Designing SMBC’s farm reforestation app that grows crops and bird populations

My Role

UX Designer

Business

Spec work for the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC)

Year

2023

A collection of mobile phones show a new assessment screen, the home screen, and a mid-assessment screen to illustrate the various steps of getting the land evaluated, certified, and getting a perfect farm score.

Browse the case study

Background

Client: Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC)

The Smithsonian Institution founded the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) in 1991 to investigate the alarming decline in bird populations. Bird loss results in a loss of seed dispersal, pollination, and disease and pest control critical to ecosystems. Without birds, ecosystems lose their climate resiliency. Everyone’s food supply is more vulnerable as a result.

After studies proved that agriculture is a leading cause of bird decline, SMBC introduced the Bird Friendly® Coffee Program in 1997 to protect bird habitats impacted by coffee farms and later, cocoa farms in 2021. The SMBC hopes to further expand to a diversity of crop systems plus urban and suburban developments.

Challenge

How might we assist farmers 
in protecting biodiversity?

Now SMBC seeks to develop a tool to help farmers and auditors assess habitat for Bird Friendly® certification. An app will make certification more accessible, automatic, trust-worthy, and time- and cost-saving.

In 2021, SMBC partnered with Hack the Climate to invite the public to code a dashboard that automatically inputs habitat measurements from public data and satellite products into the app. SMBC received one (1) entry from the hackathon, which delivered a dashboard for a smart nest box rather than for the app.

Therefore, I challenged myself to design the Bird Friendly® Habitat App as its own product, as well as address issues the app’s primary users, farmers, might face.

Scope & Constraints

*This passion project is speculative only. SMBC has shared no updates on this tool since the hackathon.

I set the app’s purpose, users, and content per SMBC’s hackathon brief. This informed my draft content map.

Currently, only coffee and cacao farms—nearly all Latin American—are eligible for SMBC Bird Friendly® certification. However in my project, I will explore U.S. plant-based farms in response to:

  • SMBC’s goals for expansion
  • Established and scientific interest in N. America
  • Great opportunity as the leading food exporter
  • Ease of access for user research and testing

Because I was so unfamiliar with this science and industry, I allotted a lot of budget for discovery research with actual commercial farmers. A mishap with a user recruiter unfortunately halved the budget.

As a result of the mishap, I downgraded evaluative interviews to unmoderated tests and prioritized discovery. I wanted a good foundation for understanding farmers’ mindsets and framing the *right* problem. Plus, I believed that investing in the early stages ultimately saves money in the later.

Team

Me, UX Designer

Tools

Platforms

Figma • Maze • Miro • UserInterviews.com • Zoom

Deliverables

Discovery interviews (x10)

Affinity mapping

Personas

Journey mapping

A/B test (x26)

Usability testing (x66 cumulative)

Prototype (x1)

Process

Farming for understanding

Preliminary research crops up more questions

While I had experience with hobbyist gardeners in my family growing up, I had none with commercial farmers. (In fact, I Googled the difference between “gardener” and “farmer,” and no, it wasn’t “plant grower” vs. “animal grower” like I thought!)

Therefore, I devoted substantial time on preliminary research for SMBC’s motives and decision-making behind Bird Friendly®. I reverse-engineered responses to questions like, “Why is a U.S.-based nonprofit focusing on overseas tropical farms vs. our own breadbasket farms with struggling grassland birds?” (Answer: tropical birds are among the most globally threatened AND U.S. demand further drives the agriculture that threatens them.)

A visit to the actual SMBC in Washington, DC helped, too!

A wall mural inside an aviary of the SMBC describes the benefits of its farm certification program

I also poured over scientific journals on the relationships between birds and farms. Plus, I learned the farm jargon to construct my interview guide—which I rewrote 3x! Once, I asked about crop “species,” to which one farmer chided me that farmers say “varieties,” a correction I incorporated into later interviews.

Farmer Interviews
0
Scientific
Articles
0
Sticky
Notes
0 +

Uncovering the problem

Giving farmers a “bird’s eye view”

I coordinated with UserInterviews.com to recruit 10 commercial farmers in a variety of ages, locations, farm sizes, and farm styles. I asked the farmers about:

  1. Life on the farm (crops, methods, tech, goals)
  2. Life off the farm (trees, grasses, fencing)
  3. Life visiting the farm (weeds, insects, pests, birds)

Unsurprisingly, most farms would not qualify as Bird Friendly®. However, the farmers surprised me with their ambivalence towards birds.

Many surveys I researched suggested farmers would notice birds’ effects, either good or bad. Surveys further suggested a popular perception that birds were more bad than good.

