Maximize human–nature interaction, by minimizing human–computer interaction for Forest Service rangers.
Master's Capstone Timeline
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.
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.
“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
Acres to Patrol
Miles of Trails
I gained a deep understanding of the work rangers do, and specific challenges they face.
Fixes Known Issue
Sees New Issue
Fixes New Issue
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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