Designing for Hiking — Exploring the Process

Presented by Benjamin Fornia, Erin Ripple, Saurabh Sharma, and TJ O’Connor

UX Design researchers, UX designers, UX researchers

When we surveyed hikers at the University of Washington Seattle about their hiking process, we found that the majority of the responses indicated the use of three or more different websites and services in planning their hikes. Initially, we were interested in consolidating some of the existing resources that these hikers depended on, allowing them to access everything they needed in one place. However, this wasn’t the only issue that stood out to us. When we began our research, we were attempting to reach students that were involved in hiking clubs, but we ended up with an entirely different demographic: avid student hikers who did not take part in this type of community. It has become our new goal to create a local community for these hikers using technology that will streamline and transform the way they plan a hike while also introducing a social aspect. The hikers that we interviewed specifically mentioned the challenge of finding willing companions for difficult hikes; some of them hiked with their friends or family, but if they wanted to do a really challenging hike, they were forced to go it alone. Hikers also cited more experienced hikers in their social circles as an important resource for getting into hiking — sometimes, the best way for a hiker to learn about where to hike, how to avoid the crowds, how to find parking, and what to bring is from other hikers. Ideally, our design would be a way for hikers to share their experiences and learn from others, connect with friends new and old to plan group excursions, and plan ahead with all of the information they need for a safe and enjoyable hiking experience.

Design Research Goals, Stakeholders, and Participants

User research during a pandemic has proven to be very difficult and requires patience and adaptability. Going into our research, we had planned to contact hiking groups in the Seattle area, like the Seattle Mountaineers and the UW Hiking Club. As with all things during this pandemic, this didn’t work out as planned, and we were unable to get responses from the members of these clubs. Rather than throwing in the towel, we decided to modify our target user group to be UW student hikers who weren’t in hiking clubs, as we outlined above. Since the theme of our project is to support local communities or bring people together to form a community, this turned out to be an effective change. It gave us a new goal of discovering how we could adapt one role of hiking clubs and connect fellow hikers with similar skills and experiences, enabling them to hike together.

Over the course of a week, we interviewed four hikers and received seven survey responses. These participants were all UW students and experienced hikers. We had a good mix of male and female participants, and each individual expressed different reasons that they liked to hike. Given the pandemic, we had to be creative with the ways we conducted research. The two main methods we chose were interviews and surveys, and we used personal inventories and directed storytelling within our interviews. Now don’t worry — no coronavirus mandates were violated, since we conducted interviews exclusively through Zoom and surveys through a shared Google Forms link. The interviews allowed us to walk through all the stages of hiking, from preparation to parking, to actually hiking, to getting back in the car and going home. They also provided an opportunity for us to ask follow-up questions that were more tailored to each individual.

To gain a little trust and get the participants in the right headspace, we asked the individuals to participate in a little directed storytelling. They each described their most recent hiking experience, which gave us insight into their most memorable aspects of hiking. Since issues participants consciously face are likely the more memorable moments, this seemed like a good way to lay out the foundation for what problems our design could help address. Then, we followed up with a modified personal inventory, where participants were able to share their screens and walk us through the tools they used to prepare for a hike, describing their feelings and opinions about those tools. We wanted to use this as a starting point for how existing products could be better. Participants taught us about tools like Washington Trails Association, Strava, and Gaia GPS. It was fascinating hearing them talk about these products with such passion, and we were pleasantly surprised by how willing they were to voice their opinions.

Additionally, we conducted surveys to gather more general information on experience level, hiking frequency, and hiking partners. This also gave us a better understanding of basic tools for planning hikes that we were then able to follow up on in the interviews. The surveys were feasible and gave us a broader range of participants and answers to give us more context for our interviews. Even though we had to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic and lack of availability from club hikers, we were able to gain valuable insights and were inspired to improve our participants’ experiences.

Design Research Results and Themes

After conducting interviews and surveys as our main design research methods, the next step was to identify common themes and patterns that the hikers usually face while planning and going for hikes. There were a few different high-level themes and problems that were mentioned in the interviews and came up during directed storytelling sessions. One theme was making efforts to be thoroughly prepared for hikes and sometimes even over-preparing, with some individuals bringing along all of their hiking gear and then deciding what they needed after arriving. Additionally, some had trouble finding people to accompany them for longer or more difficult hikes, as their friends were not always interested in strenuous hikes. Almost all individuals expressed that they enjoy hiking with other people, and some did so for safety if nothing else.

Some of the hikers we interviewed also had a difficult time predicting conditions by looking at the trail reports available at the various trail-info websites because things change so quickly. The common problem was that for many trailheads, there isn’t weather information, and many had to go back and forth between many different resources to get the maps, weather info, parking pass info, and other important information. They usually had to rely on the weather conditions of some nearby place if the exact information pertaining to the weather conditions at the trail wasn’t available. Multiple participants mentioned wanting some sort of integration of the different resources, like adding a weather overlay to trail maps.

Participants also stated that finding parking was an obstacle and sometimes a deterrent to visiting sites. Participants would often reach the trail site and to their dismay, later found out about the parking unavailability. Also, during the pandemic, many experienced hikers found that trails became more crowded due to a new influx of beginning hikers, and these participants voiced a preference for hiking in less crowded places (even when there isn’t a virus spreading).

Proposed Design

As we researched and interviewed our participants, our design changed in several key ways. When one participant expressed concern about bringing technology to the trails, we realized our design existed best outside them. When they all expressed concerns around parking and trail crowds, we realized we’d need to invent more explicit tools to track these features. When they expressed difficulty finding fellow hikers, we realized the impersonality in binding social interaction to an online service. What we came up with departed from our initial conceptions of an app or a webpage pretty solidly — we came up with an electronically-enhanced bulletin board, a trailhead monitor that provides a number of features to those seeking to hike there. As seen in the sketch below, we link it up with a companion app to allow emergency alerts and easy access to reviews and trail information even when you’re not at the trailhead. We allow the monitor to gather data, such as reviews, crowds, parking availability, and weather, and then we make that information available at a distance (in the app) or at the monitor itself. Whether or not a person has a smartphone will not exclude them from using our solution because they can access all the trail information from the monitor. Regardless of the technology, app or monitor, we make downloading trail maps efficient and clean, and we make viewing the conditions of the trail even more so. Additionally, we think including a motion sensor at the trailhead can help give more accurate crowd data.

Through these features, users can establish accounts and connect through both the monitors and the companion app, giving them access to the expertise and companionship of other hikers. Hikers will be able to connect with other hikers, both friends and strangers, with similar experience and skill level and plan when and where to hike together based on weather, parking, and crowds. Thus, our design will create a hiking community and facilitate safe and enjoyable hiking experiences. As in the image below, this data gathering and reporting process will hopefully help us achieve our goals efficiently and help hikers be more prepared and stay safe.

This is just the start of what a monitor, app, and sensor integration might be able to do. As you can see, research helped us clarify and ideate in entirely new directions than we intended initially, and our end result is much more unique and capable for it.

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction