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User research

User research (UR) is an essential part of the Digital Transformation of Planning, aiming to provide a solid, robust and reliable foundation based on a clear understanding of its users’ issues and experiences.

The planning system is used by many different user groups and understanding their needs and how to deliver on them can’t happen in isolation. It is essential that our approach is collaborative, making the best use of different skills and perspectives to understand the problems experienced and create the most effective solutions.

Who we spoke to

We spoke to over 1000 participants in a series of workshops, interviews, design validation sessions and an extensive citizen survey. 

Participants in the research have been drawn from the very broad spectrum of user groups across the planning system in Scotland, with planning authority staff being central to the research. All authorities have had opportunities to take part in the research.

Over 850 citizens, nearly 150 planning authority staff and 70 Professionals have taken part in our user research to date.

What we heard

The primary focus of user research is the identification of issues experienced by users of a system in order that they might be addressed.

Positive findings

Our user research highlighted many positive aspects of the planning system that users felt were working well.

These included:

  • the ePlanning portal which is seen as efficient and much less time consuming than paper
  • the formal major application service
  • the DPEA appeals system
  • online engagement and availability of plans online
  • good relationships between planning authorities, key agencies, utilities and other bodies

Issues and opportunities 

The rest of the findings from the initial user research phases focused on issues and opportunities. These insights were analysed from all the different user groups involved and led to the development of eight main themes:

  • Consistency
    The different approaches, and some different systems, used by planning authorities and other parties can lead to inconsistency for users
  • Engagement and trust
    Some people see public engagement across planning as narrow and unrepresentative. Citizens sometimes feel planning decisions are a “done deal” and that their voices don’t matter.
  • Knowledge of planning
    More widespread understanding of planning and the impact of planning decisions would enhance civic capacity and the ability to meaningfully participate
  • Communication
    Effective communications, notifications and updates are seen as necessary factors in ensuring that the planning system as a service is efficient, responsive and easy to understand for users.
  • Collaboration
    Some professional user groups highlighted opportunities to enhance collaboration, which could identify and resolve potential issues early and improve community engagement
  • Data and technology
    Data is seen as a key asset in supporting effective monitoring and decision making, and the technology used across the planning system needs to be fit for purpose
  • Knowledge, skills and resources
    A high-quality service is dependent on users having knowledge of the planning system and the planners of tomorrow having the skills and resources to be able to make best use of data and technology
  • Efficiency
    A number of areas were identified where efficiency could be improved, often relating to technology issues or staff carrying out unnecessary admin tasks.

Our main themes and the extensive data and insights behind them formed the basis of further research, the creation of illustrative prototypes, and the foundation of the programme itself. 

What we've done with the findings

The insights captured from the first phase were used to inform the creation of a suite of prototypes, designed to illustrate the ‘art of the possible’ in a planning system of the future.

Our user research themes, and the findings of our horizon scanning research were used as the basis for a series of ‘How might we…’ challenges. These challenges then helped frame some of the main issues identified, and explored potential design solutions from which the prototypes were created.

Prototype iteration

These prototypes were iterated and improved internally and then evaluated to see if they had succeeded in their goal of illustrating the ‘art of the possible’.

We captured feedback on these prototypes from representative users, including householder applicants, architects, planning officers, major developers and strategic planners in a series of structured walkthroughs. The aims were to validate our thinking and further our understanding of user goals and requirements. 

These sessions were very successful, capturing lots of very rich feedback, including:

  • The subjective user ratings were all positive, with the great majority stating the prototypes illustrated a planning system of the future either ‘effectively’ or ‘very effectively’.
  • The majority also stated they would feel ‘very happy’ about using illustrative prototypes in question, or something like them, should they be developed.

Some of the prototypes were iterated further on this feedback. All the feedback captured during these sessions, as with all the user research, will be used as the starting point for the further research required in delivery. 

Some of the prototypes created

You can find more information on the individual prototypes on the following pages:

You can find more information on how we’ll be taking forward work to deliver new systems and ways of working in Scotland's Digital Strategy for Planning.

Further research in spatial planning

Our third phase of research was directed at exploring the innovation and transformation opportunities in spatial planning. This was undertaken to ensure our user research and prototypes covered the entirety of the planning system and process. 

We conducted a series of workshops involving nearly 50 participants including academics, planners from within the Scottish Government, planning authorities and RTPI young planners.

These workshops explored the future landscape (five to 10 years), constraints and many different scenarios in spatial planning. These were also informed by the changes to development planning introduced in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019.

Collaborative design

The data and insights generated were very rich, ranging from an in-depth exploration of opportunities, possible solutions, a detailed exploration of the context of planning, and the technology available to support the transformation. 

This feedback was then used to refine some of the earlier development planning prototypes, and to drive the creation of a new, more extended illustration of the ‘art of the possible’ in spatial planning.

Prototype feedback

As with earlier prototypes we created, the main Producing Plans prototype was tested via a series of structured walkthroughs with planning authority planners. This helped us understand how effective they were at conveying the vision of a possible future of the Scottish planning system, and even more about what users might need from such a system.  

Feedback was again very positive, with most participants stating that the prototype illustrated a planning system of the future ‘very effectively’.

Draft NPF4 logo

National Planning Framework 4

Read the adopted NPF4 on

Last Updated: 07 Jun 2023