Designing for Transition: Exploring Transition Design and User Experience Design in an Era of Ecological Crisis (part 2)

This is a 3-part series looking back over the development of my thesis ‘Designing for Transition: Exploring Transition Design and User Experience Design in an Era of Ecological Crisis’ which I submit as part of my MA in User Experience and Interaction Design at Technological University Dublin. In my previous article I introduced the project and its aims and discussed some of the TD theories and methodology that I used during the first phase of the research. This article will move onto the second phase ‘Designing Interventions’. I will show you how I synthesised previous research and selected an intervention; I will discuss some of the limitations of TD and how I used a selection of UXD methodologies to enhance my approach. Finally, I will introduce a new method that I developed called ‘Potentially Negative Feedback Loops’ which could be useful for TD practitioners.

In this second phase I strategically selected ‘Linking and Amplifying Projects’ and ‘Theory of Change’ and worked with a template called ‘Transition Design Project Canvas: Projects in the Present, Informed by the Future’.

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This template asks a number of questions that helped me to synthesise important data, consider the feasibility and potential impact. Importantly it asks ‘How does this project connect to and amplify the others?’. TD recognises that no single intervention has the potential to shift the entire system. To answer this I consulted my Literature Review and my problem map to review previously identified biodiversity projects. Then I proceeded to analyse interventions from the ‘Backcasting’ process and checked for potential overlaps between the two. I discovered that I had mapped a number of interventions in the Backcasting process that could potentially work in collaboration with existing projects. Based on this criteria, I made a selection of interventions and worked through each in detail.

I decided to build upon the work of ‘The Ireland Pollinator Plan’ a multi-stakeholder and strategic plan established by Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick of the National Biodiversity Data Center and Jane Stout of Trinity College, Dublin in 2015 that aims to address pollinator decline on the island of Ireland. They have seen huge success to date with noteworthy partnerships including Croke Park, OPW, National Botanic Gardens, Dublin Airport, Trinity College and Maynooth University. I decided to combine four interventions into one larger intervention: an online platform that provides actionable solutions, education and networking opportunities, a marketplace that connects local producer with local consumer, tools to register and propose biodiversity projects, and a space to imagine positive visions of the future collectively.

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Theory of Change

Next I completed a Theory of Change. This exercise allowed me to visualise how I expect transition toward my desired future to unfold. I first listed the everyday activities that my intervention provides, such as taking practical action to improve biodiversity and visioning alternative futures collaboratively. Then I listed short term and long term outputs such as an online platform and a collaboration with the All Ireland Pollinator Plan. Next, heavily influenced by my previously articulated 2050 vision, I articulated long term outcomes. I then worked backwards showing a logical relationship or ‘transition pathway’ between medium term and short term outcomes. I also mapped the relationship between activities, outputs and outcomes.

For example, a long term outcome is that green infrastructure is increasingly being used as a way to adapt to climate change e.g. flood management. This is due to people understanding the economic value of green infrastructure which is subsequently due to an increased awareness of the importance and benefits of biodiversity. This increased awareness and economic understanding is the result of an online platform that is educating & raising awareness for the benefits of biodiversity and the creation of green infrastructure business models.

During the exercise I also articulated a number of assumptions. For example, if local communities co-design and co-build biodiverse public space there will be increased access to green space that meets everyone’s needs. Theory of Change is essentially based upon assumptions, which need to be met to successfully reach the long term outcomes. So, it is important to test these. Using an adaption of Lean UX, I transformed assumption into testable form, which I discuss in detail below.

While TD is strong on understanding the big picture and in identifying all the stakeholders, I found it poor in identifying the specifics of stakeholder needs, behaviours and attitudes. Furthermore, there are very few methods available to evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention and it offers very little in the way of guidance or prescribed steps to get from research to a working model. I believe that TD can be enhanced by incorporating a selection of UXD research methodologies. I conducted a survey, incorporated an adaption of Lean UX, developed personas, prototyped and conducted remote usability testing.

Survey

As mentioned I found TD poor on identifying on the specifics of stakeholder needs, behaviours and attitudes. Without this understanding, it would be very difficult to design an intervention that aims to mobilise stakeholders. I used quantitative questions to generate graphs which illustrate the levels of biodiversity actions that are currently being taken, which actions are likely/unlikely to be taken in the future. I used qualitative questions to gain a deeper understanding into stakeholder’s opinions, views, and experiences. I also took the opportunity to understand whether COVID-19 presents an opportunity to engage and mobilise people to improve biodiversity..