Yet, 7 of 10 farmers really didn’t think about birds at all. This means farmers miss out on valuable opportunities for pest control without resorting to expensive pesticides that would also kill many beneficial insects and predators besides pests. Additionally, many bird-friendly practices also promote strong soil health and climate resiliency, helping farmers adapt to environmental changes.

To inspire interest in birds and this app, I decided to focus on something farmers were already passionate about—their farms!

If the tool highlights benefits birds could bestow on farms in the middle of helping farmers see their land from a—forgive me—bird’s eye view, then maybe we could share land info while creating bird awareness, too.

I realized #SaveTheBirds wasn’t going to be a big motivator, or really an awareness at all, so I created two lightweight personas and journey maps to help check my biases.

Getting a gut reaction on the story

I started wireframing the Home screen first. I narrowed my ideas down to two. Both options spotlight Bird Friendly® certification with an explanation of benefits as well as birds with farm benefits. However, they each told a different story:

The first was exploratory: a big-pic summary of the latest assessment, lots of photo buttons, and headlines and tags that encourage farmers to explore options based on its benefit to the farm.

The second was action-oriented: increase a farm certification readiness score. A 100% makes them eligible for certification pending an auditor’s official verification.

Like Birdhouse, I again asked the users which story they prefer. The score was a big hit! Agriculture and forestry professionals preferred this design 21-to-5 in an A/B test.

Breaking down a complex certification process into a clear, digestible UI

Designing the rest of the UI presented another informational challenge. I didn’t know exactly what the data SMBC requested was, or how to present it. Additionally, SMBC’s criteria differed between the official landing page and the hackathon invite.

With the user research and more preliminary research, I drafted the assessment screens, plus a few more crucial screens describing the certification. I incorporated feedback on likes and dislikes from the A/B test then submitted my lo-fi Figma prototype to another round of Maze testing for usability.

I applied Mobile First methodology to my designs. Although the Tablet view was more commonly mentioned, I believed designing for smaller screens first helps the designs scale clearly and beautifully for any device size.

While testing ran, I returned to my preliminary research notes and grabbed U.S. farm-friendly birds from the scientific journals I read. I illustrated bird, tree, and crop collages to visually portray benefits and spotlight CTAs. Hi-fi farm maps visualized data and results.

Feedback from the first usability informed my next iteration. For example, I added explanatory copy and buttons for more criteria information throughout the assessment.

I also mocked up a Tablet and Dark Mode as well. Farmers I interviewed frequently mentioned carrying a Tablet in particular for their on-site inspections.

Results

After 2x rounds of usability testing with 66x agriculture and forestry professionals, I increased the success rate of land/forest assessment completion by 20%. 

Success Rate
+ 0 %
Users Said UI Was “Intuitive”
+ 0 %

My changes to progress indicators and additional, explanatory copy were also well-received: 12% more users thought the prototype was more intuitive, with comments like:

  • “It is clearly written (with no or little technical words) using easy to understand language.”
  • “Everything felt clearly labeled.”
  • “[It] was very easy to navigate and read the information. The app was set out well without looking messy.”

Conclusion

In future iterations of the app, I’d like to…

  1. help farmers confidently finish and submit the assessment, which may require testing on the number of screens, copy revisions, and placement on that final “Calculate My Score” button
  2. better understand farmers’ experience with the criteria (what and why each part was being collected, and where they could find more info)

However, many pain points I uncovered in my research and testing suggest additional work beyond the app. I would encourage consideration of:

  • a benefits-focused landing page on the website that piques farmer interest in certification
  • a interactive web page that allows farmers to role-play a beneficial bird on a farm so that they might better understand the benefits of birds in general

View on Figma

Reflections

This project’s discovery research revealed to me that I was a lot more “out of my element” than I thought. It challenged many assumptions, and I made mistakes in my interviews.

For example, I made a few mistakes like saying “species” instead of “varieties;” tracking acreage to document farm size vs. revenue; and didn’t always understand the names of products or machines. I thanked participants for their time, corrections, and explanations and remembered them for next time.

My experience with UserInterviews.com this also not as great as previous ones. The recruiter mishap halved my budget. Then, the recruiter’s matches were not always relevant, so I struggled filling information gaps. This was made worse by my own mistake in perhaps sterilizing my descriptions/screeners too much as I tried to avoid biasing participants—instead one farmer cited they thought we’d be talking about something entirely different!

However, I learned a lot about farming and practiced my interviewing a lot, too. I’m more skilled at the visual design side of UX. So, I was happy for the opportunity to grow my user research and copywriting muscles!