Involving End Users at All Stages To Create Actionable Science Products for Complex, Real-World Issues

How co-production methods increase the usefulness of scientific results, products, and tools
Aug 13, 2021

We live in a world where complex environmental problems are prevalent and significantly impact the way we, as humans, live and function. Now more than ever, unbiased, relevant, and timely scientific research is needed to inform decisions that could shape our future. So, how do we ensure that our science investments are producing results and products that are usable and useful for decision-makers, policymakers, community leaders and others?

More than a Final Product

Imagine for a moment a wildlife biologist who is tasked with understanding how climate change might impact bison foraging in the Western U.S. Their job may follow these steps: develop research hypotheses, collect data at a field site, bring samples back to their lab for analysis, write technical publications on the findings, and then develop a digital product, such as an online data visualization tool, to display any changes in the ability of bison to access sufficient food resources in the future.

In the past, user experience (UX) design techniques—such as user research, prototyping, and iteration—were typically built into the last step of the process, during the digital product development. The scientist might work with stakeholders to define specific elements for the tool, gather feedback, and develop progressive iterations of the tool before delivering it to end users. But this approach doesn’t question whether the actual scientific data and research findings presented in the tool are useful to the end user. In terms of basic usability, the digital product itself could be very intuitive to use, but it could simultaneously fail to deliver data that are useful—in the sense of actionable—to the decisions that users face. To use our bison example, data may show changes in the future quantity of bison food resources, when decision-makers may actually need to understand future forage quality instead.

To ensure that the final outputs and products from science projects like this are a good investment that ultimately provide relevant and timely information, researchers have begun to incorporate end users (such as natural resource management decision-makers) at earlier stages in the science process. In our bison example, the entire trajectory of the project would have changed if the wildlife biologist had engaged the decision-makers before the data collection and analysis started. This would have delivered a more useful product, providing actionable science and information relevant to the decision at hand.

User-Inspired Science from the Start

An effort to design research questions inspired by real-world decisions is growing across the scientific community. Science end users, such as forest and range managers or community leaders, are being brought into the earliest stages of research projects. One approach to this endeavor, known as “co-production of knowledge,” strives to ensure that science results and products meet the information needs of decision-makers, answer real-world questions in a timely manner, and are able to be effectively used in decision making and policy. Co-production has been defined as “collaboration among managers, scientists, and other stakeholders, who, after identifying specific decisions to be informed by science, jointly define the scope and context of the problem, research questions, methods, and outputs, make scientific inferences, and develop strategies for the appropriate use of science.”

Much like in UX design, knowledge co-production involves end users at the beginning of the scientific process in order to build active collaborations that last through the life of the project. By working closely with stakeholders and decision-makers, scientists can better understand the legal, political, social, and fiscal constraints involved in a decision or situation. This engagement also helps to ensure that the appropriate products (reports, datasets, digital tools, etc.) are developed and that the science users understand how to appropriately use the information.

In one recent example, researchers supported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) teamed up with the National Park Service and natural resource agencies (including Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, the Pu’u Wa’awa’a Forest Reserve, and others) to develop the Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange, a formal community of practice, to provide a way for scientists and decision-makers to share information on drought in the Pacific Islands. One outcome from this collaboration has been the development of science “portfolios” that summarize drought and climate data for a partner’s particular land area. These tailored products can feed into management, adaptation, and communication strategies to help stakeholders address unique problems facing ecosystems, watersheds, and communities across the Islands.

As with UX design, which involves a toolkit of techniques, co-production involves a spectrum of methods for producing useful, actionable science that is centered around real-world and realistic decisions. In cases when a problem is already well-understood and well-defined, a “consultation” approach might be appropriate, and scientists might periodically touch base with end users. When users face decisions with more uncertainties and unknowns, a full co-production approach would embed stakeholders in the project. Scientists must also factor in constraints such as time and funding when determining the most feasible type of engagement for a project.

The Shared Vision

Just as we strive to deliver digital products and services that incorporate end users from the start, scientists and decision-makers across diverse disciplines are coming together to produce and deliver user-driven scientific data and information that can inform real-world problems. Our role as practitioners in digital government and modern technology can sometimes seem far removed from the world of hard science, and yet, as we see here, many of our approaches align. At the end of the day, we, as government employees, are all here to help fulfill an overarching goal: to deliver products and services that benefit and improve the lives of citizens and our end users.

Interested in ensuring the science behind your science-based digital products is effective and useful to decision-makers and stakeholders? Learn more about this growing body of work:

Holly Chandler works for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) network, a partnership-driven program that teams scientific researchers with natural and cultural resource managers and local communities to help fish, wildlife, waters, and lands across the country adapt to changing conditions. Learn more:

The U.S. Geological Survey is a federal science agency within the Department of the Interior. As the Nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency, USGS collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides science about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.

Reference to a corporation or product name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the U.S. General Services Administration.