The Evolution Lab is a content area within NOVA Labs, a digital platform that engages teenagers and lifelong learners in experiences that foster authentic scientific exploration. From predicting solar storms and building renewable energy systems to tracking hurricanes and designing molecules, NOVA Labs users can conduct investigations by visualizing, analyzing, and sharing the same data that scientists use. In 2014 NOVA Labs was named to Fast Company’s list of the world’s ten most innovative companies in EdTech.
Each Lab focuses on a different area of active research and includes an activity where users explore a new data set and/or scientific phenomenon. While the experiences vary—some being more exploratory, others being driven by narrative gameplay—they all encourage users to conduct their own scientific analyses and investigations.
NOVA Labs is a free resource produced by the digital team at PBS’s NOVA, the most-watched prime time science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly. Labs is part of an extensive list of digital offerings and original content that garners over 1.2 million impressions daily.
The vision for the project was based in a partnership with the Life on Earth project at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Using their data and tools to create a digital product targeting a specific need in the educational market, for quality Evolution resources.
Our intention was to modify and enhance Harvard’s two digital learning tools, and create a contextual wrapper explaining the mechanisms behind evolution. In return, we were able to make their work public for the first time, providing Harvard with the scale to collect meaningful user data to further their research into "...how people interact and learn from large interactive science data visualizations..."
Game design, UX design, visual design, sprint facilitation, art direction
PBS, WGBH, NOVA, Harvard SEAS
Biogen Idec Foundation Inc
Students, Educators, Citizen Scientists
Content Delivery: Show the evidence of evolution, including fossils, biogeography, and similarities in DNA. Develop user's ability to use both the analysis of DNA sequences and gained knowledge of morphology to identify relationships between species. Explain why DNA can give better insight into the relationships between organisms and the changes that have occurred in a species over time. Illustrate the scope of deep time and the points at which speciation occurred throughout evolutionary history.
Form: Create a dynamic learning experience, using game mechanics to increase engagement and motivate users to strive for content mastery.
Experience: Allow users to self-select their optimal experience (a guided experience, an open investigation, or a passive experience via video).
While NOVA Labs platform is primarily utilized in a formal educational setting, our mission in public media requires us to serve the largest audience possible — creating a variety of jobs-to-be-done and disparate use cases:
Formal Learning Assigment: Biology students in a formal learning environment (or as a take home assignment). A 30-45 minute partially facilitated experience (potentially followed by unguided exploration of ancestry dataset).
Formal Learning Demonstration: Science educators as part of a lesson, projected for audience in a formal learning environment. Partial experience comprised of video, gameplay example, and interactive data visualization (5-45 minutes).
General Audience: A PBS general audience, directed to NOVA Labs via broadcast, web or social media.
In addition to the archetypal challenges inherent in game design, the educational requirements, distribution channel and central mission incurred some unique challenges:
Diverse Users: Serving the diverse set of use cases, from students in a formal classroom setting, to a casual user coming from social media, a third party website, or search query.
Content Delivery v. Playability: Introducing complexity and educational content over time, while maintaining playability.
Brand Alignment: Aligning the brand across video, the integration of partner components, and the overall experience design.
Worked with content partner and their developer to define work streams and parallel production tracks, with UX and visual design to support both development tracks.
The following flow chart is a simplified view of the 16 week timeline:
Proposal Writing: Worked with the editorial and foundation development teams to scope and describe a digital product that aligned with the goals, an appropriate use of technology, and advanced a broader strategic initiative for the brand.
Design Sprint: Led a design sprint to tease out the narrative arc, content structure, and application architecture required to facilitate a cohesive user experience.
User Flow: Mapped experience and level progression through entirety of game—illustrating the movement between the products while helping identify the elements needed to make the UX seamless. Iterations to the user flow document focused on structuring the game into modular pieces around specific content and learning goals—identifying necessary adjustments to the game mechanic.
Wireframing: Wireframes were used to develop and communicate a pattern for integrating content into the gameplay and areas for self exploration. Defined in-game currency system and how it effects leveling and payoffs.
Visual Design: Created a visual style for the lab that was partially informed by the existing partner assets, with a more sophisticated and extensible look. Reworked the existing ui for both partner products, and integrated them into the larger app interface.
Usability: The existing partner apps were originally designed for large touchscreen tables in an museum environment, where one or more people could be interacting at one time. With our primary use-case utilizing tablets or laptops, the ui had to be completely reconsidered. Modern web technology allowed for scalable vector graphics and responsive elements to better suit the web based delivery.
Informal play testing with other employees' family and friends, helped refine the game mechanic and content delivery.
User Testing: Our corporate underwriter, Biogen corporation, made their community lab available for user testing with a group of their employees middle school and high school age children. Where we were able to not only observe our target audience using the Lab, but observe how a classroom setting effects the experience.
Promotional Design: Designed promotional assets for the press and for social media. Created media kits for partner organizations and assets required for the Lab’s integration into the Google Play store, and Kahn Academy.
We observed during user testing that some users were frustrated by the need to open a modal repeatedly to compare the DNA sequences for the species in the puzzle they were working on. To reduce this friction, we designed and integrated a DNA key into the ui of the effected puzzles. This streamlined the workflow so users didn’t have to memorize the DNA sequences or continue to open and close the overlay.
In this testing, takeaways from other projects were proven out again, especially around use of audio in classroom settings. Invariably some portion of the users will not have access to headphones, so repetitive audio feedback needs to be used judiciously. Another ideal feature is the ability to continue to engage users that finish quicker than the majority. In this Lab, users were prompted to explore the Deep Tree data visualization spanning the 3.5-billion-year history of life on Earth.
The Evolution Lab has quickly become the most visited page in the NOVA digital ecosystem. Traffic in 2016 has more than matched the platform’s previous 3 years of traffic combined. The Lab was nominated for “Best Learning Game” by Game for Change, and nominated for the prestigious Japan Grand Prix.