My interests in community development got me into a year-long school-wide research fellowship opportunity. Land.Info was one of the projects that were pitched. Landscape Informatics Lab in the School of Environment & Sustainability at the University of Michigan developed the software. The software aims to helps urban planners calculate the estimated costs create common language between design stakeholders with 3D space visualization implemented with Unity3D.
I was very lucky to have team members from all different, interesting majors in the University of Michigan: Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning, Business, and Civil Engineering.
With the year-long time frame, we set the team goals after discussing each member’s expertise and the end-goal of the software. With my information background, I proposed to conduct a series of research methods to identify different user needs based on their design expertise. I set the research questions that ask how software can facilitate communication between design experts and non-experts.
How do design experts and non-design experts interact differently with software?
How can Land.Info strengthen communication during stakeholder meetings?
Before going into the wild, we conducted heuristic evaluation based on Nielson’s criteria with the developer team to refine its basic usability. For instance, the tool did not have any onboarding instruction for controls, which makes first-time users get confused about. Also, the tool did not allow users to undo their actions or re-confirm risky decisions such as removing an object.
To evaluate the software in more situated setting, I conducted four in-person usability testing with urban planners and landscape designers in a local design firm. One interesting thing I found was about controls. Most of the participants were so habituated with SketchUp or Lumion, which uses a single control with mouse, they pointed out that Land.Info’s mouse-keyboard combined control to be too complicated or unfamiliar to them. Some spent more than a minute to first notice the controls. Meanwhile, expert evaluation made the team realize that the software should equip more flexibility for designers: having the functionality of importing their own 3D models or customizing the design elements.
Simultaneously, we conducted comparative analysis and I found that there are several competitor products that designers are already familiar with. Some products like Lumion provide high-quality 3D graphic space visualization that are exportable, some regional planning tools equip powerful environmental parameter analyses. Meanwhile, what attracted the team was Cities: Skylines, a PC simulation game for city planning. The game’s very powerful analysis and reward system make user fell for the game. I thought the tool’s graphic and interaction features can be more customized for non-expert users to engage in design.
After several ideation meetings for testing the tool, we decided to explore the tool’s ability to facilitate design discussion even with the stakeholders who does not have design expertise and backgrounds. With the partnership between a community-based organization, we organized three sets of workshops with residents in a local community. During the preparation, we realized that most residents who participate in such meetings are novice in using technology, and more older adults. Eventually, we decided to not ask them to try the software themselves, instead, each team had a facilitator that controls the software for them.
All participants found financial, environmental cost analysis feature valuable. However, in the usability testing or workshops, there were not many participants who could find the cost calculation feature until we directed them. I suggested the screen to have a side panel for showing the real-time analysis based on objects and terrain changes so the users do not have to take additional steps for analysis.
Crowdedness (graphic of people around), noise and quietness (sound), air quality (graphic of fog or particles). The participants in the workshops utilized various supporting materials for their design arguments such as anecdotes, maps, and the design screenshots from the last workshop. The ‘Note’ function was helpful to incorporate more user opinions additional to the objects. Land.Info can incorporate these kinds of qualitative data to planners’ design process.
Throughout the testings, our team found that the participants got confused and could not locate the icons for performing their tasks. We redesigned all the icons to be simplified and more universal, and came up with the aligned template of new icons. Furthermore, we identified that many designers are already familiar with other design software and that intrude their behavior using Land.Info.
As we partnered with a community-based organization, throughout several months we kept facing the instance that the organization’s priority has changing and the project scope and goals are adjusted. I learned that engaging a community for a research project and building committed relationship with the organization is a long-term process and the communication between the research team and the organization take a great amount of efforts and should be carefully approached.
I could leverage different UX research methods in this project as we closely collaborated with the developers of the team and the software got evolved gradually during the project timeline. I learned that documenting and communicating findings promptly with the team is crucial to move the project forward.
The team improved the usability of the user interface based on on-site user research and the project was granted Dow Distinguished Award by Graham Sustainability Institute at the end of the timeline. The team will continue developing and commercializing the tool based on further user research.