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Trail Guides by Google and National Parks Service —

An on the ground experience that excites and prepares potential National Park visitors

Storybooks Hero Image
National Park Service’s mission is to protect natural and cultural resources while simultaneously providing opportunities for public use and enjoyment.

Understanding the brief

National Park Service’s mission is to protect natural and cultural resources while simultaneously providing opportunities for public use and enjoyment. This is guided by the agency’s values:

  1. To be a guardian of natural and historic resources
  2. To advocate for consideration
  3. To be an educator of heritage and legacy

Unfortunately, public engagement with US National Parks (NPS) have suffered since the 90’s. With a decrease in visitation by 20% per capita, the parks are now mainly visited by the elderly. With many younger Americans disengaged, NPS is at risk of being unable to further its goals of conservation and providing public enjoyment around natural and cultural resources.

Taking on the challenge

NPS makes significant efforts to facilitate recreation in parks, how can we help them achieve preservation and conservation as well? Naturally, this led us to ask if it was possible to achieve the following:

  1. Resurface connections in a way that is unique and meaningful to each visitor
  2. Instil a sense of responsibility and desire in visitors to safeguard National Parks
  3. Motivate visitors by establishing an irreplaceable connection to parks

When we took a step back we realized that these were prompts to inspire a new generation to take on a personal responsibility in conservation. Given the scope of the project, this was not a realistic problem to grapple with.

Instead, we decided to identify a more realistic goal rather than directly designing for conservation, which is the more challenging out of all the goals to strengthen a person’s level of connection to parks. Before a person becomes a regular visitor and full supporter of the parks, they first need to be aware of the parks. National parks are more than another outdoor location - they represent a rich culture and symbol of America’s generational heritage. Thus, we decided to focus on increasing this recognition. While our solution doesn’t directly solve for increasing visitation, but it provides more of an opportunity for it to happen through increasing recognition.

Trail Guides Goal
By increasing recognition, we hope to encourage a love for going to the parks by leveraging the experience from home to travel.

Uncovering insights

Insights from people’s exploration and discovery behaviours: people go from site to site zooming in and out of map level and trail level to paint a mental model of the destination in relation to their location and goals. For example, they may jump from maps to vlogs on youtube, to reviews on trip advisor and images from other travellers on Instagram. These parallels between these personal accounts allowed us to pick our moment to intervene.

Trail Guides Insights
Trail Guides stemmed from observing the way users plan their trips to the parks

From "I want to know" to "I want to go"

To leverage this moment of when a person wants to learn more about a park and there is an excitement, curiosity and desire for adventure. This moment exists as a micro-moment of “I want to know” teetering into “I want to go”. We wanted to design for this moment as a way of meeting our audience where they’re at.

Trail Guides Journey
We leveraged this moment when a person wants to learn more about a park and there is an excitement, curiosity and desire for adventure.

Zooming into this micro-moment, a person searches for new information to help paint a picture of a destination to see whether it is worthwhile to visit. In the exploratory stage, their search is more broad, and its during this stage where our product excels at servicing the person with quick information - in this case, providing them with a quick glimpse of the on-the-ground trail experience with (is what we predict) enough info to decide whether they want to go or not. If so, their search becomes narrower and more specific, and our solution did its part to help aid their transition into more detailed searches.

Trail Guides Microment
A closer look into user behaviours when learning about the park

So, why Google?

There is a benefit in NPS's past partnership between National Parks Service and Arts + Culture, and continuing on this relationship to extend the park-going experience. We also considered creating a solution on the NPS website, but found that our solution would only bloat and create more of a redundancy in their already info-dense platform. With this solution, the value to customers is the ability to make quicker, more informed decisions through glimpses of a park experience guided by a park ranger, and the value to NPS is an increase in brand recognition and the ability to entice more young visitors online. In addition to gleaning insight from the types of audiences who stumble on and use Trail Guides, the value to Google is to strengthen their growing travel eco-system in service to this particular micro-moment, as well as to grow their off-the-road trail experience on Maps.

The design

This digital intervention for US National Park Service is designed for new audiences so that they will be able to foster the values of natural and cultural conservation and activism while encouraging the public use and joy of their parks and landmarks. This will allow NPS to address concerns the future of its parks visitorship, as well as ensuring the protection of natural and cultural resources.

The retrospective

Focusing on less but better

By zeroing in on specific area to intervene, we were able to define the parameters of our design early in the process. This specificity gave us the freedom to dive deep and flesh out the interactions inside and around Storybooks.

Usability for young users

Though we gathered insights from parents with younger children and successful storytelling precedents (such as AKQA’s The Snow Fox, WWF Together, and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore), we did not perform comprehensive user tests to validate our design. Developing empathy for such a user who is only just learning to read is no simple task. To reexamine this work, I would like to begin with a ludic approach. By observing children interact with toys and interfaces, I might find patterns in what entices them and what bores them.