New content for planning and building control

We’ve published the first of many pages for our new planning user journeys.

Jez Vibert
Oct 6 · 3 min read

Why we are doing it

Since becoming a unitary authority in April 2020 we’ve been working to consolidate all Buckinghamshire Council services onto a new website, buckinghamshire.gov.uk. Currently our planning and building control services are split across the four old ex-district websites we inherited from pre-unitary days. Because we still have different back office systems in the north, south and west of the county users get a different experience depending on where they live. We’re working towards a single back-office system but it’s a big project and in the meantime we want the website to provide a more consistent, county-wide user experience.

What we have done

We’ve done extensive research to understand user needs and have identified 24 main user journeys, which we’ve grouped into 4 themes:

  1. Building or improving your property

The first journeys we’ve published are ‘apply for planning permission’ and ‘view a planning application’. We started with these 2 services because they are among the busiest on the whole site and research shows that users find the experience complicated and confusing.

The new ‘apply for planning permission’ section
The old pages that are being replaced

How we’ve done it

The way we’re designing content for buckinghamshire.gov.uk is different to how we’ve created content in the past. Previously we have published all of our guidance online for transparency reasons. However, this openness also makes our services too complicated for most users and generates a lot of unnecessary enquiries to the Customer Service Centre.

GOV.UK has taken a very different approach, simplifying content by only giving the information needed to use the service. We’re following their model and using their proven writing style and page designs. So, our new planning and building control content is designed to tell users only what they need to know, and nothing more. We keep pages simple, write in plain English and ensure they are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. This means only using images when they’re essential and avoiding PDF documents wherever we can.

The new pages have been co-written by content designers from the digital team and subject matter experts from the service. Working together we’ve ensured content is easy to understand whilst still meeting legal and technical requirements. We’ve tested the new pages with real users on desktop and mobile devices and made improvements based on their feedback, and we’ll continue to iterate them in future. We’ve also been mindful of the service’s business requirements, for example highlighting our discretionary paid-for services where appropriate.

To keep content short and easy to maintain in future we have a policy of not publishing content if there are other credible sources on the web. Helpfully, there is comprehensive planning guidance on GOV.UK and the Planning Portal, so we are linking to that where relevant.

Benefits

By taking this approach we’re able to greatly reduce the number of pages we publish. We have identified 24 main services (or ‘user journeys’) across planning and building control. Each journey contains typically 3–6 new pages. These 24 journeys will replace about 744 old pages, which will be unpublished over the coming weeks as the new pages launch.

The new pages represent the ‘minimum viable product’, which means the minimum information users need (or we have a legal obligation to publish). There will be other information that isn’t essential but would be useful and this can be developed later, as needed.

The vision for buckinghamshire.gov.uk is we will give residents more free time, by making everything they do with the council faster and easier. The new Planning and Building Control content is a perfect example of how we’ll deliver this.

Buckinghamshire Digital Service

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