Public consultations are gradually moving online, as project teams recognise that the village hall drop-in event often isn't accessible for everyone. But is that going far enough?

The inaccessibility of community centre or village hall consultations is just one example of how a bad user interface stops certain people from using or engaging usefully with a service.

The main barrier to a good consultation user experience is often the time required to navigate the 'user interface' i.e. make their way to the village hall, visually scan some text-heavy display panels for the information that matters to them, scan the consultants' name badges to find the person who will answer their questions, find a pen, find a feedback form, find a seat, complete the feedback questionnaire, find the feedback questionnaire return box and make their way home. This process takes a lot of time out of someone's evening, meaning that many people are put off from doing it, particularly the people that can be most affected by long term change to the built environment.

Whilst taking consultations online seems an obvious way to solve this problem, by creating a user interface that is less time consuming and less intimidating to access, it comes with lots of new 'UX' challenges that engagement teams often fail to recognise and can prevent the people that matter from following through with their involvement and input. These include:

Information overload

Investing in digital platforms to make consultations quicker and easier to access and then expecting people to spend an hour of their evening wading through huge rafts of text, images and feedback questions is a false economy. Online consultation platforms require careful curation to make sure than information is concise and easy to digest, meaning people get informed and get involved before their attention drifts to EastEnders or TOWIE.

Information locked in PDFs

A regular habit of engagement teams is linking to a downloadable version of 'exhibition boards' on their consultation website. PDFs are great for printing, but they act more like images than web pages, meaning that searching for information becomes very difficult. It's far better to integrate this information into your consultation website in a responsive HTML format, making it easier for people to view, search and find the information that they need on the device that they choose to use.

Mobile incompatibility

Whilst most modern websites are designed to adapt to mobile devices, images can often shrink and become difficult to view, particularly landscape-oriented images on portrait-oriented smartphone screens. If images are simply there to act as illustration, then it isn't too much of a problem. But for planning and development projects, the images tend to be site plans, elevations, CGIs and location plans, where the detail is important. It is therefore vital that websites provide a way to enlarge images so that the visitor can pinch, zoom and appreciate all the detail.

Platform inflexibility

The main aim of a consultation website is ultimately to gather feedback from communities. But, so often, digital engagement platforms are only designed to ask questions of a certain type/theme/format or the consultation websites are simply not designed with integrated feedback functionality at all. What that means in practice is that they end up with two websites, one to provide the information and one, such as a 'Survey Monkey'-type survey, to gather feedback on that information. This complicates the user experience and adds extra steps that might put them off.

Long URLs

If you are providing people with a link to your consultation website by email or social media, then this isn't a problem. But if you are asking someone to type a website address into their browser or an email address into their email client, making it long and convoluted might result in typing errors. People who are only loosely motivated to get involved in the first place might then simply give up at the first attempt. Using a simple, top level (.com or URL to access your consultayion website is therefore vital to get as many people involved as possible.

Mandatory sign-up

In an age of ever-increasing awareness about how people treat their personal data and how it is treated by the people they hand it over to, consciously or not, people are becoming more wary about creating online accounts. What's more, making someone create a login for a consultation website adds another step that takes up part of their already limited attention span, meaning they are less likely to follow-through with their involvement. Our digital engagement platform only requires the user to type in their details once, then remembers their details for each subsequent interaction until the browser is closed. This avoids the need to create a login account to make multiple comments on a sentiment map, for example.

Get in touch to find out more about how our digital engagement platform is breaking down barriers to community involvement in built environment projects by putting the user experience first.

Written by Paul Erskine-Fox - Founder, Participatr

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