Project metadata
Project title NEPAccess.org
Project tagline Data Science Bringing NEPA into the 21st Century
Project purpose To make 50 years of Environmental Impact Statements and related decisions generated by NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1969) easily available, in a centralized place, to anyone.
Project summary NEPA has generated millions of pages of environmental data, useful for solving emerging 21st-century social, economic, and environmental challenges. Yet, until now, this valuable environmental science data has been difficult or impossible to find. NEPAccess.org is a research portal using AI to help apply science to civic decision-making.
Client/company University of Arizona, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy
Time frame October 2019 to December 2021
My major responsibilities Usability research, UI design, graphic design, storyboarding
Platforms Any browser
Tools used pencil, draw.io, Balsamiq, Figma, Photoshop, WordPress
Key performance metrics Key task success rate. Wide adoption by government agencies, academic reserchers, environmental consultants, lawyers, NGOs, and engaged citizens
Collaborators An interdisciplinary team of 32 members: computer scientists, developers, environmental and social scientists, public policy experts, and lawyers
Link to final project NEPAccess.org

Summary

NEPAccess.org is a ​web search portal that ​allows anyone to search, download and analyze thousands of environmental impact statements and other public documents generated by NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. These documents are important for making better decisions on public projects and evaluating past economic, environmental, and social impacts. There are millions of pages and they can be difficult or impossible to find.

NEPAccess.org uses leading-edge AI and data science to make 50 years of lost and highly technical scientific data accessible to anyone. The site must be usable by six user groups: engaged citizens, environmental scientists, government agencies, industries and consultants, public policy researchers, and schools.

My role was UX researcher and UI designer. I collaborated with ​a team of developers, data and information scientists, environmental and social scientists, lawyers, and students.

Discovery phase

Defining the problem

Wicked problems are challenges that span jurisdictions and disciplines; have multiple causes, and undergo rapid change with high uncertainty. NEPA is a governance tool that has generated the data that can help solve these problems, yet, there is no central database for this information and it is too voluminous to access manually.

from the project proposal.

Stakeholder interviews

Quotes from stakeholder interviews: I learned that a number of problems resulted from the difficulty or possibility of finding and accessing the original NEPA documents.

  • Easy public participation: “Being available and easily available are two different things. That’s what NEPAccess will do. The public, which means everybody, has the right to understand what’s going on in each process and have a say.”
  • Pain points for agencies: If there’s a pain point is it likely to be about finding documents or just the fact that they’re so huge that you don’t know exactly what’s going on in that document. It can be really challenging to navigate them and get to the information that you need. They may not even know that they have those pain points right, people can’t really imagine it being any different.
  • The biggest challenge: Right now the biggest challenge is figuring out how people will want to use it at this point in time. Once we have that, then the biggest challenge will be: can we do what people want?”

How people find NEPA documents now

The first thing I wanted to know was how people find and use NEPA documents now, without this new tool we were developing. To understand this from a concerned citizen’s point of view, I made some searches for a known environmental impact statement on the currently available sites.

I was optimistic. How hard could this be? Using Google, I found the  Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Database on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. I decided to find the EIS for a controversial copper mine that has been in the local news for the past decade.

I typed Rosemont mine into the search box because I had heard that phrase on the news. 
System: “No records met the search criteria.”

How can there be no record? I know the document exists and the EPA is required to have it available to the public.

I clicked through to a library site that had the largest collection of EISs. I got the same lack of results. Was the document not available? Or did I do something wrong? I felt confused, then uncertain. Surely a famous case like this would at least return a catalog record.

I wrote to the reference librarian. She explained that the document was on CD ROM. She did give me the full title to see if that helped, “Final environmental impact statement for the Rosemont copper project: a proposed mining operation, Coronado National Forest Pima County, Arizona.”

Now armed with the title, I went back to the EPA site and pasted it into the search box labeled “title.”
System: No records met the search criteria.

I tried two words that were in the title: Rosemont mining
System: No records met the search criteria.

I tried Rosemont copper.

Success.

Why did Rosemont mining return no results while Rosemont copper was successful? All those words occurred within the title.

Apparently, the two search words had to be a consecutive phrase in the title, not just within the title, or the document would not be found. I downloaded both the draft and final EIS.

Now I understood, from a user’s perspective, what we were up against. It was not as easy as it seemed.
The problem: Improve the database and search functions, but also, because the search process was so hard to understand–improve the usability.

How people search

Search is difficult to design. A search user interface (UI) must be simple. It has to translate computer logic to elements that are either intuitive to humans or easily learned. Because people are so used to Google searches and take that speed and under-the-hood power for granted, we needed a high success rate. If people could not find relevant search results or got n0 results, the site loses credibility.

I set up a series of usability studies to learn how our audience searched and used NEPA documents. These were my early research questions:

  1. What are the users’ jobs to be done? (Gather goals and context)
  2. How do they currently do this? (Analyze workflow)
  3. What could be better about how they currently do this? (Find opportunities)
  4. Does their level of NEPA domain knowledge affect the usability of a search interface? (understand common search psychology)

In order to adapt to the developer’s workflow, I held usability tests concurrently with my UI work. This way the user input was fresh and went directly into the design.

I built wireframes and high detail prototypes for larger pieces. When practical, I let the developer build a version of the interface and we edited and refined it from there using feedback from the usability interviews. Many issues were worked out in weekly developer meetings or emails, at other times in more formal reports.

The Evolution of a user interface

Original developers UI
Original developer’s UI

Above is the original developer’s interface I started with. It featured a search box, a few search filters, and showed search results in a table format. This represented the current state of the database in visual form. As you can see the single search term Rosemont brings up the draft and final EIS–already surpassing the EPA and competing library sites.

We got feedback from the stakeholders to change the black background. I didn’t change the other styling at this point, but I:

  1. Separated the elements into a hierarchy with meaningful H1 and H2 headings
  2. Made the search box the most prominent visual element
  3. Placed the advanced search filters into their own section
  4. Watched as the developer began to add boolean search forms and tooltips to explain them
Changing the background and putting elements in order

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