Collaborated with 4 other experience design interns remotely
Node is a concept for an AR participatory urban planning platform, giving local residents a voice in shaping the communities they live in.
I worked with a team of four other experience design interns on this 10-week long project, going through the entire design life cycle, with a particular emphasis on the early exploratory and ideation phases. Our initial project brief was to design a near-future conceptual product that utilizes augmented reality to improve the experience of post-pandemic society, giving them the ability to engage with local communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed public space, leading to initiatives such as the expansion of slow streets, bike lanes, and outdoor dining. With the increased importance of public space as a way for community members to exercise and engage with each other, public engagement in urban planning projects is critical to ensuring that public spaces continue to bring value to community members in a post-pandemic setting. This led our team to focus on urban planning as our area of impact.
Urban planners understand the importance of getting feedback from community members in the process of public space development. However, they face challenges in getting diverse and representative feedback and gathering this feedback early on in the urban planning process.
Community members want to give feedback and share their voices, but they face high barriers in contributing their feedback. From being unaware of these opportunities for giving feedback to only having inflexible and time-consuming ways of participating, residents often face inequitable barriers when trying to engage in their community’s urban planning processes.
Our solution Node leverages AR to allow community residents to discover local urban planning projects and contribute their feedback in an engaging, time-efficient way. As a platform that supports flexible and user-friendly forms of giving feedback, Node closes the communication gap between urban planners and community members and makes the public engagement process more equitable.
Features & Impact
- Reach more community members and increase participation
Node provides opportunities for community members to give feedback in a time-efficient and engaging way. This draws in new members to contribute who previously could not make it to urban planning meetings or who were unaware of opportunities to give feedback.
- Show what’s possible through enhanced visualizations
Node’s AR experiences expand local residents’ imagination about what is possible in a space. In the early stages of the urban planning process, Node uses responsive visual representations of community feedback to better understand what a community wants. In later stages, community members can use Node to visualize what proposed developments would look like through life-size, site-specific models.
- Increase transparency in the urban planning process
Node helps forge a strong relationship between community members and planners built on open communication and trust. Node serves as the go-to place for community members to see the status of a project and contribute their feedback, and for planners to share new updates on the project and respond to community feedback.
- Bring people together and build community
Node brings people together through a shared experience of engaging with a space in a new, immersive way. Being able to see what others in the community value and hearing their stories can increase empathy and a sense of place, making community members feel closer to both the space and to each other.
We sought to understand the goals and challenges that urban planning professionals and community members face when engaging with each other.
For urban planners and designers
Identify factors that contribute to current urban planning procedures, determine the amenability for these behaviors to change, and explore the potential for AR to positively contribute to this process
For community members
Understand current engagement with urban planning processes in their community as well as determine the role AR might play in positively contributing to this process
We conducted research in collaboration with the Consumer Marketing Insights (CMI) team, interviewing 4 community planners and 3 community members. Participants were recruited through UserTesting.com. The interview sessions were 1-on-1 and 60-minutes each, conducted via Zoom.
- COVID-19 has caused people to reaffirm the ways in which they value public infrastructure.
The pandemic underscored the value of public park space and created new concerns about the cost, reliability, and sanitation of public transportation.
- Feedback from community members is critical to the public planning process but there are multiple challenges in how getting public engagement happens today.
Community planners recognize the importance of getting community members’ feedback on plans and proposals, but they experience difficulties with obtaining diverse and representative feedback that they can act on. Community members are interested in being actively engaged in their community’s planning processes but face a number of challenges in getting involved and frequently feel that their voice has not been heard.
- There is positive potential for AR in the public engagement process.
Both stakeholder groups demonstrate interest and excitement around the idea of using mixed reality technology in the public planning and engagement process, even if the specific ways aren’t always clear.
Pain points in the public engagement process
- Planners want the community’s opinions but experience difficulties with obtaining diverse and representative feedback.
Planners face challenges with reaching low-income and working communities since they often can’t make it to formal urban planning meetings, which happen at an exact place at an exact time. Planners find that participants are frequently over the age of 55 and that the same community members continuously participate. Obscure rules, time, and place constraints make it difficult for community members who are unfamiliar with or new to the engagement process to participate in giving feedback.
- Community members want to be heard earlier on, but planners have trouble engaging participants to get actionable feedback before they have a visual to present.
Both planners and community members want to ensure that the proposed developments will bring value to the community, so getting public feedback early on, before critical decisions are made, is incredibly important. However, planners tend to focus on getting public engagement in the later phases of the urban planning process, since they find that it is easier to get actionable feedback when community members have a visual model to react to. But by the time a formal plan with models is made, planners often consider public opinions as “additional cost” so they often are not utilized.
- Community members feel like there’s a lack of transparency in the decision-making process of urban planning projects and often don’t know where their feedback goes.
Most community members don’t feel that their feedback is taken into consideration in final proposals. Once they submit their feedback, they often don’t hear updates on the project’s development. Community members’ feelings of not being heard can lead to a vicious cycle of lower participation rates.
Areas of exploration
With these pain points in mind, we explored opportunities for AR to address current challenges with the public engagement process.
- How might AR reduce the communication and feedback gaps during the early phases of the community planning process, and how might it achieve this for the later phases?
- How might AR allow community planners to reach a larger and more diverse segment of the community so that they can get more representative feedback?
- How might community planners use AR to help community members so that they can visualize how a new project or proposal will impact them personally?
We examined platforms such as MetroQuest and Neighborland (acquired by Nextdoor). We chose these platforms as they are leading solutions for cities and government agencies as well as urban design and planning agencies to involve the public for feedback.
Our competitive audit illuminated the importance of visual, interactive mechanisms for collecting public feedback, as lengthy text-based forms can quickly become overwhelming. Other important features we recognized were the importance of making project experiences site-specific and easily discoverable, such as pinpointing proposals to locations on a map and using filters to direct community members to proposals that match their interests.
We worked individually on concept drawings and regrouped as a team to discuss the different features of our imagined solutions. We combined our ideas into a single end-to-end solution for getting public feedback throughout the entire urban planning process. To get aligned on key features and our prioritization moving forward, we conducted a MoSCoW analysis.
To better understand a potential community member’s journey of our concept, we created a storyboard that drew upon our interview insights and our proposed features.
We continued thinking through user flows and created an information architecture diagram to define the hierarchy and navigation of Node.
We created low-fidelity prototypes to walk through user flows for contributing to an early-stage urban planning project (AR sculpture-building) and contributing to a late-stage development project (AR model).
View the interactive Figma prototype.
Community members can discover urban planning projects in their area, view the status of these developments, and contribute their feedback.
Navigate to Projects
Community members can use Node to navigate to local urban planning projects so that they can participate in AR, site-specific feedback experiences.
Community members can learn more about the project, view the deadline for public feedback, visualize the community’s overall sentiment, and contribute their own feedback.
Share Feedback: Sculpture-Building in AR
In the early ideation and exploratory stages of urban development projects, when urban planners do not have a clear or finalized idea of what the project’s end result will look like, community members can speak up about what they hope to see within a space. Through drag-and-drop sculpture-building, community members can allocate blocks corresponding to the areas of the plan they value and further elaborate on their feedback sculpture by sharing their story, allowing urban planners to better understand community sentiment.
Share Feedback: AR Development Model
In the later stages of a development project, when urban planners have already created detailed sketches, community members can use Node to visualize these models. Community members have another opportunity to give feedback, as Node allows them to place comments on areas of the model as well as upvote other community members’ comments.
We focused on the community member journey during this 10-week project, considering how community members would discover local urban planning projects, contribute their feedback, and stay up to date on the progress of the developments. I envision Node as being a toolkit that can scale to meet the needs of urban planning projects of all sizes, so another critical user journey is the urban planner’s. Using the insights from our interview with urban planners, I would create user flows and screens for what navigating Node would look like from an urban planner’s experience. Some of these key moments to design for include how an urban planner would initiate a project, create a sculpture-building visual survey to gather community input in the early stages, present an AR model in the later stages, and send out updates throughout the development project.
I would also love to conduct user testing with these prototypes to inform future iterations of our designs.