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Duke Farms App

Duke Farms, Samadhi Games // 2018-2019

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Mobile app empowers visitors to navigate a 1,000+ acre nature preserve independently, reducing use of paper maps and reliance on staff for directions

Duke Farms, a 1,000+ acre nature preserve and research institution in New Jersey, needed a way to help their 240,000 yearly visitors navigate the expansive property and easily stay informed of events and educational offerings. I led the design of an app that empowered visitors to navigate the property independently, access information about the sites, and find the activities most relevant to them. This resulted in reduced strain on Duke Farms staff to provide directions to visitors and a reduction in the use of paper maps. The app had 14,000 users in 2023 with 80-150 new downloads per day in Summer. The website underwent a redesign to better align with the quality of the app. The Duke Farms staff are happy with the app and are conducting further user analysis to inform future updates.
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The Farm Barn Orientation Center, a property highlight

Help visitors self-navigate the property with an app

Impact to Stakeholders
The primary wayfinding methods were an old laminated map permanently located in the Orientation Center, paper maps staff handed out, and faded signage around the property. Visitors would get lost while exploring. They could use Google Maps, but still wouldn’t have access to site information. There were also long lines at the bike rental booth and cafe, challenges getting around for visitors with mobility impairments, and no staff-led tours provided. The Duke Farms website was outdated and difficult to navigate, making it tough to find relevant information. Staff were often relied upon to provide directions and often experienced challenges managing their duties while providing this service. The Doris Duke Foundation determines the yearly budget for Duke Farms and wants the property to be informative and enjoyable for visitors. 

Vision
The vision was to design an app that empowers visitors to self-navigate the property and stay informed of its events. The app needed to be available on iOS and Android platforms within 8 months of the initial inquiry. To keep cost and time down, the app would be based on the core infrastructure of the Highline app built by the developer. The app should help visitors: (1) navigate the property and engage with the sites; (2) access tour information about each site; and (3) stay informed of property events and educational offerings.

Leading UX on a small team

Team
1 UX Designer (me)
1 Product Owner / Community Engagement Manager

1 Visitor Services Manager
1 Product Developer

What I Did
Observational research, competitive research, usability studies, website evaluation, information architecture, wireframing, UI design, prototyping, illustration, icon design, marketing materials. 

Timeline
8 months

Tools
Sketch + InVision, Illustrator, Photoshop
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"It has allowed us to decrease the reliance on staff for directions [and] reduce the use of paper maps."

Performance Against Objectives
We hit all of our team objectives:
  • Created an interactive map app that makes site information more accessible to visitors
  • Improved visitor navigation and reduced the use of paper maps
  • Provided more information about accessibility at Duke Farms while incorporating accessibility features
  • Expanded and enhanced visual brand identity
  • V1.0 completed and launched by Summer 2019 (on time and on budget)

Statistics​
  • The user base is seasonal; usage typically slows down in November and returns in March and April. 
  • In Summer, the app regularly gets 80-150 new downloads a day across both iOS and Android. Users open the app several times before uninstalling, sometimes a couple of weekends in a row. The team believes this tracks with users downloading the app, going to the park and using the app during the visit(s), and then later uninstalling when they no longer need the app.
  • The most frequently accessed view is the Map, with Highlights and FAQ coming in second and third.
  • in 2023, the app had 14,000 users. Of those, 595 users accessed audio tour feature; there were 29 email subscription sign ups.
  • Average engagement time is 20 minutes
  • 92% of users only accessed for 1 day
Updates Past My Involvement in 2019
  • The app is updated with seasonal changes nearly every quarter and the developer has continued to add features to see how they perform with users.
  • QR code scanning was recently added to dynamically link into the app for information on botanical information for trees found on the property.
  • iPad/Tablet support was added a couple of years ago, but there have been less than a doen total downloads to tablet style devices.
  • The Duke Farms team is currently examining further data
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Light pole banners designed for the main walkway

Reflection

Begin with thorough research
It can be difficult to accurately scope a project without some upfront research to inform strategy. More extensive competitive research (direct and indirect), interviews with visitors, and longitudinal observations would’ve allowed us to develop a more targeted strategy, guarding against too many feature requests and saving the client money.
Test with and talk to target users
It’s important to get client permission and support to conduct usability tests with actual target users over time to inform product evolution. Primary research (talking with users) provides rich insight that app statistics cannot.
Track changes
It’s important to keep a record of changes between iterations along with reasoning, the source of feedback, and (ideally) both qualitative and quantitative results of the change to measure impact / success. Cost in time, resources, and money could be useful business metrics as well.
Create a symbol library
Symbol libraries speed up workflow and make iteration much easier. This project was built with Sketch, InVision, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. Building icons in Sketch would’ve helped me limit the complexity of icons and simplified my workflow.

Conducting UX research for pitch mocks

Research Methodology
My methodology included observational research, empathy mapping, evaluation of the website and visual identity, competitive research on similar apps, design reviews by Duke Farms staff, and remotely moderated 1x1 usability testing.
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Getting Around the Property​
Renting a bike enabled me to get around the large property much more quickly and easily. As a first-time visitor, I wanted to see as much as possible. The detailed maps available on signage like the one you see here were hard to read and, as a first-time visitor, I would forget the route on the way. I got a little lost at one point and had a hard time seeing the dark green wayfinding signage at certain sites and along wooded paths. It was a long way back to the Orientation Center and I worked up an appetite!
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Getting Information
Unless I stopped my bike to read the information displays, some of which were faded, I didn’t know the significance of the sites.The line at the Cafe wasn’t bad and the menu items were provided on a chalkboard on the back wall (I needed my glasses) and on a paper menu. A volunteer gave me some information when I first arrived and showed me the large laminated map that stays in the Orientation Center. But, the map was hard to read and I received more information than I really wanted.
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Building Empathy
I used an empathy map to capture observations from the site visit and website evaluation, plus observations from the Duke Farms staff years of experience. The following visitor needs were identified:
 
