Save the Bees! (a Nat Geo Case Study)

UXDi Project 4

The problem: 
The bees are dying! People are vaguely aware of the declining bee population, and they may want to help, but don’t know many details about the issue or what actions they can take to make a difference.

The opportunity:
As a highly visible authority on global science, National Geographic has the capacity to change the way people view our world. They promote animal conservation as part of their long term goal to showcase the phenomena of earth. However their existing suite of digital products lack a centralized location for their resources on the bee ecosystem.

The goal:
Create an engaging responsive web experience for educating an apathetic public under the National Geographic brand


From the get-go, my project partner and I suspected that this project’s main challenge would be one of content strategy. Sure, there are countless educational resources available online. But which ones are memorable?

We set out to understand few big questions central to our problem space:

What are people’s awareness surrounding “the bee problem”?
How and when do people actively educate themselves about conservation issues?
What are the most effective methods to encourage casual learning?

We knew our most valuable research would come from talking to users. We sent out a screener survey asking some pretty basic questions:

A sample of survey results (4 of 12 questions)

User Interviews

Out of 60 survey respondents, we conducted 10 formal interviews. From our interviews, a few surprising things stood out:

  • More people than expected legitimately care about bees (Sidenote: as someone with a bee phobia, I found this fascinating.)
  • 8/10 interviewees, when asked, were excited to share a fun animal fact they had learned a long time ago
  • Beyond bees affecting our present world, 3/10 interviewees reported a greater concern for leaving behind a healthy world for the future generation
  • People were surprised by how directly the bees impact their lives

My faith in humanity bolstered, my project partner and I summarized our user interview findings into two representative personas; Greg and Aswathi.

Primary Persona
Secondary Persona

To serve our personas, we wanted to provide:

  • Clarity on small impactful actions
  • Surprising yet memorable facts
  • Engaging content beyond long-form editorials
  • A shareable experience

Other Research

Beyond user research, we also wanted to explore the existing educational landscape. We analyzed some of National Geographic’s direct competitors alongside other websites in the education and conservation space. (Some examples include: Discovery Channel, PBS Nova, the NRDC, Polar Bears International, The Honeybee Conservancy, NYC Beekeepers Association)

Additionally, we thought it would be a good idea to look at designs with strong visual storytelling. We expanded our research field to another half-dozen websites that leveraged visual effects and unique elements to tell their story.

Design & Iterations

Our first two iterations were rather simple. There were three pages to start:

  1. Home Page (one long scrolling narrative with parallax)
  2. “How to Help” resource page (the most requested content from our research data)
  3. “Adopt a Virtual Bee” feature (an experiment!)

We wanted to leverage the incredible photography of Nat Geo while experimenting with different features along the way. (Example: a randomized fact generator in the “hero” section, inspired by our user interviews.)

User Testing

On the positive side, our user testers diligently read through our content and reported being surprised and interested in the state of bees in our world.

“I had no idea bees were so important to us” was a common refrain.

On the negative side, when it came to our experimental features… they failed. Our “refresh fact” experiment was largely overlooked; it turns out users for better or worse expect a simple CTA (call to action) or otherwise a carousel. Our customizable “Adopt a Bee” feature was met with mixed emotions and confusion. Overall, it detracted from our core message and didn’t incite a lot of emotional engagement.

Something was missing.

Asking for Help

As this case study was a student project, we asked our instructional team to step in and serve as “Creative Directors” to review our design. They brought to light some foundational problems. Namely, that we were focusing too heavily on the “what” of the story, and not the “how.”

How can users interact more? How can they understand a world without bees? How can they be drawn into the story?

We were encouraged to go back to the drawing board and challenge our perceptions of the learning experience.

Parallax scroll of homepage

Waiting for Godot’s Muse

This is where the design process gets murky for me. Where the science yields to art. When we go hunting for the muse, hoping that one will show up just days before deadline with no clue as to how to push our design forward. This is when we throw a hundred ideas at the wall (backed by research of course) in the hopes that one will stick.

Brainstorming session

After some whiteboarding sessions we had a new experiment to try: instead of users simply reading our story, what if they could write their own

(Ever read those “choose your own adventure” books back in the 90s? Yeah. We went there.)

We had all of this “BEES ARE SO COOL!!!” content and were excited that we had found a place to put it. After validating a basic story structure with a handful of testers, we set off to write the script.

Our goal was to illicit emotion from either a positive or negative “end state” of a user’s text-based game play, and redirect that emotion into action.

For the scope of our project, we chose to have four possible end states, each promoting and linking to a different way to help the declining bee population.

Our Initial “CYOA” Game Map

A question remained: could we balance a sense of education and fun while also maintaining National Geographic’s trusted tone?

Our final round of user testing yielded some interesting reactions.

Every single tester opted to play again, often multiple times. They wanted to share the game. They were sad about their bee. They wanted to click the related content links to find out how to keep their bee from dying. They reacted positively to the photography. They believed this was something National Geographic would actually do.

User Testing Quotes:

“This is dynamic, not the usual way I read news. I like that.”
“I feel like a kid in a way… that I’m actually learning.”
“I really want to read this stuff. Now I want to help, this is connecting me to the bee.”
“Wait can I click on this? I want to know more.”
Sample game play

Next Steps

As always, we wished there was more time to iterate further on our project. Beyond the usual cosmetic issues (do those ever go away?), most notably there is a lot to smooth out in our gameplay.

We successfully were able to engage our users but perhaps too strongly. It’s a delicate balance — to ask users to play a hopeless game (where 3/4 outcomes are “negative”) and not get frustrated. There’s an emotional aspect to our game that we needed to better account for. Cueing our users before they make a game choice, for instance. Adding more layers to the content. Building out the “Play Human Story” scenarios. The list goes on.

Final Thoughts

This project would not have been possible without my colleague and project partner, Maxwell Dubs. Somehow, our shared fear of bees inspired a really fun educational journey — not just for our users but for ourselves as well.

Resources & Links

My partner put together our amazing desktop prototype in Principle. Be sure to check out the highlighted .gifs above. If you’d like to learn more about bees yourself, then I encourage you to interact with our mobile prototype below. (Can you survive a life in the day of a bee?)

Mobile Prototype

*Note* We do not own any of the photography used in these prototypes. They are from National Geographic or as otherwise noted in our documentation. Any content we generated serves as a placeholder for content that would need to be produced by copywriters were this a real product.

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