Pangolin: Digital Product Design of the IUCN Red List

BIMA Finalist: Websites and Apps
BIMA Finalist: Public Service & Not for Profit

Imagine empowering the conservation of endangered species

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) asked Modern Human to redesign the Red List - the comprehensive source for information on endangered species. Modern Human’s work bought the plight of endangered species to life, empowering conservation efforts globally.

We are all, unfortunately, familiar with the term ‘Endangered Species’, but what does it actually mean?

An endangered species is one which has been categorised as ‘likely to become extinct’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN Red List is the definitive list of critically endangered and endangered species. Modern Human worked closely with IUCN to redesign the Red List website in order to better communicate the plight of endangered species and enable the work of naturalists, conservationists and NGOs who are working to save them. The IUCN website contains data critical to the funding of conservation and research into endangered species. Our mission was to enable experts to make increasingly sophisticated use of that data whilst enabling that data to illustrate stories about the plight of the species on the Red List for everyone else.

Having not been critically examined for more than 10 years, the Red List website looked dated and lacked modern web techniques such as responsive design. The information had been kept up-to-date, with new information published 2-4 times a year, but IUCN had an ambition to move to continuous publishing. This would ensure that the very latest information on endangered species is always available. The redesign of the Red List website would enable this.

Modern Human began by inviting stakeholders to a series of creative workshops, the aim of which was to arrive at a single concept for the site. While the concept presented an exciting new direction for the product it also posed one significant question that we needed to answer: could a single product experience satisfy the information needs of every Red List user group?

The primary users of the Red List are Zoologists and Conservationists, but it also has a much wider and deeper impact beyond these groups of academics. Investors choose what academic research to fund based on the presence of particular species on the Red List. Supra-governmental organisations like the UN and the EU decide policy based upon it, as do national and local governments. The topics and phenomena that researchers choose to conduct research into are influenced by it. NGOs and conservationists decide their actions based upon its contents. Organisations use it for Press Releases and Journalists use it to check facts, as do TV and Radio Researchers. The IUCN Red List contains a wealth of information about endangered species that might also get published in textbooks and taught in geography classrooms.

Before we could set about examining this hypothesis, we needed to understand how a Red List assessment was conducted. How does a species get placed on the endangered species list?

For each species assessment, a group of experts submits an assessment to the IUCN. The Red List might get published between 2 and 4 times a year but not every species is re-assessed in every release. For example, the Giant Panda was assessed in 2016, 2008, 1996 and every 2-3 years throughout the 80s and early 90s. Assessments are based on academic research by Zoologists and Conservationists in the field. Each assessment plays an important role in the academic workflow of those people, because it demonstrates their impact as researchers and conservationists. Understanding the flow of information from research funding to Red List assessment and beyond to conservation actions in the real world was fundamental. This was the process that we were trying to facilitate. So, to unpick the knowledge chain we began with the core group of actors: Zoologists and Conservationists.

Identifying the primary users of the Red List gave us a solid starting point on which to begin our design research. Before we set about redesigning the Red List website, we needed to understand the work of Zoologists and Conservationists in more detail. We wanted to witness their goals, needs, motivations and values at work. We visited them as they returned from field trips and conducted contextual interviews to find out more about what they needed from the Red List website. Our interviews proved to be both fascinating and revealing, with some participants recounting extraordinary tales of being stranded on desert islands with nothing but their research equipment and the bare necessities to survive for as long as 3 months. The thing that surprised us most in these interviews was that the information needs of Zoologists and Conservationists were not that much deeper than other Red List user groups. We found that the Red List occupies a definite niche in their information needs. They use it at the outset of their research as a citation to demonstrate that their idea (and, therefore, their research and the money they will receive) will be effective, generate new knowledge, and have impact upon the wider world. They then use it again later on, whilst writing a paper on their research, to follow forward citations and to support their position on various topics.

Often, the information gleaned from their research is fed back into the Red List. Red List assessors or special interest groups will pick up relevant papers, including the data that is published with them, and conduct an assessment. It is these assessments that provide the raw information for the Red List. An assessor will submit their findings through an IUCN tool. That data is then published on the Red List website and is used in a variety of ways by a range of different user groups.

