Talus

Maximize human–nature interaction, by minimizing human–computer interaction for Forest Service rangers.

Role

Master's Capstone Timeline

Teammates

Interaction Design, Prototyping, UX Research
Advised by Layne Foit, REI Co-op
20 Weeks, Spring and Summer 2019
Eleanor Nesbit, Tony Tran

Our nation's public lands are being loved to death.

They are defined by a paradox.

Stewards must fulfill a dual mandate of furthering both conservation and access in parks, forests, and wilderness areas.

Rangers embody and mediate our experiences in these places.

We aim to help rangers better fulfill their duties of balancing conservation and access in public lands.

Stewardship, streamlined.

Talus helps rangers focus on their real work. 

Talus lets rangers spend more time in the field doing their most impactful work, instead of in the office performing low-value secondary tasks like filing reports and searching for information. 

It makes it easy for rangers to find, interpret, and use the information they need to preserve and provide access to public lands. 

Actionable Data

Talus gives rangers both spatial and temporal views of their data, enabling them to better interpret and act on what they see.
Map interface for accessing actionable trail data

Glanceable Conditions

Looking over hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness is no small task. Talus helps rangers quickly prioritize trails that are most in danger of degradation.
Snow Lake patol report modal interface

Optimized Workflows

New trail issues are continuously cropping up, and rangers need a simple way to prioritize and assign work. Talus lets rangers respond to this dynamic situation.
Optimized workflow experience of patrol creation dialog

Sustainable Outlook

Talus compiles trends in visitor traffic, trail conditions, and workload. This lets rangers quantify their efforts when applying for grants, which are necessary to secure funding for the future.
Data visualization dashboard showig ranger distic trends and long-term history

If we can spend more time in the woods and less time doing paperwork, that's a win.

—Mack, Wilderness Ranger, Snoqualmie District

How did we find this problem?

We started by researching "users" of the outdoors. 

Our initial research was focused on learning how and why people become interested in outdoor recreation.

But, we soon reached the end of this path.

Results from our interviews quickly reached saturation, and we were running into problems (such as people not having enough free time to get outdoors) that would be beyond our scope. 

Rangers were a common thread, so we started talking to the people who enable outdoor recreation. 

Many people we spoke with mentioned positive interactions with rangers at national parks and on the trail.
 
I saw the potential to unlock a new direction for our project, so we interviewed rangers working in a variety of roles across the country, in many types of public lands. 

Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest

Skidaway Island State Park

Ranger Station at REI Seattle

Mount Rainier National Park

Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Davidsonville Historic State Park

There's only so much to learn from interviews.

A hike-along at Heybrook Lookout and contextual inquiries at several ranger stations let us experience what goes on behind the scenes, what rangers do day-to-day, and how they deal with unexpected problems in the field and in the office. 

“This is my least favorite part of the job.”

“People only care about the results, not the process to get there.”

“It can take ten years for data to turn into action.”

Field research showed us that Forest Service rangers have particular needs that aren't being met.

The US Forest Service is responsible for managing vast pieces of land, with fewer personnel and smaller budgets than other agencies. 
Use of National Forests varies from recreation to mining, logging, grazing, and beyond. Coupled with the need to preserve designated wilderness areas, rangers must balance these competing needs. 

Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest

1,724,229

Acres to Patrol

1,505

Miles of Trails

< 25

Full-Time Rangers

I gained a deep understanding of the work rangers do, and specific challenges they face. 

District Manager

Long-Term Data

Patrols Trail 

 Assigns Patrol

Fixes Known Issue 

Sees New Issue        

Fixes New Issue       

Writes Report 

Wilderness Ranger

 Prioritizes Issues

 Reads Report

Short-Term Data

The technology we have here is at least ten years behind.

—Mark, Wilderness Ranger, Skykomish District

Things need to be user-friendly and intuitive.

—Rhonda, Wilderness Ranger & Volunteer Lead, Skykomish District

It was time to move from research to design.

We extracted insights from the facts and from our interviews. 

As park visitation increases, rangers’ interactions with the public have become more and more transactional, which rangers resent. 
People will behave in accordance with their environmental values when they have the knowledge to do so.
Use of public land is soaring, but as a government service and not a business, its upkeep can not scale to meet market demands.
Because frontcountry trails are seen as safe, and providing catered experiences, visitors are lax on their planning.

Insights indicated opportunities. 

Improve collection and sharing of visitor-usage data between rangers and land managers.
Enable knowledge-sharing opportunities for visitors to support conservation-minded behavior.
Provide contextual and actionable information to rangers and trail users.
Leverage storytelling to help rangers advocate for their work and connect with the public and policy makers.

A lot of ideas were generated from these opportunities.

But, a lot of ideas were not aligned with our team's design principles or our users' values. Downselecting from the most promising 11 ideas required more careful consideration, so we evaluated their feasibility and potential impact. 
Ideation and downselection to 11 potential design concepts
We imagined how these ideas could play out as experiences by creating storyboards. Two of them fit together well, so we pursued them both in our first prototype.

More development led to more specificity. 

Together, we made wireframes for a ranger analytics dashboard.

