Making planning more human

Helping Hackney build towards a digital, human-centered planning system
Illustration of a block of flats
Council housing block viewed from abandoned lot with graffiti wall

Focusing challenges

After a design sprint exploring transforming the planning process, our friends at Hackney Council were successful in securing funding to work in this area. Snook and Hactar were then brought on board to explore the challenge area of “Improving the user experience of submitting planning applications”.

We took this challenge and focused it on household applications. This was because the scope of applications is wide and we wanted to start with a relatively simple scenario that would demonstrate impact. If someone wants to improve their home, whether building a conservatory or adding an extension – this would be one of the first steps on their journey. However, not many people were getting past the first part of the planning process, with a staggering 61% of applications failing to be validated. This pointed to the fact that applicants are not submitting all the information required for the local authority to assess the application.

Unpicking complexity

After focusing the challenge, we entered a 6 week discovery phase. By spending time with planners, policy makers, citizens and staff we started to unpick the complexity. We learnt that the system was fragmented, the questions on the application were difficult to navigate (and sometimes irrelevant) and the language was complex.

We responded by creating lo-fi wireframe prototypes which we tested with users. After some adjustments, we started prototyping in code, using the GOV.UK design system for simplicity, efficiency and familiarity.

Person using Hackney Planning on a Macbook Pro

It was not only the interface that we transformed, but the data schema as well, making the information that we collected smarter, and more effective. When redesigning the platform, it was imperative that we also addressed the content, transforming the language for ease of comprehension and accessibility.

When applying for government services, questions can sometimes be pretty standard. This works in some instances, but when application needs vary a lot (as they do in planning) it makes the process complicated, as many questions aren’t relevant at all. We navigated this challenge by using a dynamic form which responds to the questions answered. For example, when applying to change a window in a conservation area, it won’t ask about parking spaces – it’s simply not relevant. To make the process even simpler, we linked up to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data. This meant that applicants wouldn’t have to enter information that the council already has. As a result we created a digital platform that’s customisable for different user experiences, is intelligent – and more human.

Surreal illustration to represent planning


We’re excited to be giving citizens the tools to craft better urban environments, and with the public beta going live in 2019, we’re anticipating a drop in invalidation and a cost saving in resources for the council as well.

In the future, Hackney’s new platform has the potential to influence how other local authorities across the country process applications. By scaling the product, we can collect better, smarter data for citizens and government. It can monitor development, helping us tackle societal housing challenges with smart data and actions like never before.

Residential street in London with moped next to bike shed