The art of the “community check-in”

Would community projects be more successful if we talked to our communities first?

Thank you wonderful team at AAEE for inviting me to help redesign the NSW Environment Trust‘s grant-making process.

We aimed for a quantum leap in how environmental education projects are designed by mandating two steps 1) doing preliminary social research, and 2) doing field testing (see next post).

To show that social research can be simple and do-able, even with a small budget, we made a little guidance note (below).

We’re keen to get feedback. If you have any examples, we’d love to hear them.

First, to make the point, here is Amy Shattock from small NZ agency Autonomy, talking about micro research into the vexed local issue of van camping in Nelson.

“So we decided to find out. We wanted to know how much could we find out while keeping it simple, short, and, cost effective.

We allocated ourselves 8 hours from start to finish, 1 hour for design and planning, 6 hours (split into 2 x 3 hour blocks) to get the information and 1 hour for basic summary.

We made a simple interview format and carried out 117 targeted interviews in just 6 hours. We carefully chose the questions and approach so we were met with no resistance and got the maximum amount of information while still respecting the privacy and time of the van campers.

It was just a wonderful little exercise to show that social research doesn’t have to be large scale, technology based, and expensive.

Ultimately we came away with; there is good reason to take time to understand our community. If we genuinely want to understand and represent our communities when we make decisions, then we have to look at ways we can gain information and insight for the vast majority for the community who we usually don’t ever hear from.” 

(Thanks Amy)

And here’s our guidance note. Hope you enjoy it.

Guidance note:

Doing ‘human-centred’ research with your target group

Traditionally, environmental education projects were built on the assumption that changing people’s knowledge and attitudes was enough to change their behaviours.

Systems Thinking points out that it’s not so simple. People’s daily practices are embedded in a taunt web of social norms, infrastructure, technologies, feedback loops, prices, legal rules, and so on.

Meanwhile, Social Practice Theory points out that many practices are resistant to change because they define people’s membership of a social group. For example, we might hear that ‘real farmers around here don’t grow organics’ or ‘serious cyclists around here don’t use bicycle bells’.

To make sustained change we therefore need find ways to intervene in this complex web of influences and meanings. This realisation forces us to:

1) Have the widest possible palette of strategies to select from (see our upcoming Palette of Strategies guide).

2) Adopt project design methods that begin with learning about the practical realities of people’s lives and businesses, their values, and their sense of identity. This means doing human-centred research at the start of a project.

Human-centred research methods

Which of these methods suits your project?

Individual interviews: One-on-one conversations. These could be formal interviews (for example, sitting down in a coffee shop), or informal discussions in the field (for example talking to dog walkers on a beach).

Focus groups: Facilitated conversations, each with 5-7 people.

Field observation: Watch them doing it. For example, observe littering behaviours at festival, or position cameras to observe dogs being walked in a ‘no dog’ zone.

Do it yourself: Walk in their shoes or alongside them. If you can experience the situation for yourself, do so – you’ll learn a lot.

Codesign: Invite some of your audience to help design the project with your team. Typically this means holding a workshop that includes an inspiring briefing followed by a brainstorm.

The Design Kit has a good summary of these social research methods.

Make sure you collect information systematically. For example, have a written format that you complete for each person you interview.

When doing social research it’s vital to be neutral. Avoid advocating a solution or trying to convince people of any proposition. We need to be willing to be surprised, discomforted, and open to having our assumptions demolished.

On using surveys

Surveys are good at measuring the distribution of beliefs, attitudes, practices and social norms in a population. However surveys are a weak tool for obtaining insight into how people might move into a desired future. Social research should always begin with open-ended listening with the aim of having our assumptions challenged, and obtaining surprising insights. Once this qualitative research is complete, a survey can determine the proportion of your population that may be open to various strategies.

How many people in your sample?

There is no universal rule. It depends on your budget. A guide is: a large enough sample so that results can be corroborated by several people. It’s not essential to meet academic standards: the aim is for your team’s assumptions to be challenged and tested, and to obtain unexpected insights.

For a small project you might consider:

3-4 focus groups with 7 people each


20-40 face-to-face interviews


30-60 field observations.


