Designing for uncertainty: How do you visualise human nature?

In this blog Bunnyfoot consultant Steph Marsh describes her involvement in a participatory design workshop which aimed to find effective ways of analysing and visiualising large amounts of data:

I recently had an opportunity to assist in a user-centred design workshop with a group of academics in the early stages of a long-term research project. They’re looking at effective ways of analysing and visualising (graphically represent) data about populations and their emotions. The multi-disciplinary project team is employing UX techniques – not for a website, but to design and develop some highly interactive software to address a complex problem. The team is made up people with diverse knowledge and skill sets – visualisation experts, human geographers and physical geographers from academia, government and the private sector.

What’s the problem?

The project team wants to better understand people’s thoughts and feelings. Would understanding how a population might react to situations and environments make it possible to prevent events like the London riots or better manage these types of situations?

The human and physical geographers have lots of data that they want to understand but aren’t sure how to go about it. However, they know that interactive visualisation could help identify patterns in the data. They need to bring together lots of different types of data and show how reliable they are, including:

  • data on landscapes (terrain) and demographics – the good news is that there are well-established methods for analysing and visualising these things
  • social media data (real-time conversations) and data on people: what they think, their experiences and who they know – but there aren’t any standard visualisation techniques to analyse this stuff

To add another layer of complexity, the geographers also want to show how confident they are (their level of certainty) in the different datasets.

The visualisation experts have lots of different techniques to interact with and visualise data (e.g. geographic maps, graphs, network maps, video etc) to find patterns and meaning, but they don’t know much about the data itself.


What’s the solution?

The team decided to use a participatory design approach – this gets all the relevant people (e.g. designers and users) in the same room to share knowledge, identify problems and start considering solutions.

All the workshop participants started with a presentation of their piece of the puzzle to get a shared understanding of:

  • what the data is about
  • what they want to do
  • the kinds of interaction and visualisation techniques that could be used

Next, we got out the Post-it notes and did some exercises to gather together and prioritise all their pieces of the puzzle. The project team chose the most appropriate visualisation and interaction techniques and the most important data-problems, and then matched the techniques to the problems. Once this was agreed, they created some scenarios to build a story about how something can be found from particular data and how visualisation techniques would help to make it more meaningful.

What did Bunnyfoot do?

I helped the workshop participants by doing some real-time analysis of the huge amount of Post-it notes that 12 people can generate. I looked for themes and summarised needs and potential solutions to make it easier for the group to handle the data and facilitated the discussions and the development of scenarios.

What can we learn from this?

The value of getting people in the same room to share knowledge can’t be underestimated! By the end of the workshop, the project team had some visualisation ideas that were ready to be made into prototypes. They’re planning another participatory design workshop once the prototypes are ready. We often do this with our clients in order to extract information from company stakeholders and to gain buy in. We also run workshops and courses on ideation techniques.

Participatory design and other UX tools are useful for more than building and improving websites. Participatory design, in particular, gets together the designers and end users of a product to share their different knowledge and experience to create something that works for everyone.

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