Recreation.gov

Role
UX Design
UI Design
UX Research
Tools
Figma
Miro
Type

Mobile app

Overview

Background

Recreation.gov is a website and app where people can reserve campsites and purchase permits and passes for recreation sites across the United States.  They partner with 12 federal organizations to organize access to these areas for the public to enjoy.

Challenge

Increased traffic at national parks has created severe frustrations with availability.  

Forest Service Public Affairs specialists reported that new Recreation.gov accounts last year represented a "45% increase from 2019", and more people have sought the outdoors due to COVID-19. They have shared that one solution to unavailability could be booking smaller, less-known locations.  There are many campsites across the country, but people flock to well-known parks.  To help Recreation.gov maximize public lands and enable more people enjoy the outdoors, I set out to answer the question:
How might we make public lands more accessible and enjoyed by all people?
Solution

Add a feature to the Recreation.gov app that will help more people enjoy the outdoors by matching them with suitable campsite options, quickly and easily.

Spoiler Alert

I've prepared the final design and prototype for you if you should like to jump ahead. It will also be linked at the end of the case study.
Jump to solution →

Design Process

My process

Although listed in order below, my design process for each project varies depending on existing information and what problem we are addressing. I also like to apply an agile, iterative cycle as I uncover insights, receive feedback, and continually make improvements.
1. Research

- Market research
- Competitive analysis
- User interviews
- Affinity mapping

2. Define

- User persona and journey map
- How might we statements
- Task flows

3. Ideate

- Wireframe sketches
- Mid-fidelity wireframes
- Information architecture

4. Test

- Prototyping
- Usability testing
- Iterating on findings

5. Design

- Style guide
- Logo design
- High-fidelity design and prototype

A little background...

My love for the outdoors was part of the inspiration for this project. The other part was my own experience booking a campsite at Yosemite last year.

It was the most stressful reservation I’d ever made! I woke up early to be on the campsite page with my finger over the "book" button.  The campgrounds filled within seconds. A less experienced camper wouldn't stand a chance, and I knew this system must be leaving many people disappointed.  In this project, I explore a better way to help people find their best campsite options despite availability issues.

Research

I started my research with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the pain points people were experiencing with Recreation.gov.  I read user reviews in the app store, news articles, and statistic-based reports. Lastly, I spoke directly with Recreation.gov users.  These methods combined gave me enough data to identify two categories of pain points.

The two patterns that emerged were...
Secondary Research
My secondary research uncovered a lot of interesting information and demographics about campers.  I took note of these points and utilized them later to help shape the content of the new feature.

Booking Trends

  • Majority of people do not travel more than 500 miles from home for camping trips
  • Proximity to national parks is correlated strongly with how often people camp
  • People usually book short trips, only 7% of reservations during the last 3 years are 4+ days

User Demographics

  • We have seen an increased interest in first time camping, the proportion of campers who camped for the first-time in the U.S. in 2020 was five times more than 2019
  • 60% of first-time campers in 2020 are from non-white groups, the majority of first time campers have children
  • Millennials and GenX, are more likely to camp with a larger group
Competitive Analysis
I conducted a competitive analysis of other companies that provide similar services to investigate their usability, reservation features, and what value they were providing to their users.  Recreation.gov is the only platform allowed to manage campsites on national land, but I did see design patterns and features competitors were using that were focused on helping their users complete their goals.
Provisional Personas
Based on what I had gathered from my research, I created provisional personas to start empathizing with users by considering pain points and possible solutions.  Each of these potential Recreation.gov users have different goals and needs that I wanted to address in this feature.
Survey & User Interviews
To better understand people who are interested in camping and what they do when planning their trips, I sent out a survey and chose 5 respondees who had used Recreation.gov before to participate in remote 1-on-1 interviews.  My goal was to see if my assumptions so far were correct or incorrect and find out:
  • What factors are important when looking for a campsite?
  • What frustrationos do people have when trying to book campsites?
  • What are the different needs of people who want to go camping?
  • What could make the expereince on the Recreation.gov app more enjoyable?
Survey
The survey asked Recreation.gov users about their booking habits, how they interact with Recreation.gov, what issues they have run into, and what they consider when they plan camping trips.
User Interview Insights
The 1-on-1 user interviews allowed me to dive deeper into personal experiences.  I saw the patterns below emerge from my conversations.
Empathy Map
I organized notes from my interviews in an empathy map to help visualize what I knew so far.  This empathy map helped me understand the user’s thought process and identify points of conflict between what they say, think, do, and feel.

