Trail Guides provides an on-the-ground perspective, aiding potential visitors in discovering the best of US National Parks and preparing with confidence, as well as increasing recognition and engagement with America's protected lands.
Context + Personal Role
This was a 4-week client-focused project created within a senior user experience design course (IAT 438). My specific roles included developing product strategy, journey mapping, research, conducting user interviews, and development of the product UI, interactions, and prototypes. After our initial academic project was complete, a teammate and I revisited this project to refine its form and clarify interactions with a focus on mobile. Tools I used include Sketch, Illustrator, Principal, Photoshop, Keynote, Premier, and After Effects.
As a whole, US national parks have suffered long-term visitation decline, dropping 20% per capita since the late 80's. While 1 in 4 Americans is under the age of 18, most park visitors are older, posing a serious business problem moving forward. Additionally, as technology increasingly capitalizes on our attention, how might we inspire a new generation to care about and protect America's national parks?
Reframing and Opportunity
We recognized the National Park Service's preservation efforts as an area in need of support. However, designing directly for conservation and advocacy presented a complex and 'high-on-the-tree' problem that could have lead our project down traps, such as designing directly for an outcome behaviour. We discovered that the National Park Service believes that the most effective method of instilling a conservation ethic in Americans is to have them experience parklands in the first place. This allows visitors to draw their own conclusions about the need to protect parks.
Here we began shifting the project away from direct conservation, to building a connection through visitation and recognition. This shift also gave us clearer metrics to measure the success of our project, such as increased visitorship, greater awareness of parks, and growing engagement with the National Park Service brand online. With this in mind, we were able to reframe our project into how we might support a connection to National Parks through recognition and visitation?
Additionally, we recognized an opportunity to leverage an existing partnership between National Park Service and Google (specifically their work on Google Arts & Culture). This partnership would aide in how users discover parks and piquing the interest of potential visitors.
Rich Search Result
Since the micro-moments when potential visitors look-up destinations is brief, and search results are crowded, we understood the need to make an impression on our audience. Using Google's Rich Search Cards, we created an enticing result that appears when our persona searches geographic locations and activities related to a national park. We were also able to use this moment as a way to introduce the National Park Service brand and lesser-known parks to our persona.
Surfacing Relevant Information Quickly
Inexperienced individuals such as our persona found it difficult to quickly understand if a trail was appropriate for them. In response, our product surfaces a preview of the route and key information so our audience is able to immediately gauge if a trail is worth learning more about without spending too much time. After testing, we found additional factors that affected a trail's initial appeal, such as availability, camping options, or the opportunity to bring dogs.
An 'On-The-Ground' Perspective
Through our research, it was clear that potential visitors that fit our persona wanted to get a sense of the park surroundings and trails before deciding to go. However, what surprised us was the use of travel vlogs or trail videos to do so. Recognizing this, the product provides first-person video and 360-degree content allow our audience to get a feel for the trail to combat uncertainty while building anticipation.
Personable Insights and Expert Advice
The National Park Service website is difficult to parse, and we found that our persona gravitated towards first-hand and expert reviews. Some past visitors recounted positive interactions with National Park Rangers that provided important or interesting insights they would have otherwise missed. We wanted to leverage the personal expertise and credibility of Park Rangers as a metaphor for creating consumable and conversational insights. These appear as the user moves through the trail and help to reduce feelings of uncertainty for our persona.
Bridging the Home and Park Experience
Most areas inside national parks do not have access to reliable mobile data, causing inexperienced visitors like our persona to express frustrations having arrived at a park and being unable to look up maps or previous information. With our intervention, users can save trails, recommended items, and lookouts to Google Trips, a service that allows travellers to save plans and maps offline for later.
Identifying Our Primary Audience
We set out to understand the current relationship people have with the National Park Service. I and two other teammates conducted 11 interviews and observation with individuals that had either visited a park, regularly visit parks or trails, or have an interest in outdoor activities. With this data, we were able to construct three personas.
An individual with a strong relationship to national parks, and someone who already has trusted methods or services for planning regular hikes.
An individual that values opportunities to shake up their normal routine, and may already take part in casual hikes and outdoor activities locally.
An individual inexperienced with outdoor activity and would need an incentive to venture to parklands.
As a key measure for our project was to increase new visitation, we selected the 'Hopeful Explorer' as the primary persona to base our design decisions around, with the Urban Dweller as a secondary consideration.
Observing Patterns and Understanding Frictions
I and another teammate conducted user-observations to understand how people began the trip planning process. This allowed us to see how people searched for parks online, found details on hiking trails, and got a sense of the park and its surroundings. Through these observations we were able to identify the following frictions and insights that were relevant to our persona, which we could then use to measure the qualitative impact of our solution:
"The current National Park Service website is sprawling and the information is buried across multiple pages and menus."
"It's hard to find the information I'm looking for, information on the National Park Service website is long and hard to parse."
"It's unclear whether the trails are the right difficulty for me."
"I'm uncertain of what clothing, equipment, or supplies I should bring."
People looked to user-generated videos (YouTube) of others' visits to National Parks to construct an image of the park and to identify interesting spots.
Those familiar with the National Park Service website had already conditioned themselves to skip over it and use Google Maps or other top search results instead to learn about a park.
Those who were inexperienced appreciated suggestions that were personal and credible (i.e. from an experienced visitors or park rangers).
Many people weren't aware of how many national parks existed, or whether areas they had been to were national parks.
We were able to adapt these findings into the product's value proposition to our persona. This not only led the design of our interactions but also served as a way to judge to value and success of those interactions.
Customer Journey and Micro-Moment
We used the research collected from our interviews and observations to map our persona's journey. Here we observed a pattern in which people explored broadly by quickly searching information to learn about a particular park or area, then seamlessly transitioning into more intentional queries as they solidified their desire to visit a specific park or trail. We identified this sequence as the "I-Want-to-Know" to "I-Want-to-Go" micro-moment. This moment, though small, gave our product direction as it presented a time and place to naturally meet our audience where they already were.
Leveraging an Existing Partnership
While we considered having our intervention exist on the National Park Service website, it risked either adding another layer of complexity to an already overwhelming channel for our user or being ignored by them. Creating a microsite or standalone app posed discoverability concerns and would require additional cognitive overhead from our audience. Even after considering other partnerships and platforms, integrating with Google appeared as a meaningful, small, and effective intervention that lined up with our persona's journey and the identified micro-moment. However, it was important to me to make sure any proposed partnership made sense for all stakeholders.
We discovered that Google and the National Park Service already had an existing relationship through their collaboration on Google's Arts and Culture platform. We also considered the potential value for Google. This includes building upon their growing Travel ecosystem, such as Google Destinations, Google Travel Guides, and Google Trips which have limited content for non-urban destinations. Additionally, we did a quick competitor analysis to understand where existing services fell in context for both Google and US National Parks. Here we were able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of existing solutions and where our product could fit within an unmet need
This also helped us understand that our solution would need to exist within the current ecosystem of Google Travel products. Below illustrates how our audience would flow through the integrated solution.
I and another team member were responsible for this project's UI and prototype. Once our initial 4-week project was over, the two of us chose to overhaul the design with a focus on mobile, as this better met the needs of our persona, fit within their journey, and captured the targeted micro-moment. For this I used a combination of Sketch, After Effects, Principle App, Premier, Illustrator, and Photoshop.
Initial Iterations and Overhaul
During our design sprint, I created quick prototypes to help test our initial concept of an interactive trail, borrowing ideas from precedents like National Geographic's A Bear's Eye-View of Yellowstone. We used these prototypes to evaluate key measures such as how well the product anticipated the information our persona was looking for, how well they could imagine being at a park, how excited did it get them to learn more about visiting a park, and how well the interactive trail metaphor translated.
Once we were able to confirm our initial ideas, I worked to unify the product's placement on the Google Destinations platform and fit within the Material Design language. This is where our academic project ended. However, I believed we could further refine the product with a focus on mobile to better meet the needs of our persona, fit within their journey, and capture the targeted micro-moment. Below shows the initial sprint and final in-class prototype, as well as our overhauled mobile prototype.
Diving Deep and Making Small Moves
Conducting numerous interviews, holding multiple user observations, and returning to our research often proved difficult, considering the limited time and resources of a 4-week project. However, this dedication to building a deep understanding of our challenge, our audience's behaviours, and our possible opportunities allowed us to identify subtleties, such as our targeted micro-moment, that we could have otherwise glossed over.
The resulting intervention is small, but one that presented intricate challenges. This included bringing delight to a utilitarian service like trip planning, working within an existing design system (Material Design), and positioning ourselves within an existing product ecosystem (Google Destinations). We focused on making as meaningful an impact for our audience as we could identify, with as few moves as possible. Ultimately, I believe that's what designers strive for.
🎉 You made it to the end! Thanks for taking the time to read this case study. This project was made in collaboration with Nikki Ann, Kristy Leung, Mark Strathern and Vickie Yim.