Merlin Bird ID

Redesigning a birding app for easier exploration of nearby sights & sounds

My Role

UX Designer

Business

Spec work for Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID

Year

2023

Summary

Silhouette profile of a hawk

I recently redesigned Merlin Bird ID while using the app myself. I surveyed birders online with follow-up interviews, and I learned that Merlin isn’t as easy to use for “in-the-moment” capture. So, I redesigned the app with new features that complimented the existing UI, including phone widgets, a watch app, and a map. As a result, I received overwhelmingly positive user feedback following the redesign, with 90% of surveyed users expressing satisfaction with the new features.

Browse the case study

Background

Client: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Cornell University, Lab of Ornithology developed Merlin Bird ID to help casual birders identify and learn more about their wild backyard birds. It’s one of the most popular bird identification apps and one of the Apple App Store’s most popular apps overall: Merlin ranks #12 with a 4.9-star rating. Cornell University is a leading name within the bird community, and many users trust their app for scientific accuracy. Merlin is also simple, lightweight, and illustrated with Charley Harper’s pop-arty birds. As a result, the app is an attractive choice.

Birding in particular soared in popularity during the pandemic as an affordable, accessible hobby. Many times birds can be heard but not seen. Therefore, birders often identify both by sight and sound. Merlin makes it easy for birdwatchers to grow into birders with a one-tap sound ID.

While most people observe birds casually, the information people share while doing so provides valuable scientific data regarding bird populations and migratory patterns — data that helped Cornell University and others discover a widespread and severe decline of bird populations and their valuable ecosystem services and now to work to fix it.

Therefore, continuous refinements to Merlin helps both birders and the scientific community engage with nature better.

Challenge

How might we redesign Merlin to help birders better engage with nature?

I first thought of redesigning Merlin while struggling to capture and sort recent audio recordings to identify birds I could hear but not see. I wondered if this process could be easier, if other birds also felt frustrated with the same pains I was experiencing, and how I could improve Merlin.

Team

Me, UX Designer

Tools

Platforms

Figma • Maze • Miro • UserInterviews.com • Zoom

Deliverables

Discovery interviews (x5)

Usability testing on mobile (x20)

Mobile prototype (x1)

Usability testing on smartwatch (x40)

Smartwatch prototype (x1)

Process

Birder ID: who are birders?

First I needed to better understand why and how birders use Merlin. Understanding birders’ goals helps me determine Merlin’s effectiveness. Likewise, understanding how birders use Merlin helps me focus on the features that are (or would be!) most valuable.

I launched an online survey and followed up with in-depth discovery interviews. I asked about their goals, such as:

  • satisfying curiosity
  • improving identification skills
  • gathering information to study birds professionally
  • keeping count of what/how many bird species visit

The most common response was to satisfy their curiosity. Many birders described themselves as casual observers with a “beginner’s level of identification” and described their setups of catching birds from their windows or on their errands.

However, the second most common response was actually the other end of the spectrum: many also self-described as average to expert birders with at-home setups and getaway trips to study birds for work or for “citizen science.”

On the other hand, identification methods were evenly mixed between sight, sound, and Merlin’s quiz with slight preference for sight ID.

A birder, left, describes the birdwatching setup in their backyard during a discovery interview.

“In 100% honesty, the way most of it happens is that I’ll be lying in bed, like, ‘Who’s making that sound?’”

“I was walking my dog and I heard it [the flicker] and, seeing it way up in the top of a tree, I couldn’t get a good picture of it because it was a silhouette on the sky. So I recorded the song.’”
“Pictures require me doing all this glasses stuff, and then my phone, and then the bird’s flown away by then.”

Finding what ruffles birders’ feathers

Overall, my user research revealed that while Merlin is great for leisurely exploration and reading, it’s not as easy to use for “in-the-moment” capture of nearby sights and sounds.

Birds faster than the speed of sound ID

Speed is an unsurprising issue — birds are fast! Besides the animal’s speed, birders expressed frustration with the environment. For example, phone cameras may not capture enough detail on a back-lit or faraway bird for the app to identify them.

Because they don’t have much control over the bird’s behavior, the environment, or their phone’s hardware, many birders embrace Merlin’s sound ID to bypass these issues except…the bird stops singing sooner than birders can get their phones, launch the app, and record enough of it!

Birders hoped for a faster way to explore nearby sounds and record potential bird noises for identification.

Invasive species found everywhere but the app

Interviewed birders cited an inability to find invasive species on Merlin that while not native to their region, were populous nonetheless.

For example, a birder from Florida told me she frequently saw wild peacocks. It’s clear they’re not native animals, but the peacocks have been settled in her area for decades and the app has no info for her on them. Instead, she identified their calls by Googling for them.

Other birders wanted to explore birds closer to their immediate region rather than a faraway, statewide summary.

Birders who felt like their region’s info was missing or lacking birds were more likely to distrust the app’s matching accuracy.

No “explore near me” option

One birder told me how badly she wanted to see an owl in her neighborhood — one that everyone but her seemed to have seen. Neighbors would mention a sighting when they’d see her, but by the time she’d learn of the owl, it’d have traveled onward. She hoped for a faster way of learning about nearby owl sightings. Other birders repeated her same call.

Many birders wanted an option within the app to explore birds that others had identified in their immediate area on the map.

However, analysis of birders’ responses also revealed another interesting insight: while many wanted to explore sightings reported near them, few reported their own sightings for others to see.

Existing Sound ID Path on Mobile...but the map only appears in Photo ID if the user agrees to download/launch a second app, eBird.

“Shriking” a balance

While the app can’t slow birds down for easier sight/sound capture and can’t speed up a phone’s boot-up, the app can provide more info for birders’ immediate area. I needed to strike the balance between user needs and real-life feasibility.

After feature brainstorming and competitor analysis, I devised solutions that bring birds “closer to home”:

  1. A home screen widget and/or smartwatch mini-app that launches sound ID with fewer taps
  2. Updated libraries with long-term invasive species in the back-end
  3. An “Explore Near Me” map that’s updated with recently reported sightings/hearings — users may opt into anonymous but automatic reporting in the app’s onboarding and settings and also opt into receive notifications based on time, distance, or species

Achieving “beak” performance

To help birds explore nearby sights and sounds easier, I focused on designing responsive sound ID screens and a new “Explore Near Me” screen.

First, the speed issue:

I explored options beyond the phone app to help birders quickly launch ID tools. My idea was to reduce scrolls and clicks to save launch time. To quickly launch Merlin’s Sound ID, users may also:

  • tap phone home screen widget(s)
  • launch Sound ID from a smartwatch

More Start Options Help Birders Speedily Launch Merlin

The smartwatch screen displays a spinning progress loader and timer to indicate active recording. Beneath a large pause button is the text, “Listening for birds…”
Quickly capture audio on the Sound ID smartwatch app, then switch to the phone app to compare bird songs and view more info about the bird.
Sound ID launches from an Apple Watch, starts recording audio, then reveals the birds Merlin has identified from the audio clip. Then, an identified bird may be swiped to open the bird calls within Merlin's phone app so birders can verify the match.

Second, the new “Explore Near Me” feature:

I envisioned a map integrated within Merlin itself to encourage birders to explore and share their own sightings. Birders may flip between two modes: search for birds by distance via the map or search for birds by species via the reported birds. From there, birders can filter the map’s pins by species or add a notification for birds right then. Alternatively, birders may view notifications for both nearby and known birds through Merlin’s Settings screen.

New “Explore Nearby” Feature Invites Birders to Discover Birds in Real-Time

Phone & In-App Notifications Help Birders Find the Birds They Want to See Before They’re Gone

Results

I conducted 3x rounds of unmoderated usability testing at 20x users each with Maze.

The new “Explore Nearby” feature was well-received: 95% of testers surveyed agreed they would use this app. The navigation received positive feedback as well: 90% said the UI was easy to understand, and 95% said the MVP worked as expected.

Said They Would Use “Explore Nearby”
0 %

The smartwatch Sound ID app was more difficult. Unlike “Explore Nearby” which are very similar to existing app components, the smartwatch app was all-new. However, the concept scored high marks: 85% of testers reported a positive first impression, and all 100% said the UI was easy to understand.

Were “Happy” with the Smartwatch MVP
0 %

Conclusion

I would like to follow-up more on smartwatch feedback with moderated usability testing. It seemed attitudes and behaviors weren’t aligned.

Attitudes expressed in comments were generally positive.

However, behavior suggested differently: users spent a long time on the active recording screen and misclick rates were high with two or even one buttons on screens. These findings might indicate users were confused, next steps were unclear, or buttons didn’t yield the expected reactions, or something.

Therefore, a moderated “think aloud” exercise would be helpful to better understand how users interpret their options, clarify expectations for the UI, and elaborate on what they’d like to see different.

View on Figma

Reflections

This project challenged me to find a solution within the app for obstacles that happen outside the app. I feel my proposals for phone and smartwatch widgets would both give birders more options during quick decisions. I also feel like these solutions would give Merlin an edge over many of its competitors, who mostly lacked these options.