NASA AgroSphere - 3D Data Visualization Web Application
Given nine weeks and virtually no budget, I, along with four other interns, was given the challenge to build a web application that would help bring humans one step closer to a solution for a major global issue.
As the only designer on the team, I needed to create an experience that intuitively displays complex datasets while telling a narrative of Earth in possible danger.
Global Design Challenge
The WorldWind Europa Challenge, an open-source competition hosted by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), aims to help address a major global issue, such as education, health, etc., through innovative design and use of data.
Specifically for our team, we discovered that there is a need for an application that would allow people of all ages, especially secondary school students, to explore large amounts of valuable, underused agriculture and climate data. This can potentially inspire people to become more aware of how Earth has changed over the years.
Business and Technical Constraints
Must design and develop the app using the NASA Web World Wind Software Development Kit (SDK)
Virtually no budget due to the open-source nature of the project
No design mentor or anyone with a design background
Only one other intern on the team had a strong web development background
Nine week deadline of design challenge
I designed a web application that displays both climate and agriculture data trends on a global scale via an intuitive web interface.
The team and I created this web app partially as a platform for schools and non-profit organizations to use as an educational data-visualization tool.
Worked with four other interns, including two high school students, as the designer of the team.
Designed the user interface and possible interactions through datasets and any UI elements
Established the design roadmap of the application to ensure that the app was ready for public release by the end of the internship
Iterated on designs and prioritized features based on existing user metrics of previously-created NASA data visualization applications and recommendations from NASA professionals
Brainstorming, wireframing, & prototyping
Adobe Illustrator, Sketch, whiteboard, markers
For front-end development and live prototyping
Conducting Research and Planning
Because this project was a standalone design challenge, there was no user metrics to leverage during the research phase of the internship.
Instead, I conducted informal stakeholder interviews with NASA professionals with different backgrounds to gain insights on possible ideas for the project.
Some of the ideas we came up with were:
Creating and Implementing a separate lesson plan for the app
Show the types and amounts of renewable energy in different regions on Earth
Estimate the optimal type of renewable energy in a region based on existing data
Map out different types of natural disasters
Show the average number of certain disasters for a region based on casualties, costs, etc.
After countless hours of closed-door meetings and numerous ideas for the project, we collectively decided on an application that would use weather and agriculture data to visualize possible historical trends.
Specifically, for me, I had to decide where datasets would show up on the menu. I also implemented appropriate affordances, such as clickable icons, on the globe so users can easily interact with the available datasets.
Storyboarding and Brainstorming
Here I designed some initial concept storyboards while my team and I were in the process of uncovering which features and components were technically feasible and which ones were not.
What followed was two full weeks of data scavenging and product feature planning through sketches, concept storyboards, and iterative mockups.
Our team gathered global historical weather and agriculture data from NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other government-affiliated organizations. Most of these datasets include data from the early 1900s.
Sketching and Outlining Features
As my team and I were gathering more data, I leveraged user flows to map out how different user interface and data elements would be organized on the screen when certain UI elements are active.
I also continued to sketch out ideas to display data on the 3D globe of Earth.
Throughout the design process, I periodically referred to features of existing NASA data visualization applications and communicated with program managers and engineers to ensure that I included the essential features that would make this application successful. This was extremely important given the nine-week duration of the internship.
Then we began the coding process...
Iterative Design and Usability Testing
I also conducted several rounds of usability testing in-person and via Skype with our target users with a variety of computer proficiency.
I made it very clear to my team members that it was essential to validate our application with potential users. Doing so would allow us to discover bugs and to see whether or not the app would be actually useful and usable in a realistic setting.
Results of the test allowed us to:
Reduce the initial load time and dataset load times
Add some more clear descriptions for datasets (to eliminate confusion for those who are not familiar with certain climate/agriculture nomenclatures)
Implement the ability to view multiple datasets simultaneously and side-by-side
After nine long weeks, the application was finally complete. The application runs both on desktop browsers and mobile (tablets and smartphones) using Bootstrap. This is to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
You can watch the mobile demo here (external Youtube video).
Typography and Color
Design Results and International Competition
The finished application was awarded first place in the WorldWind Europa Challenge as well as the winner of the GODAN Open Data Challenge. I also presented the application with my team at the annual NASA summer research project symposium at NASA Ames Research Center.
We were offered an expense-paid trip to Helsinki, Finland to compete in the finals against eleven other finalist teams. I, along with my team, presented our application to a large group of technical experts and executives in Europe.
The application piqued the interest of non-profit organizations in Europe. They contacted us interested in using the app as a platform to spread the awareness of the value of 3D data visualization, especially in regards to climate and agriculture data, and to seek to sponsor the application for greater use.
What I Learned
Prototyping in code and developing my own designs have their own set of challenges.
Prototyping in a design tool like Sketch is an essential skill for a UX designer to have. However, creating the same interactions with mid-to-high visual fidelity in code presented its own difficulties. For example, I found, many times during the development process, that some interface elements and interactions were extremely difficult to recreate. In addition, certain aspects of the design had to be changed given the technical limitations of the SDK and code libraries we used.
Communication between stakeholders and team members is critical.
As a designer, I often gathered insights from my team members and other stakeholders in the NASA division I worked in. They brought with them their own diverse skill sets and experiences, and they helped me out during key design decisions. This saved me a tremendous amount of time conducting research and boosted the success of the application.
Business constraints are real.
Due to the open-source nature of this project, my team members and I received virtually no budget to build this application. The only resources that were available to us were the Internet and the stakeholders in our NASA division. These limitations overwhelmed me initially, but by the end of the internship, I felt more independent as a designer and I am glad that I gained experience working in such an environment.