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-Creative Wanderer App


This project is part of my dissertation for Ph.D. in geography at UC Davis. Nikki Yang, a junior in landscape architecture and sustainable environmental design major at UC Davis, is assisting me with this project. The main goal of the project is to develop an app to teach spatial concepts such as Environmental Justice by using films to young people. The app aims to:
-Bridge the gap between theories of spatial sciences and digital practices (such as digital mapping)
- Empower young people and prepare them to participate in planning and designing their communities by raising their spatial knowledge. 

The project is supervised by Professor Patsy Eubanks Owens

Year: 2020-present

My Role: Product designer and researcher 

Timeline: January 2020-June 2022

Research Method: -Textual analysis- In-depth interviews, Survey, Competitive analysis

Research Type: Exploratory UXR 

Problem Statement

Problem Statement 

Current mobile mapping application trends in the community planning or mapping industry are mainly confined to navigating physical geographical features, entertainment through map-based gaming, or mapping novels or movie locations on interactive maps. The new concepts of spatial turn have not been reflected in these apps. We argue that connecting theoretical trends to digital practices can create a more engaging and pedagogical experience for users.

Initial Research: Where Does the Idea Come From? 

In the mid-twentieth century, spatial theories went through a humanistic turn in response to failures of the positivistic top-down approach in explaining space and its social and cultural complexities. By then, several social theorists developed their thoughts around space and human subjects to explain this complexity. These notions led to the emergence of new subfields in geography called "film geography" and "literary geography". They soon gained in popularity among general education courses in departments of geography or film/ humanities studies worldwide. In recent years, computational criticism and Geoweb technologies have also revolutionized spatial humanities education. In addition to geographical concepts, these courses include many aspects of the relations in space, including human-man relations or man-environment relations, etc., which were barely addressed in traditional geography courses. However, a review of employing geo-web technologies in film geography practices reveals that these practices have mostly remained limited to isolating 'geographical' passages from novels or movies. This paper proposes an app that bases films to explain environmental justice to young people with a spatial lens.

-Extensive text analysis 

Initial Research

Initial Business model


1- User survey among end users (young people)

2-Competitor analysis/ Expert interviews

4- Extensive user interview 

1. Survey 

We posted a survey in Qualtrics and asked young people -first- or second-year students- in UC Davis- about what they think of critical spatial thinking and what they expect from our app. 84 students filled out the questionnaires. The results are shown in the charts below. We found that there is a need to improve critical spatial thinking.  

Understanding Users 

Understanding Users

1. Competitive Analysis 

We explored the competitive landscape by conducting interviews with the app developers. We employed SWOT analysis to explore strengths and opportunities using movie or novel-based mapping apps. We found that the main aim of these apps is to entertain users by mapping the location of films and novels accompanied by the plot of the movie or the story. We learned that some engage users in different ways (by adding information, using VR, AR, and adding music and voice), while some only focus on texts and visuals.


2- In- depth Interviews 

We conducted in depth interviews with facilitators, young people, and educators (experts in the field).  

-Expert interviews


 What we learnt:  By interviewing experts, we understood what the app's content should be and that we should narrow it down. We also became aware of the connections between geography colleges and schools. We also found more about the child/young people-friendly apps

Recruiting Participants for user interviews 

We recruited participants through our Network (I already knew some facilitators from my previous projects- in Vacaville and other facilitators and non-profits working with youth, such as YPlan). For other participants, we searched for youth advocates, youth activists, and teachers in geography. We made a Google sheet with the participants' names, contact addresses, and scheduled interview times. We interviewed 16 participants for 40 minutes over Zoom. We then gathered and categorized the results of the interviews in an affinity map: 

Recruiting Participants
criticalspatial thinking.jpg

 What we learned: We found that there is a need to raise young people’s spatial awareness. Especially during the pandemic, the need and interest in using digital platforms has grown exponentially. Also, we learned that using films in teaching spatial concepts can be engaging for young people. We also found that spatial science is a broad concept, and we should focus on one study area. We learned that environmental justice is now a popular topic for young people in California.