The City of Canada Bay interviewed 80 dog walkers in public parks to develop their Bag it, Bin It dog poo reduction campaign.

Waverley Council interviewed 42 household recyclers, by knocking on doors in apartment blocks, to develop a project to reduce recycling contamination.

Autonomy interviewed 117 van campers around Nelson by walking from van to van and asking a series of questions about their backgrounds, practices and needs.

What questions to ask?

Start by creating a script of questions.

Here are some suggested questions you could use as a starting point:

  • The participants’ age (in ranges), gender, languages spoken at home, whether owner/tenant, and time in the area/industry.
  • What is their experience of the situation (e.g. how do they currently recycle, manage their litter, care for their garden, weed their property, use a river)? Ideally, collect this information as a flowing narrative (‘What do you do first?’ ‘What do you do next?’ etc..) looking for ‘pain points’ where people experience frustrations, negative feelings or obstacles. Ask people to interpret their observations along the way. For example, a littered park might be interpreted as ‘council doesn’t care’.
  • What ideas do they have for tackling the environmental problem?
  • What do they think about the proposed solution?
  • What conditions would have to be met for them to adopt a specific action or practice?
  • Why aren’t they acting now?
  • How could the desired practice be made easier to do?
  • What do they think is the ‘normal’ practice amongst their peers?
  • What do their peers say about the problem? And about the solution?
  • Who do they trust as credible sources and leaders?

When deciding who to interview, consider starting with pre-qualifying questions that exclude people at the extremes of the bell curve (‘the converted’ or ‘the opponents’). It’s often best to look for people who are open to change but not yet doing it. That way you can hone in on practical barriers that might make a difference.

For a detailed guide to doing social research: Guide to using research in sustainability programs.


A related approach is to hold a codesign workshop with some supportive members of your target audience. This is an excellent way to involve lay people in the design of your strategy, tactics and messages.

Codesign examples:

  • The “Leave it!” project that aimed reduce domestic dog attacks on koalas’ in the Redlands area, SE Queensland, started with 6 codesign workshops with dog owners and experts. They were shown examples of projects from other places, then brainstormed solutions together. The result was a positive, dog-focused program that delivered obedience training, giving dog owners the skills needed to avoid wildlife, and launched through a popular Dogfest festival that had 1500 attendees.
  • Waverley Council recycling contamination project: To design a strategy to tackle recycling contamination in multi-unit dwellings the council held a 2 hour workshop with 5 internal staff, 3 managing agents, and 3 keen recyclers from blocks of flats. They were briefed with local data and possible solutions from around the world. They then brainstormed and prioritised their ideas which informed the strategy that was piloted in Waverley.

BACKGROUND: Design Thinking

Design Thinking (also called Human-Centred Design or Innovation Thinking) is a method of designing solutions to any kind of complex problem.

It’s a step-by-step process that involves:

1) Social research with the aim of becoming immersed in the realities of people’s lives.

2) Rethinking the problem from many perspectives.

3) Brainstorming possible solutions.

4) Assembling ‘fast prototypes’ of the most promising solutions.

5) Field testing those prototypes.

6) Scaling up gradually.

An excellent introduction to Design Thinking is Tim Brown’s seminal 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review.

Design thinking and innovation labs are spreading rapidly in all levels of government in Australia, however they are still novel in the environmental education field.

The Research and Testing phases of the new Environmental Trust grant process are intended to encourage the adoption of design thinking practices in environmental education in NSW.

Key points

1) Changing people’s knowledge or attitudes rarely leads to new behaviours.

2) It’s vital to develop insight into the practical constraints on our audience’s lives, into their motivating values, and the norms of their peer groups. With those insights we may be able to identify interventions that will be welcomed rather than resisted.

3) Social research includes interviews, focus groups, and field observation. It’s important to be open minded and OK about having our assumptions dismantled.

4) Codesign is an approach that brings audience perspectives and imaginations directly into the project design process.

5) Design Thinking is a comprehensive process for generating prototypes that can be tested in real life.

P.S. And a note about the upcoming training in project design: