How to Do Design Research When Your User Lives Underwater

How to Do Design Research When Your User Lives Underwater

4 lessons on designing for large, underwater mammals
Maggie Zhang
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On a Thursday afternoon, I found myself with a team of whale biologists, product designers, mechanical engineers, and public policy directors, all standing by a gigantic pool, throwing handmade contraptions into the water. Above us, aerial drones were flying around capturing the scene. Below us, GoPros on selfie sticks moved back and forth under the water. Typical day in the office.

The exercise wrapped up a three-day workshop with The Nature Conservancy, focused on finding new ways to track entangled whales. Whales often get caught in fishing lines, and responders can’t always free them on the first try. The Conservancy was looking for an easier way to find the whales after they swam away, so that they could complete their rescues.

When designers take on a new challenge, we start by talking to people to gain empathy for their needs. But how do you do that when the user is a whale? Along the way, we found a few workarounds.

Here are our top four lessons on designing for non-humans:

1. Understand the entire ecosystem

We were designing for an unusual ecosystem—an underwater one—and we needed to understand it from all angles. So, we took a day-long field trip to Monterey Bay and Moss Landing, where we really focused on getting a sense of the marine environment. We went kayaking among wildlife, visited a whale disentanglement boat and checked out all of its knives, buoys, and equipment, and talked to several locals. We wanted to understand everything we could about a whale’s journey and behaviors—even if we couldn’t talk to the whales themselves.

Tip: When you can’t physically ask users about their environment, you have to get creative to put yourself in their shoes (or fins). Getting a first-hand look at the users’ surroundings helps you gain empathy for them and gets you into the right mindset.

During our first research trip, we went kayaking in Elkhorn Slough. Being surrounded by all the local wildlife was inspiring.

2. Get visual

Knowing that we’d never be able to experience entanglement from a whale’s perspective, we had to find our own scrappy ways to understand how it happens. We watched whale rescue videos, got a collection of whale posters (illustrated by the man who did the special effects for Free Willy), and asked a rescuer to tie string around miniature whale models to help us visualize the entanglement process. We also bought crab fishing gear, rope, buoys, flippers, and lifejackets to decorate our project space. When our clients arrived for the workshop, we set up kiddie pools and inflatable orcas on our patio. This may sound excessive, but it was a really important part of the project; not only did the equipment set the right scene and mood for the workshop, but it also allowed us to quickly and easily test our ideas.

Tip: Keep your designers and clients immersed in the project with visual cues that represent the subject matter. It keeps morale high, and can even help you quickly iterate and test concepts—the kiddie pools at the workshop came in handy when it was time to try out prototypes.

We met with Pieter Folkens, a wildlife illustrator who has created special effects for films like Free Willy. His experience rescuing whales helped us understand the entire disentangling process.

3. Bring all the players to the table from day one

Since we couldn’t talk to any whales during the project, we conducted our design research with the people who knew them best—marine biologists, researchers, fishermen, and rescuers. We also brought in people with backgrounds in design, technology, government, and academia, and collectively discussed the problem and potential solutions. With the help of so many experts, we were able to fill in all of our gaps in knowledge, whether it was about whale anatomy or government funding.

Tip: When you’re designing for animals, you’re also designing for the people that work with those animals (similarly, if you’re designing for kids, you’re also designing for their parents). To make sure your solutions work for them, too, bring a wide range of voices into the room—even if they have to dial in.

At the workshop, we brainstormed with a wide variety of people, from designers to researchers to marine biologists.

4. Test prototypes in context

After brainstorming and sketching out early concepts, we headed to the IDEO Shop to create prototypes for the whale trackers. We couldn’t test the devices in the shallows of the kiddie pool, so we set up a rig in a neighbor’s swimming pool to see how they’d perform above and below water. This context helped us immensely in understanding what improvements could be made and how much each tracking device would burden the whale. We were able to measure how smoothly the devices moved through water (to minimize drag), and how well they stayed afloat. After each trial run, we were able to refine the prototypes on the spot, and continue testing.

Tip: Before you finalize any concepts, create a test environment that’s as close as possible to the user’s environment. This helps you understand how the concepts will work in context, and gives you the ability to record and measure what you've learned.

We tested our prototypes in a neighbor's swimming pool to get a sense of how they would move through water.

Next time we have to design for whales, though, we'll probably just channel our inner Dory.

Special thanks to Dali Yu for being a thought partner for this article, Rachel Tobias, Joerg Student, and Brooke Thyng for taking these photos, and the rest of the team for hosting an amazing workshop!

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Maggie Zhang
A lover of words, Maggie is constantly reading and writing. When she's not deep in a book, she also loves healthy cooking, exploring San Francisco's neighborhoods, and immersing herself in nature.
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