The LAWA process

Jo Bailey
January 2014

section Summary

  • LAWA’s process was: Discover; Understand (build empathy); Research; Ideate; Design (Test, Repeat), Implement.
  • The last two phases are ongoing.

LAWA was an exercise in design collaboration, which meant we had to explain the process. This necessitated a certain amount of pre-emptive reflection about what, exactly, we do as designers – the seemingly innate steps we take.

In August I presented at a freshwater science conference with Kati Doehring, an ecologist from Cawthron. The session was on science communication, and we used LAWA as a case study – an example of how design can aid scientists in communicating complex subjects. In the presentation, I described the LAWA design process thus:

 LAWA Process

The LAWA design process


This phase sought to understand and frame the brief, the scope, and the objectives, and to build understanding with the scientists who were part of the LAWA team. This phase clarified what data was available, but it also involved understanding the data collection process (a first stage in a process of empathy building).

Having accompanied a council scientist to a local river and asked myriad ‘stupid questions’,  the value of demonstrating to users exactly what sits behind the data became clear. Not only would this demonstrate transparency through disclosure of the process and methods, but also because it adds a human element, which is important from a credibility perspective (Fogg et al., 2002). This experience was also the progenitor for the focus on learning resources in LAWA.


With assistance from Horizons Regional Council and Cawthron, we held two user workshops with participants including recreational users, iwi, farmers, scientists, Fish & Game staff, conservation volunteers and Open Lab designers.

In coordinated but reasonably fluid sessions, users were asked to describe their involvement with water, and to define, in an ideal world, what this new web tool would do for them. This process of building empathy with users yielded highly informative insights (Appendix III) and though user engagement makes the design process more complex (Forlizzi & Ford, 2000, p.422-423), it was a critical stage in defining the requirements of the project.


At this point, LAWA was not called LAWA – we were tasked with defining the identity as part of our brief ­– so this research phase incorporated looking at brands in the environmental data and freshwater space, and also looking in detail at other websites conveying water quality data. No sites were identified performing the same functions that were envisaged for LAWA, but some best practice precedents (Appendix IV) for individual components of the site were identified.


This phase involved brainstorming, collating ideas and starting to conceptualise how the site might be structured and how it might function. Ideas were shared with the LAWA steering group, who identified constraints, generally around organisational buy-in. Getting ideas on the table was key – some (incorporating recreational water quality for instance) were vetoed at this stage, but with the backup of the findings from user workshops, it was possible to negotiate them back into the scope of the project.

Design (share, test, repeat)

This phase is the iterative design process proper. Wireframing and user journey testing informed concept designs and prototypes, progress was shared with stakeholders for feedback, and designs were refined many times over before the developers were handed the designs to start the build. The process was then repeated with the developers, until the test site reached a stage where it could be released as an alpha site to share with a wider group. Testing and iterative changes are ongoing, and thebeta launch to council users in mid-December will necessitate further rounds of iterative improvements.

Implementation (in progress)

Final user testing will take place and the site will be assessed against the criteria set in the first phase. The site will be made public in mid-2014, then feedback will be gathered, which can be used to inform further development.

Next: Web credibility

Ethical Considerations

Dodgy research

During my research I was reading a thesis, and one of the recommended resources in it was the film Thank you for Smoking. I headed straight over toPirate Bay and downloaded it. I should probably feel bad about that, but I don’t. FACT (Federation Against Copyright Theft), on the other hand definitely think it is a burn in hell offence! Therefore I score this a 2 (but if you ask FACT, I’m toast).

Really representative?

The user groups were convened by Horizons and Cawthron. This was a practical decision based on the need to assemble a user group in a timely manner, but ideally the net would have been spread beyond people who were already known to the LAWA partners. With users who are not truly independent, there is the possibility of bias, or telling us what they thought we wanted to hear. LAWA partners were cognisant of this however, and any findings that seemed anomalous would have been subject to further investigation. 

One for all

The user workshops at the start of the project were vital, but it would have been preferable to run LAWA as a more immersive co-design exercise. The fact that we had only two workshops at the start meant that we were extrapolating the views of two representatives from each user group (farmer, iwi, recreational user, conservation volunteer, etcetera) to all people in that demographic. My misgiving here probably stems from my lack of experience with qualitative data collection rather than any actual flaw in the methodology. 

A funeral pyre?

Under my desk, I have at least a ream of wireframe printouts. I have never checked what kind of paper we are using – hopefully the university has a sustainability policy that specifies 100% post-consumer waste. I am a fastidious re-user (the wireframes are only still there to use as scrap notes paper) and recycler, but I could and should have done more to reduce my paper use.

He never said that!

When Kati and I presented LAWA at the Freshwater Sciences Society conference, we opened with a quote: ‘Everything as simple as it can be, but not simpler’. This is widely attributed to Einstein, but I was worried that I could not present at a science conference with an unreferenced quote. So I went on a detective mission and it turns out he didn’t say it! Einstein expressed the sentiment and it was paraphrased in a newspaper article by composer Roger Sessions. I had a full citation on the slide, but Kati – the scientist! – said it was clutter, just attribute it to Einstein. Thereby, a myth was perpetuated.