Skip to main content
Search
Grower with device

Understanding human-centered design in agriculture

  • 19 August 2020 / By Nate Chang / By Briet Tornes
  • UX Research and Design Agriculture

If you haven’t met a full-time grower or set foot on a farm lately, then you might not know just how complex modern farming is. In recent decades, the average grower has seen their access to data-based decision workflows multiply exponentially. The advances in technology have been a blessing and curse.

With more data comes more power and with more power comes more responsibility. Growers need to manage day-to-day boots on the ground work, agronomic best practice, personal knowledge and intuition, advanced technical tools, data-driven insights, and business forecasting, often at the same time.

The hard work of farming is in growing the best crop you can with the constraints of the land and weather you have, while also making the most business savvy decisions to turn a profit in the face of dynamic commodity prices, global supply and demand, and increasing environmental regulation. Every season is a new experiment. With the data that is now available to growers it’s easy to have more information to weigh than is digestible for making critical decisions on how to manage day to day operations.

There’s still intuition and experience from years of working the same land and knowing exactly why that one brown patch is low lying land with bad soil that always pools after a rain and never yields well. Multiply this by the thousands of acres even a family farm could be managing, and you’re getting a sense of how many variables a grower needs to balance in their head without even knowing for sure if it’s going to rain tomorrow.

What we mean by human-centered design: Making technology work for the user

If the above sounds overwhelming, it is. Technology is only a tool if it's useful and usable, otherwise it's an expensive, frustrating burden at best. While there is a growing younger generation of growers taking up farming, the average “principal operator” of US farms is 59 years old.

At Kin + Carta, one of our core-principles is to apply human-centered design. No one should feel intimidated by technology because it hasn’t been designed in an intuitive way. Unfortunately, it’s often the case with ag software and apps that the interfaces are highly technical and engineering-centric in their design.

To ensure that we not only design intuitive interfaces, but that the core functionality of our products solve the most critical problems that growers face, we place heavy emphasis on integrating research with farmers throughout our discovery and development process. This process is comprised of 3 phases of work:

  • Discovery - Understanding and exploring from the perspective of the user and the domain. What are the problems to solve? What is the current state?
  • Experimentation - For product development, we call this the Runway. It is a hypothesis-driven, iterative approach to testing prototyped concepts in order to make decisions about features to add to the backlog. As concepts are tested and decided on, technical feasibility can also be assessed as the features begin to take shape.
  • Refinement - This is when the rubber meets the road. The features are designed further, checked for usability, technical and functional requirements are aligned and the features are ready to be built and delivered.
UX design diagram

Discovery

Our approach to product management and development begins with understanding the right problems to solve first. What problems exist? How are growers solving the problem now? What would make it easier, faster, more efficient to make decisions? What would solving this problem enable?

Oftentimes we’ve gone out to farms riding around in trucks and machines to hear it first hand from the users how they maneuver giant machinery with 3 or 4 data displays hacked together to collect data from multiple brands of implements.

By starting with understanding the problem, we begin to understand farming from the perspective of the grower. The person who needs to wrangle all this data to make decisions to make ends meet. We help our clients strengthen the argument for prioritizing offerings grounded in what will make the most impact for their customers.

 

Experimentation

After identifying problems to solve and prioritizing them as opportunities we move into design, rapid prototyping and frequent, iterative user testing with growers. The UX designers and researchers lead the whole team to leverage research insights and take part in the design process to brainstorm ideas for creative ways to solve the problems growers face.

All learning is good and the best way to learn if your solution is hitting the mark is to test and iterate. We believe in getting to testable designs as quickly as possible to evaluate our ideas. We co-create with end users who provide feedback and insights for how to improve the design of solutions to make them truly useful.

When it comes to testing our ideas, the low cost and speed of prototyping and user research allows us to take bigger risks with designs and concepts with little worry about “abandoning” the idea. Even invalidated ideas provide insights, and more importantly, save on wasted investment on development. This allows us to test more ideas quickly and iteratively, so that the investment of development is made with lower risk and greater certainty in the final designs.

 

Refinement

Knowing that you’re moving in the right direction, and solving the right problem is just the start. As features move from human-centered design and user research to development, usability and field-tested solutions are where the difference is. The most beautiful user interface isn’t very beautiful if it doesn’t have enough contrast and appropriate sizing to be visible on a dusty screen with the full glare of the sun.

You can find our UX designers and QA testers on the roof of our building in the middle of summer to simulate field conditions. Our designers rode in tractors on bumpy fields to figure out how to optimize an interface to make it easy to adjust settings while driving.

UX designers testing app with corn

How will the data load on a 3G connection or if there’s no reception at all? Because farms tend to be in areas with poor reception and broadband access, we’ve placed strong emphasis in development on making sure that apps work as much as they can when connectivity is limited.

Although growers tend to be understanding of the limitations of technology, our approach to delivering experiences keeps compassion for our users at the core. This means ensuring that everyone on the team understands why some things like offline cached data, which may seem like a nice to have for most apps, become table stakes for ag.

 

Conclusion

We have found that a human-centered design approach to projects is essential for delivering products in the agriculture space to ensure we build products that meet growers’ needs. Nature doesn’t wait for release dates. If the software can’t give someone what they need to make game-day decisions on planting, we may have to wait a year until next season.

To manage the risk of implementing features that don’t work right, we start early and often by talking to the people who will gain the most if we get it right. Interviews and prototypes are easier to course correct or scrap entirely compared to building a solution that doesn’t provide value to growers.

By diagnosing the right problems to solve and understanding the context, every member of the team is invested in work that is inherently shaped by compassion. Compassion for who we’re designing and building for, why they need it, and how it will increase their chances of growing the most successful crop.

Interested in our approach to human-centered design?

Get in touch to learn more