Visualizing sustainable alternatives
The final version of the tool assists manufacturers and brands in visualizing the performance, economics, and sustainability factors of their alternatives in the product development process.
About the Project
Assessing alternatives to toxic chemicals and materials is a time and resource intensive endeavor for manufacturers and brands. The EcoValuate alternatives assessment tool makes the alternatives assessment process much easier by taking users through the analysis in a simple and visually-oriented manner, opening time and resources for users to focus on finding the right alternative. The company's target customers are consumer product brands and manufacturers facing emerging regulations, industry guidelines, and/or customer demands requiring them to conduct an "alternatives assessment" to assess and develop safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, materials, and processes in consumer products.
I formed EcoValuate as a software start-up with supporting consulting services for an emerging market focused around the reduction of toxic chemicals in consumer products. As the CEO and chief instigator of this project, I took on the role of UX designer, product manager, and the face of our company. Building a software product was a completely new venture for me, and I had to learn on the go. The wire frames and prototypes I produced during this project were done before I had any training in the UX design process. I gained a number of insights about product development, user research, managing regulatory risk, and the economics of sustainability from this project. I also developed a great team dynamic with my co-founders and built upon my project management skills. The project reveals a great deal about my style and core skills--including visioning, design thinking, project management, research, and stakeholder engagement.
The initial concept focused on the regulatory requirements for alternatives assessments found in the California Safer Consumer Product Regulations. It also included a database element to help companies understand what chemicals of concern are in their products and which ones are toxic from a regulatory, human health, and environmental perspective.
MARKET & CUSTOMER RESEARCH
My initial market and customer research focused on understanding product supply chains and the potential customer. I also gathered information about software needs related to chemicals management and regulation for my targeted customer base.
CONCEPTUAL DIAGRAMS & Flow
It is very common for me to work on user flow, data architecture, and other factors simultaneously while conceptualizing wire frames onto paper. This allows me to think about the viability, feasibility, and desirability of what I am designing as I go. It also helps me incorporate the information I have learned from my research from a functional perspective into my designs.
I frequently make multiple drawings of attributes at different scales before pulling them together onto a handful of pages. I switch to electronic wire framing tools when I would like to prepare something for discussion with a stakeholder or when I feel that a more refined medium will help me resolve interaction design issues related to my user flow, data architecture, and design decisions.
These sketches captured the process flow, envisioned data architecture, market opportunities, and requirements for a regulatory tool. They also demonstrated the ultimate concept incorporated in our visual sustainability / alternatives assessment tool for greening consumer products.
After diagramming with a pen and paper, I generated these wire frames in PowerPoint, based on a close analysis of the regulatory requirements for alternatives assessments, as well as our market and customer research. The purpose of these prototypes was to help me assess the feasibility, viability, and desirability of various features, ideas, and approaches to the software. Further validation and emerging regulatory changes helped us prioritize our work.
My very first wire frames were focused on helping me wrap my head around the 120 pages of regulatory requirements and countless chemical databases and methods associated with the requirements. They were not pretty, but served their purpose.
REGULATORY RISK & CHANGES IN CIRCUMSTANCE
During our prototyping, we experienced a significant amount of changes in our target regulatory market, until it became evident that the regulatory demand for our tool had disappeared entirely--at least for the time being. Although California's Safer Consumer Product regulations were finalized, they left a significant amount of discretion to the regulatory agency regarding what products would be regulated, and the timing of regulation. Exercising this discretion, the regulatory agency aggressively scaled back on its activities.
Although I had created a list of regulatory risk factors associated with the regulations early on, I did not anticipate the degree of risk associated with these factors and the amount of discretion available to the regulatory agency in implementing and enforcing finalized regulations. This is a lesson I take with me into the future.
initial PROTOTYPING of A SUSTAINABILITY TOOL
The changes in regulatory circumstances caused us to pivot substantially. We focused on developing a sustainability tool for companies who were doing or interested in doing alternatives assessments to meet the needs of their customers. I did the initial prototypes in Illustrator, utilizing design guidelines set forth in prior mock-ups by our UI designer. I identified a short list of manufacturers and brands to help us prototype and provide feedback on our tool (e.g. Nike, Steelcase, Seagate, Nau, Genentech, Mast). I also worked with local government agencies in several states to guide our process and ensure that the development of our tool met their guidance and best practices regarding alternatives assessments.
My second wire frames illustrated a much more confident understanding of the alternatives assessment process, yet were still clunky. Hunter Marcks, our UI designer, used these to prototype a simple and elegant interface.
A great deal of my work at EcoValuate included becoming an expert on chemicals of concern, alternatives assessments, and industry needs. I gained a great deal of insights from my user research, research into chemical regulation/management, and from experiencing the market dynamics that influenced our prototypes and business model. I shared my insights at conferences, through our blog articles, and through university-level teaching opportunities.
BETA TESTING AND THE MVP
These insights also proved invaluable in developing a beta version of our software and later a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). In order to obtain user feedback for the development of the MVP, I created training videos of the beta version, utilizing PowerPoint slides to simulate a dynamic demo of the tool.
STATUS AND LESSONS LEARNED
This project was my first venture into software design and taught me a great deal about product management, regulatory risk, the economics of sustainability, and interaction design. I was also exposed to the tools and vocabulary of software design, thanks to my colleagues and co-founders. My role at EcoValuate continues as I engage in other sustainable innovation projects informed by this project. While there is demand for our alternatives assessment tool, it is currently insufficient to further finance its development. It is possible that in a few years the market dynamics and regulatory pressures will change, making an alternatives assessment tool increasingly desirable.