Redesigning Merlin Bird ID for easier exploration of nearby sights & sounds
Spec work for Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID
Browse the case study
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.
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.
Me, UX Designer
Figma • Maze • Miro • UserInterviews.com • Zoom
Discovery interviews (x5)
Usability testing on mobile (x20)
Mobile prototype (x1)
Usability testing on smartwatch (x40)
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.
“In 100% honesty, the way most of it happens is that I’ll be lying in bed, like, ‘Who’s making that sound?’”
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.
“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”:
- A home screen widget and/or smartwatch mini-app that launches sound ID with fewer taps
- Updated libraries with long-term invasive species in the back-end
- 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.