Define

User Persona
I referred back to my research, empathy map, and key interview insights to create my persona, Sandy, and laid out a user journey map to better identify the points in her journey where she experiences difficulties.
  • She needs to find campsites that are near trails and allow pets
  • She needs to be able to find and read information quickly and easily
  • She needs something available in the next month

Brainstorming solutions

Incorporating a New Feature
After considering the needs of both the users and the constraints of the project, I brainstormed a high impact feature that would also work within the organization’s constraints.  I cannot fundamentally change the way Recreation.gov runs their reservation system ( maybe someday if they asked me to), so I had to work with what we have.  

I decided to design a “trip inspiration tool” that would show users campsites that match their preferences that they may not have heard of before.  
Drafting the Tool's UX Writing
I based my tool’s questions on the most important factors in planning camping trips mentioned by users in interviews.  I wanted to keep the questions brief and to encourage completion.
User Priorities:
  • Distance of the campsite from home
  • What activities can be done nearby
  • Length of stay and dates
  • Proximity to points of interest

Design

Mid-Fidelity Wireframes
I nailed down the content for the tool, but now I had to image how to best put together these pieces visually.  I took time to comb through Recreation.gov’s website and app and observed their branding, design patterns, and information architecture.  The goal was to have this new feature to fit seamlessly into the app, so I wanted to emulate their visual design.  I sketched out my flows on paper first and translated them into mid-fidelity wireframes in Figma.

Usability Testing

Next, I was ready to conduct 6 usability tests with participants aged 23-30 years old in remote Zoom interviews. I was excited to see if my assumptions about navigating the feature would be validated.

They were asked a series of questions to test if they could:

1. Locate the feature on the homepage
2. Select the campsite that matches their needs
3. Select dates to book
Making Revisions
Below are some of the revisions I implemented into my high-fidelity designs based on detailed user feedback from my usability testing.
1. Adding context for distance

Users reported that they didn’t know what 100 vs. 300 miles looks like in their head.

I added a map with a radius indicator to help enhance users’ understanding of distance in miles and how far they’d be willing to travel.
2. Adding tags to campgrounds

Users wanted to see the matching filters they selected on the results.

I added the tags below “Exact Matches” heading to remind users of what they had selected and what results they are currently viewing.
3. Visual hierarchy of date selection

Users were confused about selecting the date they wanted to stay vs. selecting the number of nights to stay.

I switched the two prompts so users are forced to pick the number of total nights first.

This helps users see a window of possible days.  This can help users find more campsites if they are somewhat flexible.

High Fidelity Designs

After compiling this list of priority revisions from my usability tests above, I brought my screens into hi-fidelity with those iterations.  At this point I was also able to think more about UI aspects and branding, which also enhanced the findability of certain features.
View the mobile prototype below, or click here to view it in Figma.

Reflection

Designing within an existing system

The challenge to solve an issue through an added feature helped me understand how to find solutions while working with existing infrastructure and design systems.  Throughout the process, I had to be mindful of user needs and create a positive impact that worked with the systems put in place by the parks.

This feature cannot guarantee a spot at a certain campground- but it can definitely offer people viable alternatives and ultimately get people outside and exploring. Speaking to people in this process made me realize how difficult it could be, especially for newcomers, to execute these trips.  I believe our national parks should be a welcome place for people from all different backgrounds to enjoy and care for these important lands.

Next project