We were also interested in what Red List users at the other end of the knowledge chain might need, so we organised codesign sessions at London Zoo with teachers at ZSL. We wanted to know how teachers used material when they were planning and teaching lessons, and how they encouraged their students to use material. These sessions were clear in indicating that only Key Stage 5 (AS-level and A2-level) students and advanced Key Stage 4 (GCSE) students would do their own reading. Teachers use typical presentation formats like Powerpoint slides, and images and videos are key for capturing students imagination. Beyond these needs they are just looking for the basic facts.

What our design research revealed to us was that the design needed to successfully incorporate three layers of information. Instead of trying to provide a different user journey for each user group, we wanted to facilitate all of the different user types by cleverly incorporating progressive disclosure into a single species page. This would allow the user to dive into more and more detail depending on their level of interest. At the top of each species record is a high-level summary: what is the Red List status of the animal (how endangered is it?), what’s the high-level population trend (is the picture getting worse or better?), where does this species live (its geographic range), what are it’s prefered habitats, what threats does it face and what is needed to support the species? These summary panels provide an at-a-glance overview of everything that most Red List users will need to know about the endangered species.

Beyond the summary, the page is broken down into 9 panels; one each for taxonomic information, assessment information, geographic range, population, habitat & ecology, threats, uses & trade, conservation actions, and bibliography. Each of these panels has two views, a short view and a full view. The short version is initially shown and contains key information like the scientific taxonomy, the date the species was last assessed, the number of countries in its range and many more key facts. Expanding any one of the panels reveals the complete detail, including taxonomic sources, taxonomic notes and detailed coverage of the species. The intention is that the user can find the suitable level of information for their needs. Our design research indicates that most people will find the information they need in the summary panel at the top of the page. Information needs in the long-tail of requirements can be fulfilled by drilling down to the appropriate level of detail.

With so much information available about so many species, we had to radically simplify finding information. We redesigned the search function on the website to be more intuitive and to index the full content of the site. A simple, prominent search box on the homepage now sits in front of a powerful faceted search that allows the user to filter their results by the dimensions of the data. The faceted navigation allows people to build complex search queries of the data, whilst realising that most people would still be searching for a species by name or geographic area. Our interview with a researcher who had worked on the Galapagos Islands turned out to be particularly useful during our redesign of the search tools, as it turns out Galapagos is an interesting case. The Islands belong to Ecuador, but many of the species found there are unique to those islands. This makes finding information about species specific to the Galapagos tricky using the previous Red List search tools. To overcome this, we created a three-pane search layout that allows users to filter using facets or by drawing a polygon on a map. The concept also includes three search views that a user can toggle between at any time: an improved list view, a new card view and a new map view.

We also introduced new ways of looking at the data. Creating Region screens and Threat screens allowed interested people to see species by geographic region, country or by the what is currently threatening the species. The redesign also introduces a new country screen, which aggregates content about a country, region or geographic area. Each page includes a large map component, a component that highlights species of that country and a component that provides downloadable resources. Much of this content is automatically aggregated from the content and data that already exists on IUCN websites.

The concept also introduces a new issue screen to the IUCN Red List website. This screen is designed to inform users about a conservation issue such as climate change, illegal trade or invasive species. Aimed more at the interested public, teachers and students, the page offers an opportunity to mix existing content from Red List websites with new editorial content about the issue itself. The page contains an image to illustrate the issue and a small section of editorial that could be accompanied with graphs and data drawn from your existing content or created specifically. The screen might also include data visualisations to bring the data to life. A component of affected species could be automatically generated from your dataset and maps could be used to show affected areas.

As the entry point into the product, the concept for the homepage has a number of features that intuitively communicate the proposition of the IUCN Red List and promote content from deeper within the site. For example, a carousel component for Amazing Species content, or a component that explains the different statuses within the Red List from Least Concern to Critically Endangered or Extinct. We also used space on the home screen to reveal key facts about various endangered species and the work of IUCN. The search has been made more prominent and sits in front of a more intuitive search experience. The search box becomes the first and primary element on the page – it is anticipated that the majority of users will still want to search the list. A component that promotes recent academic citations of the Red List has also been envisaged. This is intended to demonstrate to an academic audience that this is a credible, citable source and encourage them to cite correctly.

We packaged the whole product as a responsive web application suitable for the large screen or a mobile phone. IUCN launched the website in Summer 2018.