Launched in advance support of a television broadcast special — this app follows the model of its highly successful predecessor, NOVA Elements. The app features access to an exclusive stream of the program before the official broadcast, in addition to the core game hosted by astrophysicist, and New York Times best selling author, Janna Levin (who also hosts the mini-series).
NOVA is the most-watched prime time science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly. NOVA is also the number one show amongst “cord cutters” in any genre. In addition to its weekly television broadcast, NOVA extends its award-winning science reporting online, producing an extensive list of resources and original content, garnering 1.2 million impressions daily.
These apps are a key part of NOVA's digital strategy, transitioning the brand from a broadcast-centric offering to a digital media brand. With nearly 3 million downloads of the Elements App, these offerings are gaining traction with a new, and significantly younger audience.
The strategic vision was to design an accessible experience with a low barrier of entry and level of commitment compared with other educational games in the market. The free offering will utilize a simple, but scalable game mechanic, creating an easily consumed, casual gaming experience. Using our expertise integrating content into gameplay, the app will keep users engaged over the arc of the experience.
UX design, visual design, game design, sprint facilitation, user-testing, survey design, art direction
PBS, WGBH, NOVA, Sloan Foundation
Teens, Educators, Gamers, General Audience
In addition to extending the reach of the program and bringing the NOVA brand to new audiences — the team sought to build an app that would drive interest in the subject matter and the upcoming broadcast.
Content Delivery: Users will be able to describe the life cycle of a star. Users will learn about different types of celestial objects and their properties. Users will be able to articulate the effect of gravity on objects in space. Users will be able to understand what black holes are and where they come from.
Form: Use a real physics engine and scale models to visualize the dynamic gravitational relationships between objects in space.
Experience: Establish a simple game mechanic through which users can easily interact with the 3D models and progress through more complex gameplay. Provide an unencumbered gaming experience while educating the user along the way.
While we expect to gain traction in formal educational settings, the nature of this offering makes it accessible and approachable to a much larger audience.
Casual Gamer: Casual gamer pointed to the app via media or the iTunes App Store.
Classroom Assignment or Demonstration: Assigned or demonstrated by a science educator as part of a lesson.
Lifelong Learner: A PBS general audience, directed to the App via broadcast, web or social media. Organic discovery via search or promotion within the App store.
“Designing good games is hard. So is designing good instruction. Designing a good digital educational game is at least one order of magnitude more difficult than either of these alone…” – Richard Van Eck (Gaming and Cognition: Theories and Practice from the Learning Sciences)
Diverse Use Cases: Serving the diverse set of users from students in a classroom setting, casual gamers, to a general PBS audience.
Content Delivery v. Gameplay: Providing an educational experience, while maintaining playability.
Funding Restrictions: Producing an engaging digital product within the restrictions of grant funding.
Through years of creating editorially driven experiences focused on scientific accuracy, the need for separately funded research phases became essential. This allowed the product team to begin work in parallel at the start of the grant funding. Simplifying staff allocation, and enabling a highly functioning team to move from one grant funded project to another as a unit.
The following flow diagram is a simplified representation of the 16 week timeline:
Design Sprint: Facilitated a 4 day product design sprint with the product team, stakeholders, research scientists and a content expert (a PhD in Particle Physics). Core deliverable was a user journey, detailing the experience from start to finish, mapped to the learning goals defined in the grant.
User Flow: From the user journey, created a user flow document to illustrate the architecture of the app and structure of the game (chapterization, speed rounds, and cut-scenes). The initial version was shared the team, and agreed upon as a mutual statement of intent. Further iterations fleshed out key levels in greater detail and detailed variations in the game mechanic throughout the arc of the experience.
Style Test: After some visual research, I pursued the “low poly” illustration style for both ease of production and performance on the iPad. I designed and built a dwarf star and a blackhole in photoshop, which was then rendered in maya by the development team. This successful proof of concept allowed us to use the funds reserved for a 3d artist, for general app development. It also proved the feasibility of representing gases and clouds in a low fidelity, performant visual style.
Wireframing: Wireframes were used to develop and communicate a pattern for content delivery and layout. Specific flows, like the linear on-boarding experience was defined in a series of annotated wireframes with descriptions of interactions, camera movements, and animations.
Visual Design: I designed and spec’d a proportionally sized “cast” of the celestial objects that are included in the game. These were ultimately constructed in Maya and imported into the Unity game engine. [The style test was to provide art direction/specs for the objects to be built in Maya.]
Usability: Development and in-house scientists were able to write a custom physics engine, to simulate gravitational effects between objects. A “level builder” application allowed our team to build, test and tweak levels in realtime. This was instrumental in tuning the levels for optimal gameplay and usability. With the results of early testing an on-boarding flow was developed to walk players through the ui, gameplay, and functionality.
To optimize utility for educators, a special guide with the “cheat codes” was developed to allow for an unlocked non-linear experience, so specific content and simulations could be utilized in the classroom.
Production: The production workflow for 3D authoring environments is different than prototypical app or web development. Design assets are either delivered to development as a PNG sprite for a separate UI layer, or as a bitmapped “texture,” which is wrapped (texture mapped) around objects that were built in the 3D environment. The gaming environment itself is wrapped with a “skybox,” which is essentially the six panels of the inside of a cube.
In play-testing, some users found the gameplay too difficult, while others felt it was challenging and satisfying. These polar results fell roughly along generational boundaries and were commensurate with the user’s experience with video games. The app component of the Black Holes programming is strategically targeted to a younger audience. Specifically, a group which are unlikely to have an existing relationship with the NOVA brand or will tune into the broadcast special. With this in mind, the experience was optimized for these users, while trying not to alienate other demographics which make up a PBS general audience.
The 2-hour Black Hole program will be broadcast January 10, 2018 with an associated cross-channel marketing push, driving a sizable audience to the App. Integrated analytics and feedback opportunities should provide both quantitative and qualitative data.