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Ecosystem accounting for Norwegian municipality

About the project

This is a bachelor's thesis project with the IT company Kantega and Sabima as our client. We came in contact with Sabima through Kantega who kindly agreed to guide us through our bachelor's thesis project. Sabima is an environmental organization whose main goal is to stop the loss of biodiversity and our project was going to focus on how to make a better tool for ecosystem accounting in municipalities. Customer claim was that although there is a lot of research surrounding ecosystems and the information is out there, it does not reach the right people that make decisions.

Exploration/discovery

Picture of a board with a lot of post-it notes

Affinity diagram of all the "how might we" questions, that were written during an interview with the stakeholders.

The project started with a month of preparatory research where the group individually collected as much information about ecosystem scouting as possible. Then followed a Google Design Sprint facilitated by UX-lead at Kantega that strictly followed the book “Sprint” by Jake Knapp. The first two days gave the group insight into the situation.

Diagram that show how the land-use planning works

Simplified version of land-use planning

We encountered several problems and to understand them you need to dive into a simplified version of land-use planning. Every four years when a new municipality council is chosen, they may revise a land-use plan to make some adjustments. A land-use plan marks areas that are dedicated for building new houses, buildings and so on. We found a missing link between scientists and political figures that make decisions in land-use planning. The missing link leads to lack of knowledge and is the reason why many crucial ecosystems are being demolished. Another problem is when for example a firm wants to build a new building complex outside of the building zone in the municipality building plan, the application process is a bit tricky and requires some additional work. It requires a private firm to make an examination of the area. The problem here is that the firm that wants to build is paying the firm that makes the report. The subjectivity of this rapport is therefore questionable. Customers wished to have a tool that solves those problems by visualization and simplification. Even though this sounds like two different problems, the solution is to make information more available, so that when the new land-use plan is made, it can use the tool to check the nature involved in the area. The same goes for suggestions from firms that want to build new building complexes outside the building zone. Our main target group is therefore political figures.

Room full of post-it notes that is placed on the glass wall

Notes after the Five-Act Interviews during the Google Design Sprint week, where we interviewed five people.

At the end of the week we discovered that the product is in demand, but a lot more research should be done to create an academically correct and visually appealing platform. The Five-Act interview left the group with a lot of information about users' struggles and needs. As by now many political figures struggle through long reports made by municipal employees with background in biology and this often creates a big language barrier. In addition visualizations are non-existing and if they are included they can be very complicated to understand for someone with a different education background. Better visualization would save a lot of time for both parties, because the employees would be able to register data through the tool that automatically generates visualization based on information from the employee, satellite data, the species database and so on. The amount of work done manually decreases.

User journey map

User journey map that was made after in-depth interviews with local politicians. Slides next to the bottom illustrate where in the process the solution comes in. Magnifying function is avalible on the desktop/laptop computer.

The group turned to scientists to get a better understanding of the ecosystem accounting process so as to be able to visualize it. After observing meetings between scientists and political figures, the group noticed frustrations of the scientists that feel information they gather does not reach out. Information gathered by scientists shows the importance of such a tool and how complex the ecosystems are. Scientists were especially happy to help and assist us with information needed, because they felt they were missing the ability to visualize the information in a simpler manner. It was yet again the same problem: communication and lack of easy, structured and visualized information. A big challenge for the group was therefore to satisfy scientists' wishes of academically correct language and visualizations while making information less complicated for political figures.

Lean UX Canvas, priorities, test cards and hypotheses.

Lean UX Canvas, priorities, test cards and hypotheses. Magnifying function is avalible on the desktop/laptop computer.

The group did a non-participant observation at the Viken county municipality meeting and workshop with a NINA scientist, Nordre Follo municipality et al. Several problems were discovered and the group understood the full complexity of this solution. For example internal miscommunication and disagreement between scientists and political figures. Other problems like municipal boundaries that run across a habitat type. The project was an example of a wicked problem that had so many obstacles with every single part of the solution dependent on many factors. The group ended up with constantly new information that needed to be taken into account, and a customer that had a lot of engagement. The group had to narrow down the problem and set clear boundaries as to where the project could not expand.

A map that resembles a dart board. Stakeholders are placed inside depending on the importance

Stakeholder map, many parties involved

Design process

The group ended up using Miller`s law heuristics, where we chucked the information into cards, where it could be further explored. We used already established mental models, and chose therefore to use Material Design guidelines. We reduced the options available per card which follow the principles of Hick's law, so the user does not get overwhelmed with a lot of information. Green primary “read more” button leads to expanded information about the topic, so to nudge the user to explore more. This is just some of the measures taken to make a successful visualization tool for ecosystem accounting.

Final design

Image of the result. A computer screen with a drawing of a person holding the plants and showing thumbs up
Image of the result, computer screen with a map of Nordre Follo with information about the nature on the left Image of the result, computer screen with a map of Nordre Follo with information about the nature on the left Image of the result, computer screen with a map of Nordre Follo with information about the nature on the left

Learning

Working with a real client outside the school project was a totally different experience to what we were used to. To only describe a users' needs does not hold ground any longer. The client is much more personally involved in the solution, than an employee at a university. The client may have a totally different view on topics than the user does. It was a part of the job, to make a bridge between the views of a client and a user, while also respecting both parties. At the end of a day it's the client that pays for work to be done, while my job as interaction designer is to represent the users interests. That's why the ability to sell a certain solution that serves the users interest, was a new and big learning experience.

The project left me with a lot of new experiences. Having a customer that is even more excited about nature than me and my group created some big discussions. Picking out unimportant information was not easy, and required augmentation skills, where users' views were presented, without making customers feel overlooked. The project also showed me how important it is to be able to present ideas in a good manner. A simple but good lo-fi drawing is sometimes enough for explaining a big crucial idea. The ability to sell the idea was more important in this project than others projects I had at NTNU. At the end of the day the customer is the one who pays the bills and his/hers word is final, that's why presenting the idea the group got after a usertest is a skillful craft. When I looked back at the project there are some parts I wished I did differently. One of which is organizing projects much better.

This project was very important to me. I was moved and overwhelmed with feelings at the end. The response was huge and some municipalities took contact with our group for future collaboration and development of the solution. This made me think that if this solution becomes a standard tool for ecosystem accounting, I not only made a user friendly interface, but it may have made an impact on the land use plan process and that could lead to saving an important ecosystem, with its own plants and creatures. It's indescribably empowering and makes me proud of being able to be a part of this important journey.

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