Sustainable Agriculture Hummingbird Tech
A collaborative effort between Hummingbird Tech and two of the biggest sustainability NGOs in the UK – a central place for UK farmers and farm business owners to self report and evaluate their sustainability practices.
The product space
Sustainability and climate-tech.
Plan, research, design and deliver a B2C platform.
Planning, research, UX and UI designs, dev hand-off and QA.
The problem space
Agriculture is the heart of the climate crisis. Soil is one of the biggest polluters because of the way farming is traditionally done – when the soil is ploughed, carbon dioxide sequestered in the soil is released. However, farming is more than just tilling and every aspect of it has an impact on the environment. With the UK government introducing new regulations shifting subsidies based on landmass to subsidies based on sustainable practices, it is crucial for UK farmers to understand the whole spectrum of sustainability and how their businesses need to change.
This problem posed two major challenges.
Firstly, the sheer breadth of the agricultural industry and all the varieties that sit within it. There are some sides to sustainability and there are so many ways a farming business can operate – everyone seems to do it differently. It is had to find only a few common denominators.
Secondly, farmers are a tough crowd. They are not always very tech savvy, most of them have been doing things the same way their whole lives and are very reluctant to change. Knowledge in agriculture is normally passed down from one generation to the next so even though they comprehend the need to do things better, they are not always open to technology “invading” their space. User research was always going to be difficult.
The product was started by a consortium of three different entities – Hummingbird as the ag-tech specialist body, and the non-profit organisation LEAF and SFT (Sustainable Food Trust). The team featured 2 project leads (one from each NGO), 1 product owner, 1 data scientist, 2 back-end engineers, 1 front-end developer and a sustainability advisor.
My role was the lead designer – I ran the full design cycle from start (initial research) to finish (launch).
My first goal was to get a better understanding of the problem space by extracting as much information as possible from the work group, especially everyone who came from a farming background or had spent years fighting the problems in the industry.
I facilitated multiple workshops to ascertain the problems, the propositions each party was bringing to the table and all the different goals each organisations had set out to achieve. There was no power struggle among the stakeholders but there was lot of work to be done on alignment and making sure that business goals don’t silence the voice of the end user – which was my responsibility.
The outcome of two whole sprints solely dedicated to discovery was a hypothesis.
Create a single framework that farmers internationally can use to self report on their own progress towards sustainable farming practices in order to:
- Increase the adoption of sustainability tracking/reporting amongst farmers in the UK
- Reduce the time/effort needed to complete a farm sustainability assessment
- Address the lack of a harmonised framework for reporting on sustainable practices
Content! The core of the product is a harmonised, all-encompassing framework that covers all aspects of sustainability. This meant a lot of categories with a lot of questions/metrics the users needs to answer or report in order to get conclusive results.
The NGO stakeholders both came in with their own requirements and prepared content they wanted to be featured in the tool. The preliminary content was… huge. Especially when considering one of the goals outlined in the hypothesis is “saving the users time because farmers don’t have much of it”.
How do you overcome this? We just shelved this issue. The final version of the content was not a blocker at this very early stage so I proposed we revisit this element later after:
- we’ve done quantitative research where we ask users for their opinion of the proposed content
- there are low-fi wireframes all stakeholders can review and play with – this level of interaction always helps because it makes an abstract concept more tangible and conversations become easier/more streamlined.
💡 Sometimes, especially when dealing with multiple stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and intentions, it’s better to agree to disagree and move on. Often what appears to be a blocker actually does not impact the progress and can be resolved by doing some research on it. Ask the users. Facts (should) trump opinions.
For the research phase, I prepared a list of questions we sent out to farmers from the LEAF network together with a list of proposed content.
Additionally, we reached out to close collaborators of the NGOs to schedule user interviews where I asked more questions about the wider problems they face, how they currently keep records of and report their practices, any experience with similar tools and they relationships with sustainability. I spoke to 8 different farmers and farm managers.
💡If you are paying attention, maybe you remember the first challenge I mentioned? Users who are reluctant to tech and even speaking to you in the first place? Sometimes you have to be sneaky. If you are dealing with a tough audience which is not accepting you with open arms, try infiltrating through a proxy. Find someone who is part of the target group or knows them well, build a rapport with them and let them introduce you to more research subjects. It’s an efficient way of bypassing the trust issues.
After collating all the data and insights from the survey and the interviews, I analysed all the findings and presented them to the work group for feedback and further discussions.
In my analysis I had outlined:
- Suggested updates to the hypothesis
- Current user journey
- Pain points and challenges (minor, medium and major)
- Competitor tools and opportunities from integrations
- User stories and scenarios
- Trade-offs and considerations
Once the research was over, at least for the time being, I cracked on with mapping out user flows and low-fi wireframes. This is the best way to get everyone on the same page. While working on the wires, I facilitated a couple more workshops with the group where we brainstormed collectively on what the tool could look like and how it could functions. Obviously, no promises were made – an MVP is based on the basic functionalities that can be built in the timeline that will satisfy the user goals. However, it was a good way to keep everyone engaged and it also helped me get a couple of ideas I had not thought of. It’s also a useful exercise to take a closer look at competitors or other existing experiences – helps with usability.
There was one important step to cover before I could proceed with the UI and the hi-fi prototypes. We didn’t have a brand.
The product was a collaborative effort so none of the parties in the consortium could use their own branding. The goal was for this tool to have its own identity. After a few branding workshops I conducted with the group, we reached a consensus that the aesthetic needs to stand for simplicity, advancement and support.
I took this into consideration, went away and came back with a brand book covering the basics of the new brand and explained how I translated the identity into a visual language. A neutral, monochromatic look and feel which represented simplicity and also symbolised the fact that this is a neutral ground for any of the organisation involved. This made the secondary palette easy to stand out – ten vibrant colours, each one representing a sustainability category. The illustrations, which I had to produce myself, meant to be shake things up and make the tone of the experience friendlier and quite unique for the ag- and farm-tech world.
UI and hi-fi prototype
I developed the high fidelity prototype as I was developing the UI. The detailed low-fi wireframes enabled me to have a clear list of elements and components I needed to create for a quick and simple design system.
It was crucial that the prototype is very interactive for the next round of usability testing I was planning to do. As the target users are not all very experienced with such platforms (most of the data recording and reporting they do is still paper-based and stored in folders!), I needed to make sure that their interaction with the prototype is as smooth and self-explanatory as possible. I was able to conduct usability testing with the farmers who participated in the first stages of the research, they were all keen – always a good sign.
Here is a little preview of the before and after of the design process.
Hand-off and launch
More feedback came out of the usability testing which meant have to make tweaks. The content matrix and the scoring algorithm in the back-end kept changing until the very last moment. All that to be expected when working to a tight timeline in a small, agile team.
I worked very closely with the front-end lead to ensure the final designs were coming to life as intended and key parts of the experience were not compromised. A lot of QA-ing, a lot of last minute fine-tuning but we hit all the deadlines and milestones, and the end result launched successfully.
I’ve recorded a walkthrough of the product, have a look below.