  • A better way to know exactly where I am in the property
  • A more engaging way to learn about the sites
  • A way to access site information while on a bike
  • An easy way to find and keep track of programs, events, workshops and activities relevant to me so I can plan my day and register
  • A way to see information on upcoming Farmer's Market Days
3 Key User Groups
A diverse range of people visit Duke Farms every year and we wanted to serve as many of them as possible. However, we identified three key user groups to focus on for the pitch.
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First Time Visitor
  • Wants to know when and where things are happening
  • Wants to feel safe when exploring or jogging alone
  • Wants to avoid lines at the bike tent and cafe when exploring with family and/or friends
Occasional Educational Visitors
  • Adults leading groups of students need to know how to find their way around
  • Want to see nature/science things around the property and get involved
  • Kids want to access information digitally
  • Need to communicate with park administration to get any needed information quickly
Visitors with Disabilities
  • Wants to know what is accessible by wheelchair and where accessible entrances are
  • May want an easy way to book the rental van to get around the property
  • Need to be able to access site information visually or through audio
  • Want ability to quickly look up relevant accessibility information
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Competitive Summary
I conducted a small study of comparable apps and examples of weather widgets to cherry pick a few ideas.
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Pitch Mock-Ups
The Product Owner needed buy-in from the rest of the DF team. We developed 5 pitch mock-ups highlighting core features to demonstrate the value of the idea, generate excitement, and get budget approval.
14 Key Tasks and Features​
To deliver a product that stakeholders might find meaningful and relevant, I ran a brainstorming session with the product owner during the initial inquiry. This gave 
us some discussion points with the developer and other stakeholders, helping us 
scope out the project in our contracts. We identified 14 possible key tasks and features the app could have. These were later vetted by the rest of the staff.
  • Complete onboarding
  • Learn more about each site, audio tour
  • Identify accessible paths
  • Learn about accessibility services
  • Find bike tent on the map
  • Learn about property highlights
  • Learn about bike rentals and sign the waiver
  • Find out what’s happening today
  • Find the hours of operation
  • Contact the front desk / security
  • Submit a question to the Help Desk
  • Submit a mobile order to the Cafe
  • Look up park etiquette
  • Check the Critter Cam

Application mapping and wireframes

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7 Rounds of Application Mapping and Navigation Design
This helped the team align on scope, requirements and information architecture. We needed a way to include a lot of content and highlight core functionality which required strategic design of the navigation structure.
 
  • Easy and persistent access to the map feature was a top priority.
  • Bottom navigation was eliminated to avoid conflict with bottom navigation feature in the map interface.
  • The “next screen” component was leveraged from the Highline app.
  • Alerts and push notifications were removed as they were out of scope for V1.0 of app release.
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2 Rounds of Wireframes, 105 Total Wireframes
I was able to base the initial wireframes on the infrastructure of the Highline app. Rounds of review with the team resulted in some new content and features, requiring new UI patterns. 
Visual Identity Evaluation
  • Complicated illustration is considered part of the logo. Wordmark is sometimes used yet is not documented in the brand guidelines.
  • Typeface for wordmark is not provided.
  • The flow panel is incorporated across materials.
  • No prioritization or clear rules around application of extensive color palette; No clear rules about logo color version usage.
  • The website is visually outdated and it is difficult to find information.
  • There is an inconsistent application of visual branding on the website and across collateral. 
  • Many images used on website are of poor quality.

These issues presented an opportunity to strengthen the visual brand and find creative solutions for brand expression in the app. 

Highlights

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Rich site information that's accessible
The main purpose of the app was to provide an interactive map that provides information about each site. Detail screens contained a carousel of images, a short description, and an audio tour with additional information read by staff members. For accessibility, I also designed a caption feature that follows along with the reader via highlighted text.
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200+ custom icons and 4 illustrations
​To stay on-brand and maintain a consistent style, we needed to create some custom icons and illustrations as there weren't any ready-to-go kits that met our needs. 

Testing revealed users unable to map their way back to the Orientation Center

Methodology
  • I conducted 3 remote 1x1 usability sessions via Skype.
  • Participants were recruited from my personal network via email.
  • They were provided a clear description of the nature of the study, the time required and the methods that would be used.
  • Small compensation was offered but not taken by any participant.
  • The sessions were video and audio recorded with consent from participants.
  • Participants were informed that participation was voluntary and that they could stop at any time.
  • They each were given 9 tasks to complete over 30 minutes and a final question about the overall usability/impressions.
Recommendation to biggest usability error
​We could install a tool tip that pops up the first time users access the map screen, explaining what the bubble "quick action" return button is for. OR we could put an illustrated Orientation Center marker on the map that shows the route back when clicked.
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Challenges

Limited Access to Users
We didn’t have a good way to engage target users without disturbing visitors. I didn’t consider any of the staff or the people on the core team as representative of users. These were our subject-matter experts. I rounded up a few people from my personal network who were willing to participate. The drawbacks were lack of diversity, a small sample size, and none of them had ever been to Duke Farms.
 
Managing Feature Requests
To ensure a well-designed product while also trying to meet the requests of the client, the developer and I had to manage client enthusiasm and feature requests. We focused requests and guarded against scope creep as much as possible while introducing the team to the practice of version releases.
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