This initial version displayed summaries of all the data rangers collect about trails, and gave them a new way to track issues.
LoFi dashboard home screen
low fidelity issue ticket crud panel
ticket and patrol report modal hierarchy

Meanwhile, I sketched a lo-fi app to quickly test with hikers. 

Designed to engage trail users as they begin their hike, the app would make it easy for them to report on trail conditions and send relevant information directly to rangers. 

Testing the prototypes revealed potential issues with public engagement and data quality. 

Testing these components showed they both had potential, but the numbers told a different story. Trailheads already have signs directing visitors to surveys for collecting trail information. 
However, few people actually use these surveys. Those that do lack expertise, so perceived issues are falsely reported and real problems are overlooked. 

Three out of 1,000 visitors used our survey.

—Alex, Manager, Snoqualmie District

The dashboard became our focus. 

We learned from testing our first prototype that rangers work with dozens of trained volunteers, who help patrol trails and report on their conditions. 
Rangers didn't need another way to collect information, they needed a better way to organize, access, and act on it. 
While a mobile app could be valuable for rangers and volunteers, we decided to put it on hold and focus solely on the dashboard.

Here's a closer look at the design process. 

District Overview

The homepage gives rangers a look at the recent history of their district, and any future patrols that have been planned. Early versions provided summaries of reports, patrols, and trends—along with notifications, weather forecasts, and a calendar. 
This turned out to be too much information, and rangers felt overloaded and unsure of how to proceed. 
low fidelity homepage prototype
low fidelity homepage prototype
 id fidelity homepage prototype

I just want a way to get to trail data quickly, and that's organized sensibly.

—Jamie, Wilderness Crew Lead, Snoqualmie District

I need to see a week back as well as a week forward.

I designed a timeline to display past and upcoming trail patrols, responding to our users' mental models for finding relevant information and planning their work. 
After testing three versions of the timeline, it became the key piece of the homepage experience. Rangers liked being able to go from this simple overview, straight to the details of a report.

Location Details

To plan their work, rangers need to know the current status at each location (i.e. trails, campgrounds) in their district, along with the history of work done by other rangers and any outstanding issues. 
We began by organizing locations in a list and layering each type of information on top to convey their relationships. Work tickets were layered over trail reports, over location summaries. 
However, this approach didn't resolve the underlying problem with the data: fragmentation. Picking apart our research and test sessions revealed a common thread: spatial thinking. 
Lofi trail dashboard page
Lofi patrol report modal
midfi locations list overview

The key is having one reporting system, not a dozen.

—JR, Manager, 

Skykomish District

We introduced a map to help rangers quickly compare the status of locations, and kept the list view to support sorting and filtering. Location summary pages display the known issues, the current road, trail, and toilet conditions, and past and upcoming patrols. 
Reorganizing Talus to align with this geographic thinking allowed us to vastly simplify the information architecture, making the interface much more useful and approachable for rangers.

Patrol Assignment

To schedule and assign new work, district managers read patrol reports to understand what's happening throughout the district. Initially, we used an inbox metaphor for reports and introduced a ticket system for task management. 
In testing, we found that this approach was too unfamiliar, and didn't support scannability or findability. We tried a card-based Kanban board, but this was also confusing, and ultimately misaligned with rangers' workflows. 
Low fidelity ticket crud panel

I have an entire office day just for this shit.

—Mark, Wilderness Ranger, 

Skykomish District

—Jamie, Wilderness Crew Lead, Snoqualmie District

The one useful aspect of the current system is we can easily scan to see which trails need a patrol.

The existing spreadsheet system turned out to be well-suited to this aspect of rangers' work. We adopted its familiar organizational structure, but redesigned it to surface the most relevant and actionable pieces of information. 
With Talus, rangers can see which trails have been patrolled often and which need more attention. This lets rangers combine information with intuition to make better decisions. 

What are the outcomes for rangers?

Rangers can do more of the work they are most passionate for, and that has the greatest impact.
They have more opportunities to genuinely engage the public and promote conservation-minded behavior.
Talus helps rangers fulfill both short-term and long-term goals, ensuring a sustainable future for public lands.

“This is far more approachable than layers and layers of spreadsheets.”

—Jess, Wilderness Ranger, Skykomish District

What did I learn?

Stay on your feet.

Early in our research we hit a dead end, but a decisive pivot kept our momentum going in a novel direction. I sustained this mindset while designing Talus, testing and iterating new ideas rapidly. 
Working in this problem space meant our team spent a lot time in the field—literally on our feet hiking with rangers—as we conducted research and tested prototypes in context. This field work was incredibly valuable and fun, and my enthusiasm for the project is reflected in our design response. 

Question existing systems.

Simply adding features isn't good design, and doesn't help users. To have an impact, you have to question why things are done the way they are, and how they've evolved. 
Taking apart the complex systems we encountered and putting them together again in different ways, removing pieces and adding new ones when necessary, gave me a deep understanding of our audience, and let Talus respond to their true needs and desires. 

Choose your battles.

Talus is the result of learning to carefully manage scope and be intentional about which problem to address. By abandoning half of our initial concept (the app), we developed a response that could have greater impact on rangers' daily work. 
Becoming comfortable in difficult or ambiguous situations is crucial for making good decisions and moving the project forward. Each of these decisions is a tradeoff, and Talus is the result of learning to anticipate their outcomes to find the best balance for our users.