Design and user research go hand in hand when it comes to product development. Both are essential if you want to make a product that is useful, usable, and used. We’ve been working with the Resource Watch team at World Resources Institute (WRI) on a redesign that makes planetary data easier to use.
So, why did Resource Watch get a redesign?
Dani: User research done by Martin revealed several things that we could improve in terms of the user experience on Resource Watch. Rather than taking each problem one by one and finding isolated solutions, we decided it made more sense to reconfigure the whole space.
Martin: The Explore page — a sort of library of open-source global datasets that can be accessed and visualized on a map — is really the core offering of Resource Watch. Over the years the page has hosted a growing number of datasets on a vast array of different topics. In our conversation with users, many had described the Explore page as “overwhelming”. Yes, they can search for datasets in the search bar, but some users weren’t sure which words they should type or which datasets are available.
Our main challenge was to represent the breadth of the data, invite exploration, and inspire (which are key elements of the value proposition to our users). While at the same time providing users with quick access to the datasets they are searching for.
In addition to that, we also took advantage of this redesign to tackle a number of other changes, based on needs detected from our previous testing. For example, these included making it easier for users to customise their experience, and removing misleading redirections.
We made a conscious decision to work very closely with the Resource Watch team at WRI. We carried out some interviews together, and involved the whole team in a co-analysis session. We asked them to review some recordings of the user testing so that we could discuss them in-depth and cross-reference our interpretations. This was a fun exercise, and more importantly, it helped ensure that the key learnings about users wouldn’t simply end up in a one-directional presentation (and therefore probably quickly forgotten about). Instead, this approach meant that our user insights were built and absorbed by everyone on the team.
What information did you use to develop the new design for Resource Watch?
Dani: Knowing who your users are and what they need is the first and most important piece of information you need when designing a data platform. Martin’s research told us that policymakers, journalists, and educators were the three key users of Resource Watch. The conversations with people from these three groups also told us that there’s a wide range of experience and knowledge level that we need to cater for. We needed a design that would make the Resource Watch data accessible and usable for all of them.
Our goal was to provide the tools that someone needs to be a great analyst. If you’re not an expert on climate data, you’ll need some guidance. If you are a climate data expert, you’ll want the fastest entry point to the most relevant data.
When I pitched this approach to WRI, I used the Pixar movie ‘Ratatouille’ as a reference. In that movie, a stuck-up food critic learns that anyone can become a great cook if you give them tools (or a good cook book!) to work with. Our aim is the same with Resource Watch. We’re giving every chef the tools they need to create delicious dishes of data.
Martin: On most of our projects, we try to gather as much information as possible about a situation before making decisions. In this case, our main approach was to carry out user testing — showing the new designs to users, hearing their feedback, and analyzing their behavior and words. But we also had a look at quantitative sources too: we looked at Google Analytics (website analytics to get large scale statistics on user behavior), to know, for example, more about the keywords that users enter when doing a search on Resource Watch.
Over the years, we’ve developed a more solid understanding of our users. So, we’ve been revisiting our conclusions from previous user testings, to make sure we build on previous blocks of knowledge and gain an increasingly accurate picture.
How do you simplify things without losing information?
Dani: You simplify things by having everything in order. That doesn’t mean you need to get rid of things. You simply reorganise what you have. It’s like tidying your house and choosing where to put things. You probably won’t throw anything away, but you will put things in places that make them easier to find when you need them.
Martin: As a user researcher, it’s my role to find the barriers that block people from finding the information they want. Once we find them, Dani uses design to take them away.
Something that our user research team has noticed over and over in many projects, is that most people don’t bother reading long texts — or even long paragraphs — for example those that describe the datasets. Now, this might not come as a big surprise to most of you, we’ve all heard that attention spans are getting shorter. But in most of our projects — where many of our users have scientific backgrounds — we had assumed that they would be keen on reading all the details. Truth is: many science-minded people skim read too, or they just want to go straight to the point. Which means, more often than not, just a few well-worded, well-placed bullet points will do! The design can always include a hyperlink or an additional information button to cater to those who will be keen on reading more.
Dani: In the case of Resource Watch, we’ve added customised features that allow users to curate and save the data they regularly use. When we designed this, we took inspiration from playlists and pinterest boards that people use to gather the things they care about most. We also drew inspiration from Netflix and how they categorise movies and tv shows, to help us assemble groups of datasets that relate to one another.
The challenge here was to turn an experience that’s often considered boring into something fun! Data doesn’t need to be boring. Information is interesting! So, if we make the digestion of data easier, and let people enjoy it, they will use it!
Boring can be a barrier. Data should be understandable, accessible and beautiful. Beauty comes from being understandable and accessible. These are the principles we follow when thinking about design.
What’s your favourite thing about the new Resource Watch?
Dani: My favourite thing about the new Resource Watch is that we are opening up new possibilities. We’ve created a stronger foundation from which we can grow. We’re turning our attention to better mobile design, and the design choices we’ve made up to now will make that next step easier to do. We’ve also opened up new possibilities for user customisation. I’m already feeling excited about the new things that will come in the future.
Humans thinking for humans is what makes Resource Watch so special. We took the time to select which datasets should be offered up to each user. We haven’t relied on an algorithm to make those choices. When a user chooses a dataset, the recommendations they see will be contextually related and suggested by another human.
Martin: I feel there is something cute and compact about the new Resource Watch, a bit like what Dani was saying before: you’re not getting rid of anything, it’s more that datasets are much more visible and ordered, as if it were a very tidy cupboard. I also really like the great job that the team did on the “explanations” (metadata) page of each dataset. In the new design, instead of redirecting users to a new page, the key bits of information have been condensed, so that they can now just fit into an elegant sidebar solution. Users can read the text information, and yet not lose sight of the map!
Camellia is Vizzuality’s Lead Writer. She writes about design and technology and how it can help mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity. She drinks tea, but never coffee.