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Behind the Scenes: Designing a New Way to Explain World Community Grid

This past summer, I was one of five interns who helped World Community Grid figure out how to get more volunteers to join. My co-interns and I did this by designing a new sign-up experience that helps people learn more about World Community Grid, explains how important the research is, and how easy it is to be involved.

I’m a physics major at Yale, and I started doing design as a freshman for Design for America, which is a student group that uses human-centered design to address local problems in the community. Coming to IBM this past summer and getting the chance to put those things into practice on a real problem that affects real people was a great opportunity for me. The other design interns and I brought a pretty diverse set of perspectives to the table. We were in disciplines ranging from physics to graphic design, from industrial design to fashion and computer science.

On our first day working on World Community Grid, the IBM executive for the program told us, “I want people to be embarrassed if they’re not on World Community Grid.” That became our battle cry for the next seven weeks, sometimes seriously and sometimes in jest. If World Community Grid is so easy to use and the work it does is so important, why aren’t more people on it? Over 700,000 people have participated over its 11-year history, which is great. But imagine the impact if even more people were involved.

Our first step was to interview a range of people who had never heard of World Community Grid. In every case, we began by watching how they interacted with the existing website. We asked them what they were thinking at each stage of the process, what decisions they were making, what things caught their eye, and so forth. We realized quickly that many people were unaware that they had to download software in order to participate. But we also discovered that many users users never got to the point where they decided to register. They couldn’t understand what World Community Grid is and how it relates to the humanitarian problems that it’s trying to solve–and how they, as volunteers, could help. We realized we needed to show them exactly why their unused computer time is an important resource.

Our first priority was to create a web experience that told people what they needed to know about World Community Grid, and addressed common concerns mentioned by the people we interviewed, such data privacy and security. We chose a fluid and visually rich scrolling experience with a narrative that explains what World Community Grid is doing, how it does it, and always connecting back to the valuable work of our research partners. We also designed the new page to be mobile-friendly. Everything on the new experience page was thoroughly grounded in our user research, from the visuals to the ways that we present information to the messaging and the text itself.

It was important to us to communicate what World Community Grid is, using language that would accessible to everyone. And trying to explain the computational demands of modern scientific research–along with the possibilities of distributed computing–in a few lines before people get bored or confused was a huge challenge. So we thought it was important to use relevant metaphors and analogies. We spent a lot of time testing these out with people we interviewed in order to find something that clicked with everyone.

My overall impression of World Community Grid is that it’s an elegant solution to a huge problem. In my research for school, I’ve spent way too many nights just waiting for my laptop to do physics simulations and I know, considering the scale of my experiments versus the scale of World Community Grid research, just how important it is. Moving forward, I’m excited to see how World Community Grid expands and how the experience for volunteers will change. Someday, it really could be ubiquitous, like recycling.

I came into this experience this past summer torn between pursuing a career in design and a career in physics. After spending a summer seeing the work of all these scientists who are doing amazing things, I realize I really want to be one of those scientists. Right now, I’m in the process of applying to grad school and I hope to one day be able to have the sort of impact that the researchers on World Community Grid are having, and maybe even use World Community Grid for my own research.