-catching chunks invites exploration and discovery rather than a cursory glance. Your plan documents contain important information – keep people from skimming by making your documents as visually appealing as everything else they see online!

The PlanET online playbook features easily digestible bits of information, highlighted by compelling infographics. The natural curiosity of the audience will guide them to click through to more detailed information about topics that matter to them, making it simple to get an overall feel for the project and find interesting content with ease. They can even share their discoveries via social media, automatically expanding PlanET’s audience.

2. Playful Exploration

Gamification has recently become a popular means to attract more participation to public processes. But can it actually be applied to something as mundane as planning documents and studies?

The new presentation of Cleveland’s RTA study provides excellent proof that it can. Visitors to the study’s website can pick their preferred mode of transit, specify their transit needs, and explore options for improvement based on their responses. Answers can be changed or rearranged, allowing users to fully explore and understand all the possibilities and trade-offs inherent in the project. Not your average study analysis!

3. Interactive Design

Most daily experiences in this Information Age are interactive. Why should plan documents remain static and dull? By bringing the information online and adding clickable links, questions, and other interactive content, you can draw people into the experience of reading your document. People feel more engaged when they have a part to play in the process of digesting online information.

Far from the yawn-inducing format of traditional read-only plans, the documents published by the BTPO are highly interactive, encouraging participation while adding to citizens’ understanding of the project. Slider maps invite exploration, a “brainstorm” box asks for input about the project, and a five-star rating system allows for quick feedback. Having a variety of interactive options means the BTPO will benefit from a wider range (and greater number) of response types.

4. Direct Feedback

What opportunities for feedback might you find on traditional plan documents? At the most, printed contact information or a website link. Adding opportunities to provide feedback directly to a plan document can dramatically increase the quality of feedback. Rather than simply putting out information and guiding participants somewhere else to provide feedback, you can use plan documents as an opportunity to learn more about the opinions, demographics, and preferences of your audience.

Cleveland’s RTA, in deciding how to handle transit development, knew that public feedback would play a critical role in determining the final course of action. Their interactive online document allows users to fill-in-the-blank, rate scenarios, and share information about where they live and how different transit options would affect them. As a result, the feedback the RTA receives from the public will be well-informed – a crucial change from the usual clamor of citizens whose opinions are not based on a working knowledge of the plan options.

In this age of technological wonders, it would be a shame if static documents were the only way to present content and invite feedback. Thankfully, there are much more creative strategies available. BrightPages has helped Plan East Tennessee, the Cleveland RTA, and the BTPO to bring their documents online and transform them into highly engaging experiences that are more likely to achieve the ultimate goal of any plan document – the interest and feedback of an informed public.

The original version of this piece can be found at

Original post

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