For my Human-Computer Interaction capstone project at Carnegie Mellon, my team partnered with the Carnegie Mellon Community, Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE) and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to design an interactive exhibit on climate change. I worked as team and research lead and contributed to much of the design process. In addition to their additional major in HCI, my other team members had expertise in computer science, cognitive science, and communications.
The CREATE Lab built a piece of software called Earth Timelapse. The software uses Google Landsat images from the past 30 years to stitch together a high-resolution, interactive map that allows users to explore Earth in time and space simultaneously.
The CREATE Lab wanted our team to modify their software so that it was more accessible to novice users.
The Carnegie Museum wanted us to use Earth Timelapse as the centerpiece for a diversely engaging exhibit that imparted to guests a sense of the gravity of climate change.
the Original Earth Timelapse
Phase 1: Research
Because we started with a high-resolution and highly complex piece of software, our process deviated a little from the standard UX approach. To compensate, we did a lot of think-aloud testing on the museum floor with as diverse a user group as possible.
As the UX research lead, I was responsible for recruiting users, running the tests, and divvying up responsibilities to ensure that we had someone with eyes on the user and the software at all times.
As expected, we got a more holistic understanding of some of Earth Timelapse's deficiencies while we watched guests interacting with the software and pinned down some more specific issues with our internal evaluation.
From the think-alouds, here are some of my takeaways:
Climate change is complicated and a view from space is hard to reconcile. People needed to see changes to the environment from multiple perspectives. Pictures from space are not much more than pictures from space if users aren't given grounding information.
Free exploration impeded depth of understanding. "[Earth Timelapse] is super cool" was pretty much the default phrase we heard from guests of all ages. And we got swept away ourselves, at first, by how totally cool the software was. But considering we were trying to hook guests into caring about climate change, we learned pretty fast that we were going to have to tamp down the exploration to encourage more focused attention paid to the climate science stuff.
We couldn't assume guests had any prerequisite knowledge. This may seem like a no-brainer, but we soon figured out that we couldn't even count on people to be familiar with the concept of "climate change" let alone any of the other tricky jargon housed within the original software.
Phase 2: Exhibit Design
In our first ideation session post research, we ranked our initial exhibit ideas on a spectrum from zero interaction to fully interactive and began to gather concepts and keywords in a separate list for later categorization. See our spectrum below:
We came up with all kinds of concepts, but eventually had to reconcile one that we could adapt to our software.
An example of a favorite concept of mine that didn't make the cut: use touch and heat as a metaphor for human impact. The plan was to personify the Earth and have "her" deliver messages to the user as he/she navigated around on the touch screen. Visuals would include lingering fingerprints as the user made different gestures and messages involving how the Earth would warm the longer a user spent interacting with the software. See second picture from the left below for part of my paper proto in addition to my initial concept poster (farthest left):
The Final Concept
Our final concept decision was actually born from a day we spent in the museum user testing with one of Earth Timelapse's creators, Randy Sargent. Randy had a series of climate stories in his back pocket for sharing at conferences. The day he tagged along for testing, he ended up sharing some of those stories with guests, which in combination with his expert manipulation of the software, turned out to be much more engaging for all parties than anything we'd done before.
Our final concept we called simply "Stories" and involved recording Randy telling the climate stories, distilling his descriptions into chunks, and turning those chunks into mini interactive tours of certain places on Earth throughout time.
We prototyped with six stories that targeted what are considered to be the major tenets of climate change: water use, deforestation, renewable energy, city growth, and resource use/depletion. To accommodate Stories, we stripped the original user interface and redesigned all the features, modified the software to automatically navigate and update filters as necessary, and directed user interactions within a much smaller domain.
See below for an example of a screen from the Las Vegas story:
Phase 3: The Final Exhibit
One of the components of the final prototype that I contributed to most closely was the redesign of the timeline feature. The original software featured a jumping white box (see far left below). The original animation had the two-fold issue of distracting users from the content and failing to do justice to its timekeeping mission. My revised concept involved a progress bar that incrementally "nudged" years as it moved along. The result proved simpler and less distracting (see far right below).
Explore Earth tIMELAPSE LIVE
Development on Earth Timelapse (now called EarthTime) has continued since my time at CMU. The storytelling focus driven by our project has persisted; experts and journalists can use the open-source tool to create their own interactive stories fueled by data and powerful imagery.