Having gathered data I interpreted it and drew conclusions using thematic analysis discussed potential solutions. Two of these are ‘Commoning as an Approach’ and ‘A Life-Centred Approach to Re-wilding The City’.

‘Commoning as an Approach’

Data reveals that the majority of participants thought Government Bodies are most responsible for improving and maintaining biodiversity levels in their local area. As it is unfeasible for Government bodies to maintain all public space, this suggests a contradiction or a confusion about who is responsible. One participant who understands this stated “the responsibility for wildflowers and litter collection lies entirely with the residents. Dublin Corpo/City Counsel cant manage the entire city and parks cleanup and re-wilding.”

I believe that we must offer solutions and build the social infrastructure necessary to empower citizens to take action. I propose Commoning as an approach that positions local citizens as key players in the community and instills a sense of belonging to, ownership of and responsibility for public space. It aims to mobilise the local community to take shared responsibility for improving biodiversity levels and managing public space for individual and collective benefit. Public space designed by and for the local community could have the potential to better meet the mental and physical needs of the local community. We might begin to see quiet spaces, spaces for growing, spaces for exercise and more people using local green spaces. As one participant states “flat green spaces are more patriarchal and focused on male dominated sports like soccer and don’t serve children and the elderly and people who don’t play pitch sports.” Empowering local communities in this way could also have the potential to satisfy many of Max- Neef Theory of Needs: ‘Participation’, ‘Understanding’, ‘Creation’, ‘Identity’ and ‘Subsistence’, in particular.

My understanding of Commoning involves coordination and collaboration among multi-stakeholder groups. Data reveals that while many participants mentioned more than one stakeholder group as being responsible, few mentioned collaborative approaches. One participant who recognises the limitation of our siloed mindset argued that “There should be new sustainable community plans within urban areas (could be drawn along council sub-areas that would cover not only biodiversity but cycling and walking, youth and community development, third age, local business and entrepreneurship etc. So that there is a cohesion and cooperation of approach, not piecemeal and siloed.”

A ‘Life-Centred Approach’ To Re-Wilding The City

Data suggests that aesthetic preferences are a main barrier to improving biodiversity levels. Throughout the survey many participants state that they prefer manicured spaces: “People like neat manicured green spaces. They think wild spaces are untidy”, “It’s a constant battle with my husband who wants to keep [the garden] neat.” and “loads of people just want to see what they would expect from communal areas such as parks (perfectly cut grass, few trees here and there, perfectly planted flowers etc.)”

Taking a ‘life-centred approach’ to rewilding the city could help to change stakeholders’ perceptions and find the balance between the needs of all species. Humans do have a need for manicured spaces; we need able to move around and feel safe, but other species have a need for more wild spaces. The task then is the find the correct balance between wild and cultivation. The Botanic Gardens in Dublin is leading by example. They showcase some examples of wild parts in the middle of nicely manicured lawns. This provides habitat and food for other species while also designing the space for human accessibility needs. It is also making a statement, drawing the viewer in and redefining beauty.

Incorporating an Adaption of Lean UX Principles and Practices

Socio-technical transitions are slow and complex. So, it can be argued that Lean cycles, which have been designed to address market speed are too short to imagine, influence and evaluate transition. However, as an outcome-focused process, I believe that incorporating an adaption of Lean UX principles and practices can advance the project of Transition Design.

In my view, one of the main limitations of Transition Design is its lack of methods for evaluating interventions. This means it can be difficult to determine whether an intervention is actually helping to reach the desired vision. Given its strong focus on measuring success and failure, a suitable adaption of Lean UX could improve this. Applying the following Lean UX template, I was able to transform assumptions articulated as part of the ‘Theory of Change’ exercise into testable form:

“We believe [this statement is true]. We will know we’re [right/wrong] when we see the following feed- back from the market: [qualitative feedback] and/or [quantitative feedback] and/or [key performance indicator change](2013: 23).

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Assumptions articulated as part of my Theory of Change
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Measures of Success

I first developed a list of ‘measures of success’ such as the number of people engaging with the platform, local biodiversity levels, noise levels, obesity levels and levels of vandalism. Then, using with the Lean UX hypotheses template, I turned my assumptions into testable form.

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Hypotheses
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Hypotheses

Personas

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I decided to develop personas, an important method in the UXD process, to focus deeply on the specifics of stakeholder needs. I developed five personas that represent different stakeholder groups. By gaining a detailed understanding into stakeholder behaviours, attitudes, needs and goals, I was able to design with empathy, generate new ideas such as a ‘personalised newsletter’, and determine the functionality of the intervention in a way that satisfies diverse stakeholder needs.

