Paul Mirocha UX Design

A government agency published an environmental review when this LNG terminal was built. There’s a section about impacts on local fishermen.

 
 
 
 
 
 

How would you find a copy?

 

Murky to clear: user-centered design helps make a quagmire of government documents find-able by any citizen

Summary

This was a project of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy based at the University of Arizona, funded by the National Science Foundation.

We used data science to collect and organize a searchable database of millions of pages of complex technical data from environmental impact statements mandated by NEPA, the US National Environmental Policy Act, usable by anyone.

Roles

As the sole UX researcher and UI designer, I was responsible for shaping the overall design direction of this project.  I worked with a developer and an interdisciplinary team of data scientists, machine-learning researchers, environmental and social scientists, public policy experts, lawyers, and students.

Tools

Moderated user testing interviews with Zoom.us. Users set up realistic scenarios for a usability walkthrough. I recorded and logged notes using Airtable. Pencil & paper to sketch ideas, Balsamic and Draw.io for diagraming and wireframes, Figma for mockups and prototypes, as well as WordPress and Photoshop.

Problem definition

Background. In the 1960s, a series of high-profile environmental and social crises, such as Atlanta’s I-20 freeway construction that destroyed urban communities, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and the polluted Cuyahoga River fire made headlines that shocked the nation and catalyzed the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), unanimously approved by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970.

The law. The core mandate of NEPA is to balance environmental protection with development by studying environmental impacts and fostering public comments in planning infrastructure projects.

What the law did. Since its inception in 1970, NEPA has continuously generated volumes of environmental impact statements (EISs), providing detailed scientific analyses of social and environmental impacts from projects. 

What it didn’t do. However, despite the production of over 40,000 EISs comprising millions of pages, there was no centralized means in 1970 to store and access this crucial information. This means 50+ years of published science has been difficult or impossible to find.

Why it’s important. Large planning projects often face “wicked problems” the most complex and challenging issues of our time—problems that can’t be solved, due to multiple causes, conflicting viewpoints, and high uncertainty, like climate change, poverty, pollution.

Why we built this. Having access to knowledge generated by NEPA is crucial for informing these complex policy decisions.

Enter NEPAccess. It’s a collaborative effort involving environmental and social scientists, legal and policy experts, computer scientists, students, developers, and designers at the University of Arizona. This initiative employs modern data science and AI tools to collect, categorize, and centralize these documents into a searchable platform. 

Visualization of the problem for an explainer video
Even within one project, the data was not structured

Phase 1: Discovery

Stakeholder interviews

The first task was to understand the business goals from the perspective of the project leadership.
These are top quotes:

Vision

“NEPA is an important environmental law and we know almost nothing about how well it works.”

“The other problem is that there’s a lot of valuable data contained within the documents that’s completely inaccessible.”

Perceptions of the problem

“Just finding documents. Just the fact that they’re so huge…It can be really challenging to navigate them and get to the information that you need”

History of the problem

“In the past, you just didn’t know if you’re going to be able to find enough data to do your research. You didn’t know where to go to look for it. And it’s really just like throwing darts at a dartboard.”

How will people use it?

“We have a hunch that people will be looking not for single documents, but to connect these scattered documents and see the whole project put together.”

How to define success?

“All these multiple user types should be able to sit down–and come away feeling that they’ve either got what they wanted to know, or with a bit more probing they will get what they wanted. I think that’s the big challenge”

Environmental planning issues are often “wicked problems,” –those having high complexity and uncertainty, multiple causes, and conflicting viewpoints, essentially unsolvable. NEPA was designed to help with this.

To understand a user experience: try it yourself

I took a scenario from the persona of a citizen wanting to read the science behind a controversial mine whose name I heard in the local news.

I started with a Google search. I was optimistic. How hard could this be? Google found an agency website with a search form for EISs.

PAUL: types Rosemont mine into the search box 

SYSTEM: No records met the search criteria

How can that be? I know the document exists and NEPA requires it to be made public.

I found another link to a library site that had a large collection of EISs. I got the same (lack of) results. Did I do something wrong? I felt confused and anxious. Surely a high-profile mining project like this would at least return a catalog record.

I wrote to the reference librarian in the library site sidebar. She responded, explaining that the document was on a CD ROM which I could request through inter-library loan. She did give me the full title to see if that helped in my search.

PAUL: pastes title into search box: “Final environmental impact statement for the Rosemont copper project: a proposed mining operation, Coronado National Forest Pima County, Arizona.” 

SYSTEM: No records met the search criteria.

PAUL: tried two words that were in the title: Rosemont mining


SYSTEM: No records met the search criteria.



PAUL: tried Rosemont copper.

Success! 

But, why? Rosemont mining and Rosemont copper both occurred within the title.

Apparently, search terms had to be a consecutive phrase within the title, like “Rosemont copper,” 

 I downloaded the documents.search terms

Phase 2: User needs and goals

User testing

 

I conducted usability walkthrough interviews concurrently with UI development

Research Questions

Context

What are the users’ jobs to be done

Analyze workflow

How do they currently do this? 

Find opportunities

What could be better about how they currently do this?

Computer skills

What is level of a persona’s domain knowledge (NEPA). Does this correlate with computer skills?

First prototype

We developed the site on a local server and used it for user testing because it was connected to the database. We could watch participants make realistic searches. The system used an SQL database, Lucene search engine, and a REACTjs front end. The screenshot below from the developer’s sandbox is what I received as a starting point.

Working with the data science team, I designed an iterative series of user interfaces informed by user testing starting with the developer’s first screen. 

 

Starting point: The developer's first screen.