Michigan Township Association (MTA)
Two UX Researchers
Two Policy Specialists
Lead UX Researcher
Six Weeks (Remote)
Illustrator, Survey Monkey,
How might we help Michigan townships safely conduct public meetings during COVID?
Michigan’s Open Meeting Act (OMA) aims to promote transparency in government. The Act requires any local governing body to conduct its business in meetings open to the public and provide the public with notice of any such meetings. The OMA, as it stood in the summer of 2020, had no guidelines for conducting virtual meetings or providing notice to the public during a global health pandemic. To guide our research, we asked the following questions:
What features are critical for OMA virtual meetings?
What has/hasn't worked well in implementing virtual meetings thus far?
Where do local governments need support to comply with OMA?
Our goal was to outline a range of solutions to account for the different obstacles townships were facing in concern to public meetings. Coming into the project the deliverables had already been outlined, which include the following:
The policy specialists spearheaded a virtual meeting policy memo. Collaboratively, the team developed a Virtual Meeting Reference Guide for townships. At the same time, the software requirements synthesis for townships were spearheaded by myself and fellow UX researcher. Due to time-constraints and funding, we wanted to leverage existing tools in order to make an immediate impact during the crisis.
First, we conducted a competitive analysis in order to get a better understanding of the available platforms and capabilities of existing virtual meeting platforms. We researched five video conferencing platforms and four audio conferencing platforms, comparing 13 features, costs, user/host capacity, and time limit. In terms of video platforms, we found that Skype Business, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom all had similar capabilities- however, from a convenience and price standpoint and price standpoint Zoom was the best existing option to conduct virtual meetings. In terms of audio conferencing, Ring was slightly more superior- however, from a price standpoint, FreeConfrenceCall.com was a better option.
Our team created, deployed, and analyzed the data of a survey which received 283 responses from city and township representatives in the state of Michigan. The purpose of the survey was to learn more about the township officials experiences and needs to better conduct virtual open meetings. Our main takeaways were that top six software features respondents thought were critical, indicate that only the basic features are needed to conduct virtual meetings. Zoom was the most preferred software platform with 122 respondents (59%) reporting using it for virtual meetings, with many stating the platform worked well for their needs. And, over half of respondents stated that Closed Captioning was “nice to have but not necessary”, which was interesting since Closed Captioning is required via the OMA- if requested by an individual.
With a basic understanding of respondent viewpoints on critical virtual meeting features, we then interviewed four survey respondents to further understand their experiences. Due to time restrictions and response rates, only four respondents were interviewed. All four respondents' townships had successfully held virtual meetings over Zoom and shared their experiences.
"The majority can be reached with virtual meetings, more than with in-person; more information and accessibility is better."
"Be clear and honest with public, ask for their patience, acknowledge that township functions will not be the same as in-person."
"Overall we've received positive feedback about the Zoom meetings we've held- aside from some reverberation issues."
"I personally prefer virtual meetings. We are getting more community engagement, it's convenient, and takes less time overall."
After the interview process I created an affinity diagram to analyze the interviews. The main takeaways were that interviewees were unaware of Zooms features. Additionally, interviewees expressed that Zoom had poor audio quality. Main complications mentioned included background noise and reverberation.
Based on the interviews and survey findings, I created three personas to represent township representatives. The personas the representatives and their interests, concerns, and motivations around the open meeting act and virtual meetings.
The recommendations are based off our research and to address the needs and pain-points of the different township representative and the limitations they encountered due to internet connectivity.
Additionally, two versions of a Virtual Meeting Reference Guide were developed:
Version 1: Relevant for immediate needs and flexibility of the Open Meetings Act
Version 2: Relevant if/when virtual meetings are permanently allowed
Virtual meetings using a video conferencing tool such as, Zoom Pro Plan, for townships with adequate internet connectivity, interested in holding virtual meetings
Virtual meetings using a audio conferencing tool such as, Zoom Pro Plan (audio conferencing) or FreeConferenceCall.com, for townships with poor internet connectivity
Virtual meetings using an audio conferencing tool such as, Zoom Pro Plan or Free FreeConferenceCall.com, with onsite hardware
The final reports were published on MTA's website for townships to access and reference. Additionally, our findings and recommendations were used a supplement for MTA to inform the Governor's office. In November 2020, an amendment to the OMA was made by the Governor to permit public bodies to meet electronically by telephone or videoconferencing through March 31, 2021.