More White Noise, or a Tool with Impact?

July 22, 2014

Written By: Tegan O’Neill, 2014 Ted Smith Climate Fellow

A few years ago my parents bought a weight machine- one of those home-gym contraptions- and proudly assembled it. Since then, they have moved it around to various corners of the house, where it sits unused like a piece of vaguely ironic contemporary art. Our weight machine is like the many other ‘statement pieces’ you find around peoples’ homes; the sewing machines, exercise bikes, and pop-up trailers that were such a great idea (“and on sale!”) but never got used.

Unfortunately for those in the climate change communications world, it turns out that our tendency to “shelve it” applies to most things.

The advent of web applications and mobile apps that communicate the impacts of climate change has lead to the creation of hundreds of brilliant and useful tools. Online applications such as Sea Level, Global Forest Watch, and Aquifer have incredible potential to inform, change behavior, and reduce risk- but only if they are used.

Screenshot of the Agricultural Water Conservation Clearinghouse website

One of the many, many clearinghouses that are available, but difficult to navigate, and too time-consuming and complex to be widely used by producers.

A few weeks ago, I began working with three nonprofits in Montana on the development of a web-based tool to assist producers in Montana who are dealing with the impacts of climate change and water scarcity on their operations. The project will take a heap of money and several years to complete. There is a great deal of excitement about the tool right now, but without care it is possible the finished product might sit in some obscure corner of the internet someday, never to be used. For nonprofits, finding time, funding, and building interest for projects such as the one we are working on takes a gargantuan effort. As a result, spending time and money developing application that isn’t impactful is not an option.

In Montana, our goal is to improve producers’ abilities to adapt to climate change. Currently, the overwhelming number of resources and programs available to farmers and ranchers are spread out over dozens of websites and agencies. Instead of creating new resources or programs, our partners are seeking to consolidate and simplify that information to make it more usable. However, at this stage, we’re faced with question: how do we build a tool that won’t just add to the noise or sit on the shelf?

We start by asking questions, and we do it early.

Common sense tells us that people are only going to use a web application if it is easy to use and benefits them in some way. Whether that benefit is entertainment, increased profit or productivity, etc. depends on the tool and the target audience. Conducting interviews, focus groups, and discussions with producers is helping us figure out what kind of tool they’re most likely to use, and how it should function. We start by asking agriculturalists about the day-to-day challenges they face in their operations, how they’re feeling the impacts of extreme weather and water variability, and what tool they would like to see created. Basic questions like these lead to simple but powerful design decisions. For example, using a question-tree format instead of a traditional search function caters to users who may have a set of issues but not be aware of the underlying problem or what kind of opportunities that fit their needs.

Involving the target audience in development right from the beginning of the project serves two purposes. First, the application produced will make sense to the users because it has been designed with their sensibilities and input in mind. Second, the sense of ownership that is created through co-development will increase the likelihood that producers visit the site and share the tool within their own networks (“hey, I helped build this, it’s actually pretty useful”).

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘isn’t that something that businesses already do when they’re developing something?’ you’re absolutely right. Businesses do it, because they have to make sure the product is worth the investment. Businesses have to know the client, and assure that whatever they’re developing will be consumed. In the nonprofit and academic worlds, however, the desired outcomes aren’t so clear. While universities and nonprofits run dozens and dozens of climate change related databases, clearinghouses and online tools, the number of those that are simple and engaging enough to actually be used is questionable. While this is certainly not true for many organizations, it almost seems as though the goal of some web applications is to help make the organization or developer look good, instead of actually being practically useful, or moving a conversation forward.

Producing a tool that is sophisticated, nuanced, and ‘really cool’ to the researchers involved won’t do any good if it doesn’t engage the target audience. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout this process so far is that impact depends on a good design, and a good design is the result of a lot of listening. I’m certainly looking forward to all of the conversations I’ll have over the rest of the summer. And hopefully, one day, somebody will actually use my family’s weight machine, I will see this tool up and running and, most importantly, it will have an impact.

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