Permitting Better Permitting

Designed a new digital application process, allowing citizens to track their application and communicate with staff. Design decisions based on research on the current (spring 2023) City of Dearborn's permit application process and evaluative research.
City of Dearborn, partnered with Google
My role
Project manager, UX researcher and designer
  • User interviews
  • Affinity mapping
  • Sketching
  • Usability testing
  • Digital prototyping with Figma
Two screens with City of Dearborn website and online portal placed on a blue background.
project overview
My role: As project manager, I managed client communication, facilitated team meetings and ensured team members were able to contribute relatively equally, conducted back and forth communication with many research participants, and scheduled video calls for generative and evaluative research, in addition to contributing to the research and design work (writing the interview protocols, interviewing, data analysis, wireframing, and prototyping).

Project Proposal: The City of Dearborn's economic development services has partnered with Google to transform their tech capabilities and citizen-facing digital products. Dearborn's economic development services (permits, inspections, grants, etc.) have been combined within the same department, and now they need a digital interface that allows the public to take advantage of that streamlining when they seek information, support, and follow up. The goal of this project was to make it easy for applicants to find a permit application, fill it out, track its status, and reach out for follow up.

Motivation: How might we make it easier for Dearborn residents to complete and track permitting applications online? The permit application process requires applicants, in many cases, to drop off paper forms and documentation in person. Applicants have also expressed frustration to the city staff about the lack of communication regarding their application status - if applications are mailed, applicants do not hear from the city until they get their forms back in the mail a week or two later.

Goal: Permit applicants need a clear and transparent application process that guides them through the application process without outside aid, so that they can file for permits easily and stay informed about the status of their application.

Implementation and Sustainability
: The deliverables (Figma prototype files and slide deck with research and information flows) for this project were handed off to City of Dearborn and Google for implementation.
Generative Research

User interviews were conducted with applicants for electrical and building permits.

  • Interviewed 6 permit applicants 
  • Interviews were 30-60 minutes long
  • We wrote an interview protocol that was used in all interviews so participants were asked the same questions, other than follow-up or clarifying questions.
Summary of five generative research insights
user & Information Flows
Through speaking with City of Dearborn permit staff, we developed information flows to map the current process from the internal side and citizen-facing side. This was extremely helpful in developing an in-depth understanding of the permit process, finding areas for improvement, and starting to consider possible solutions.
Image of user flow made of digital sticky notes and arrows connecting the sticky notes.
Subsequently, we developed recommended new user flows for applicants gathering information, submitting an application, and checking status and receiving feedback.
My team had two elements to design:
1. an updated website that would be the landing spot for applicants in the information-seeking phase of applying
2. an online portal for permit applicants to apply, track status, make revisions, receive feedback and respond, etc.
For the online portal, we looked at the platforms of other local governments to familiarize ourselves with the typical content, information architecture, etc. of permit application portals.

For the online portal, we have primarily focused on three key interactions:
1. Sign in
2. Application
3. Checking status
4. Viewing feedback

Below are two examples of the Figma mid-fi website wireframes. View hi-fi designs at end to see the online permit application portal.
Wireframe of City of Dearborn websiteWireframe of the Dearborn website
Evaluative research
Usability Testing
1. Wrote a usability testing protocol that was utilized to test both government websites and online portal
2. Ran task-based usability testing (each lasts for 30-60 minutes) with 7 participants
3. Ran modified A/B tests on the portal “my account” page with 7 participants
User interviews resulted in many notes that we analyzed using affinity mapping. The affinity map resulted in five high-level insights.
1. Application Submission: Citizens use offline methods to complete parts of the permit application process due to application requirements, personal preferences, or lack of awareness of alternatives. Overall, applicants would prefer an online application process.
2. Communication Breakdowns: Communication between the City of Dearborn and applicants is inconsistent and not frequent enough.
3. Information Access: Project stakeholders who are not the applicant (e.g. contractors, property owner, etc.) need access to the information shared between the city and the applicant during the permit application/approval process.
4. Inspections: Applicants want to be able to request an inspection and get written results online.
5. Application Timeline: Applicants are frustrated about long wait times and the application review process timeline not being communicated.
1. Made revisions on the design and information architecture of lo-fi prototypes of government websites and portal based on users’ feedback
2. Due to neither "my account" page being preferred by users over the other, we combined the two versions of the page and implemented users’ feedback.
Final Design
For the online portal, we have primarily focused on these key interactions:
1. Signing in
2. Applying
3. Checking permit application status
4. Viewing feedback on permit application
Mockup of the City of Dearborn permit application portal home pageMockup of the City of Dearborn permit application portal application pageMockup of the City of Dearborn permit application portal account pageMockup of the City of Dearborn permit application portal permit application status/feedback page
moving forward
Permit-specific processes
Our current design guides the user through the steps of applying for a generic permit. However, each permit type is different and the portal will need to include each specific type and allow the application type to be selected by the applicant.
Our current design does not include features for scheduling and coordinating inspections.
Feedback on permit applications
Further research and design is needed to improve the application feedback content, structure, and format within the portal so the process is still efficient for city staff.

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