Prototyping and Content Design

While TD provides theories and methods that help practitioners to generate ideas for design solutions and to understand how these might lead to transition, it offers little practical guidance to get from research to a tangible intervention. I believe that Prototyping, an integral part of UXD, can be integrated to help overcome this. Prototyping is an effective way to test ideas, iterate and make improvements. I used prototyping primarily as a way to gather usability feedback on low and medium-fidelity prototypes which will inform the high-fidelity prototype in the future. I also found it a helpful process to visualise ideas and compare different structures, information architecture and content design.

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Low-fidelity prototype (Home Page)

I designed interactive low- and medium-fidelity prototypes. Firstly using greyscale and limited content, I worked out the functionality, structure, Information Architecture and transition between screens on low fidelity prototypes. I experiment with lots of ideas before arriving at a final decision and moving onto medium-fidelity prototypes where I paid particular attention to content design.

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Medium-fidelity prototype (Home Page)

In her book Content Design, Content Designer Sarah Richards, argues that:

“content design means not limiting yourself to just words. Content on the web is often words, but not always. The point of content design is that you start with research to help you identify what your users actually needs (which isn’t the same as what they say they want)”(2017: 2).

Having analysed and synthesised all research it was decided that a combination of illustrations, numbers, links and words would be primarily used to communicate information.

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Illustration

Research found that we lack a culture of public imagination, that stakeholders feel anxious and hopeless about the future and that stakeholders have a lack of time. Illustrations are used as a quick and easy way to digest lots of information and most importantly to communicate the future as plural and positive. These illustrations give a taste of what the future could be like, but leave room for the imagination.

Research also shows that social inertia persists because people believe that individual actions will not make a difference. For this reason I decided to display individual efforts as a collective whole. I communicate this through numbers on the home page: the collective number of biodiversity projects, community gardens, nature based-businesses and cities involved (see above).

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Medium-fidelity prototype

I also designed a ‘frequently asked questions’ section which was informed by survey results. These questions address common reasons that prevent many stakeholders from taking action by providing quick links to some of the most important information they will need.

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Content Design — CTA and phrases

Words make up the majority of the content on this platform. As such it was critical that I spent time strategically shaping the tone of voice. Information about climate change and biodiversity loss is often communicated using overly scientific language and framed as a looming apocalypse. I decided to speak the audience’s language, use encouraging phrases and most importantly have some fun! First, I complied a list of engaging calls to action such as ‘Let’s get to work’ and ‘Count me in’, and a variety of clear, direct and playful phrases such as ‘Simple, powerful projects’ and ‘You’re in good company’. This list helped me to set a tone that brings the experience to life.

Remote Usability Testing

I conducted remote usability testing (a central methodology in UXD) on low- and medium- fidelity prototypes with participants who were representative of the five personas previously developed. I gave each several tasks and observed as they completed them. This helped me to uncover usability problems and opportunities for improvement and refinement, critically before spending lots of time and effort designing high- fidelity prototypes.. The results are discussed in detail in the next chapter.

While the data collected was useful in terms of evaluating the usability of my designed intervention, it did not provide the data necessary to evaluate whether the intervention is contributing to transition. Hypotheses, as discussed previously, will provide this data and will be tested during the course of the transition.

Potentially Negative Feedback Loops

I developed a new method called “Potentially Negative Feedback Loops’, which could be useful for other TD practitioners. Taking a systems view, this exercise asks practitioners to take responsibility for the potential negative consequences of their interventions.

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Potentially negative feedback loop
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Potentially negative feedback loop

Starting at the future vision in which the problem has been solved, I articulated various ‘new realities’ and considered their potential negative feedbacks on a specific scale. For example, in Marino there are lots of biodiverse open spaces and strong community networks. Next, taking a whole systems view, I mapped root causes, secondary root causes and consequences. For example, Marino has become an extremely sought after place to live. Because of this house prices are rising and people have less time and money. This has negative impacts as citizens don’t have the time to increase and conserve biodiversity levels anymore. So, before putting this intervention out into the world it is important that I ask: “How might we increase biodiversity in a way that doesn’t impact housing prices? What kinds of policies are needed? Which stakeholders need to be involved to address this? As the intervention interacts with the world around it, other feedbacks are inevitable, so the map must be reviewed and revised throughout the course of the Transition.

That’s it for now. In the next article I will show you the prototype as it currently is and reflect on the conclusions that I drew from my research.

If you’re interested in Transition Design or my work feel free to connect on Twitter @flynnflynner

Richards, S (2017): Content Design, Content Design London.

Written by

UX and Transition Designer for social impact. Twitter: @flynnflynner Contact: sorchanifhloinn@yahoo.ie

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