Building Better Information Tools for Environmental Management and Planning

Expanding access to high-quality data, geographic information systems (GIS), and web-based mapping technology have resulted in an ever-expanding collection of information tools for professionals working in professional fields like urban and environmental planning and management. While these tools hold great promise for improving professional practice, and a large number of have been created, their adoption has been limited. One of the most important reasons for this well-documented adoption gap is how the tools are designed. Many are created by researchers and small consultants on limited budgets, who rely on their own judgments to determine how to present information to users. Too often the result are tools which are confusing, hard to use, or don’t answer the right questions. Unlike commercial software or apps designed for a mass market, planning and management tools target professional users who bring their own disciplinary backgrounds, making it hard to know how to design a useful tool.

Together with a great team of collaborators involved in the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Framework project, in the past few years I was involved in an interdisciplinary project to adapt existing technology design methods to design a new tool for ecosystem management in the Great Lakes. We also took the opportunity to rigorously evaluate through surveys the success of our design workshops, and user perceptions of the usability of our resulting tool. We published the results of our work in Marine Policy in an article titled “Applying design thinking methods to ecosystem management tools: Creating the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Explorer.” Here’s the abstract:

Ecosystem management (EM) requires new tools to facilitate stakeholder access to information and analysis, however these tools are often not perceived by stakeholders to be usable, useful, and salient to their concerns. This paper provides a case study which applies new participatory design methods, known as design thinking, to create an EM tool called the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Explorer. Both participating and non-participating stakeholders rated the usability of the resulting tool positively, and stakeholders who attended design workshops rated the perceived usefulness and salience of the resulting tool more highly than those who had not. Design workshop survey data found that the methods produced an environment of collaborative learning among participants, including diverse participants, authentic dialog, and creativity. Design thinking methods hold promise for the development of new tools which better respond to the needs of EM stakeholders.

Read the article for free via this link until June 11, after which time the article can be obtained from me personally or from your local library.

Author: Rob Goodspeed