Man walks along a scenic road toward the sunset, pulling a black rolling suitcase.
Did you know that we put a man on the moon before we put wheels on a suitcase? User-centered design can help find simple solutions to everyday problems. Photo from, CC0.

Science is something that we hope can help us do better tomorrow what we couldn’t do today. The Southeast Conservation Blueprint is a science product, a tool, meant to help us create a specific future outcome–a connected network of lands and waters that supports thriving fish and wildlife populations and improved quality of life for people. But to get to that future place, we need to not just solely focus on the tool and the science that drives it, but also the people who will use it.

Blueprint user support is the free service that is provided to anyone interested in using the Blueprint to help inform a conservation action. This service is provided by dedicated staff (the user support team) whose role is concentrated around helping the people who can find value in the Blueprint. The reason we’ve invested in these staff positions is to bring in resources that will allow us to build tools that are centered and designed around people. Because the only way we will get that connected network is for people to make conservation actions actually happen, strategically, across the landscape. People matter.

To be more specific, user support staff, depending on the need, will make maps of a user’s area of interest, write language around the Blueprint and how it can be interpreted to help boost funding proposals, and work to integrate the Blueprint with other considerations to find the best places to work. User support staff are always ready and willing to dive deep into the data and help tell a story that illustrates why a place is important and how a conservation action can help. As part of this team, I can say–this is what our time and positions are meant for. But our most important role is to advocate for Blueprint users.

Icon representing user centered design with a person on a computer in the center surrounded by other items like a lightbulb, magnifying glass, and shapes.The importance of putting the user first cannot be overstated. The idea of focusing on a user’s specific goals and tasks comes from the concept of “User-Centered Design”. In the mid-1980s (when the idea of “online” was gestating) computer scientists were finding that thinking specifically about the context that people performed tasks in, and the motivations behind them, could lead to better results in human-computer interactions. Basically, good design can lead to good outcomes while bad design can lead to unintended consequences. Take, for example, the Duke Health Lung Transplant Program in Durham, NC.

Duke has one of the most successful lung transplant programs in the world. Since its inception, the Duke program has made a conscious choice to be more patient-centric. Nationwide, it’s one of the few programs that provides physical therapy to strengthen patients before surgery. They provide and require comprehensive patient and caretaker education so that after surgery, patients and their support network are well-versed and informed about what to expect and potential problems that could arise. Many of the program’s unique qualities come from recommendations from the patients themselves. While their research and achievements in science drives much of their success, so does their focus on the patient experience.

Ultimately, Duke creates relationships with their patients to better provide them with the tools to achieve the most successful outcomes possible. At the same time, Duke is able to collect information by observing the patient experience and by actually asking, “what else can we do to make this process better?” If some of these strategies sound like common sense like, “yes, let’s try to get patients in the best physical condition possible before an incredibly physically taxing surgery”, consider this: reader, we put a man on the moon before we put wheels on a suitcase. If you’re not thinking about your user, you will miss the most elegant and simplest of improvements.

Blueprint user support staff exist to help find better, and sometimes simpler, solutions that make it easier to apply conservation actions. We try to see where we can make the Blueprint less burdensome, catch problems that may cause unintended consequences, and work with our Blueprint improvement teams to advocate for the users to ensure that revisions and updates to the Blueprint reflect what people need. At times, this includes working as part of a team with the user, similar to a company-customer relationship. We’re not just providing a map and some language–we’re thinking about what we can bring to the table to help clear any barriers to action.

In this, I think the Conservation Blueprint is unique. Sometimes, it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea that I’m here to help, for free, so put me to work. But as we look at some of the big challenges that face us–3 billion birds lost since 1970, rapid urbanization, sea-level rise–it’s obvious we need as much conservation action across the landscape as possible. It’s important to continue to improve and push on the science and it’s equally important to find ways to apply that science.