Luz Calvo, UX & Visualization Researcher at Barcelona Supercomputing Center, analyses how User Experience techniques allow to display complex forecasting data in an understandable way.
User Experience (UX) is key when it comes to developing a forecasting tool such as the S2S4E Decision Support Tool (DST). But, what is UX? Luz Calvo, a UX & Visualization Researcher at Barcelona Supercomputing Center, who has been involved in the development of the forecasting tool, has the answer: “UX is a way to work, in which we focus on the user's needs. We design according to rules and patterns about interaction, perception and behaviour, and we validate our proposal to find problems in the design before implementing a final solution.” In other words, UX is how and what users feel when they use a specific product or service.
The S2S4E DST displays worldwide predictions of variables such as temperature, precipitation, solar radiation and wind speed for 1-4 weeks and 1-3 months in advance, which allows for better preparation for extreme conditions in a changing climate. The predictions are adapted for the renewable energy sector, but could also be useful for other industries, such as agriculture, that depend on the weather conditions.
“We wanted to create a tool that is available to everyone, so that someone without too much experience in climate forecasts could understand the information shown,” explains Calvo.
What does the UX design process involve?
UX design tries to build empathy with the users, and perceive their objectives and the value of each functionality or feature. Understanding the technology is just as important: The UX design process is about “finding the best option to be used and the limitations, choosing the most efficient and effective way that makes sense for final users. Keeping in mind all these aspects, you can guarantee memorable experiences”, she adds.
One of the most critical steps in UX design is user experience research. “It combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies”, says Calvo. Quantitative research is primarily exploratory, and includes surveys, longitudinal studies, website interceptors, online polls, and analytics. Qualitative user research is based on observation. “It’s about understanding people’s beliefs and practices. It can involve several different methods including contextual observation, ethnographic studies, interviews, field studies, and moderated usability tests.”
The evaluation phase is essential, highlights Calvo, “because it helps us to detect problems to correct before the design is implemented, so it helps to save money, time and resources before any development.” Among other different user testing techniques, they used a device called eye-tracker to validate aspects of the visualisation, which allows to follow the user’s eye movements and eye positions.
How to visualise data in a simple way?
Calvo and her team detected that users preferred to avoid complex visualisations. "We started from a previous tool that had to be improved, in collaboration with Capgemini, who took care of the navigation and interface controls," she explains. The users wanted to see the information displayed in a familiar, clear and understandable way that would facilitate decision making. “The DST is an exploration tool, but also a tool that helps you to understand trends and to identify what the next step is, what action you should take and what is the most favourable decision.”.
When designing the DST, displaying large amounts of data about sub-seasonal and seasonal forecasts in an easy way without overwhelming users was a real challenge. Enabling users with different levels of experience with climate forecasts and different needs to use the tool is also crucial. “Using interaction, you can allow the user to filter non-relevant data for them when necessary, thus reducing cognitive load and favouring decision making,” Calvo says.
After the design and testing process, the DST became operational in June 2019 within the framework of the S2S4E project, funded by the European Union (EU), and has received very positive feedback by users. The UX expert claims that 90% of DST users believe that the current tool shows information more clearly and prefer it for daily work instead of the original design. Also, using UX in the design process helped create a tool where users can find the information they are looking for faster and easier.
The S2S4E Decision Support Tool will be free to use until the end of 2020 and is available at s2s4e.eu/dst.
Written by Jose L. Cánovas (BSC)