affinity mapping.png


Based on what we learned from the interviews and interviews, we also reframed research problem statements to better understand our users' pain points. We reframed our question in:

Environmental justice is a spatial concept that includes many different aspects. Realizing environmental justice requires the participation of all groups of people. As an underrepresented group, young people need to learn about the complexities of environmental justice to help build it in their communities. Digital technologies can empower underrepresented groups in learning environmental justice. However, current map-based apps have mostly served for entertainment or touristic purposes.

Reframing Question


We used the "How Might We" (HMW) framework to brainstorm solutions

  · How might we gather and organize information to design the content of the app?

  · How might we connect theories of spatial environmental justice to digital mapping practices?

  · How might we keep users engaged in working with the app?

  · How might we address different skills for critical spatial thinking?

Then we brainstormed some opportunity areas: 

-There is an opportunity to use spatial concepts such as environmental justice in a structured way in an app. According to the interviews, educators in the related field said that young people's critical spatial thinking needs to be improved. Additionally, young people told us they wanted to know more about interdisciplinary concepts such as sustainability and environmental justice.

-There is an opportunity to encompass interactive maps with different layers of spatial information in the proposed app since, according to the interviews, educators told us young people need to improve their mapping skills to participate in community planning projects.

Low fi prototype 

To design the content of the app and organize the information, we reviewed 25 university course syllabi related to film geography. Then, we used Henri Lefebvre's trilogy to code the syllabi. Lefebvre is one of the main philosophers whose ideas highly influenced spatial turn in geography. His trilogy has been referred to by many of his fellow urban planners, designers, and experts in related fields in explaining spatial sciences. His trilogy includes:

Low fi Prototype

-Conceived space

is the space that has been designed by planners, policymakers, and engineers. These practices include codes, maps, and plans. Some modules are politics and power, displacement, and marginalized groups.

-Perceived space

is the space of everyday lives, spaces which people remember or recall. Some modules are speed, gender, space, diversity, and inclusion.


-Lived space

is the space of freedom, spaces of imagination, or space of resistance against authorized power. Some modules are strolling, alienation, and contradiction.

We chose the name Creative Wanderer since wandering refers to the act of going to different places. The app aims to provide a “pedagogical” journey in an amusing and engaging way for the users.


Prototype Testing

Prototype testing 


To test our prototype, we conducted usability testing with environmental studies educators and young people in different majors (18-25 years old). To have an inclusive sample, we had people from different races and genders. Usability testing was conducted using Zoom, asking the participant to share their screen and think aloud while completing tasks in the app. Some of the results are: 


  • The content of the app: Some people needed to review the explanations for the Lefebvre trilogy when they were reviewing the movie. The amount of content was sufficient for the users to answer the questions.

  • Interaction: Some people said the interaction could be more engaging; for instance, the maps could include photos and text with them. We also should think more about gamifying the app. Including excerpts of films or interaction with games can make young people more engaged with the app.

  • Features: we found that the current interaction is a bit confusing, and we should value consistency in the buttons. We also learned that we should include a connection to social networks. We are still doing our prototype testing for developing the high-fi prototypes. Some people said some of the screens had too much text. Some of the young people said they expected a call-to-action button guiding them on how they could contribute to overcoming the California water war.

High fi Prototype

High fi - prototype 

This project is still ongoing. As we move forward, we find it more interdisciplinary and related to different realms such as education, geography, social sciences, computational criticism, digital humanities, and design. We have had several iterations to give our users a more enriching journey. 

We also learned that although our end users are young people, our customers are governmental departments, nonprofits working with young people, universities, and local organizations such as the REACH youth coalition or YPlan. We are now working on testing our low-fi prototype, developing our B2B model for commercializing our idea and doing our third round of customer discovery.



This project was accepted for the Bay area I-Corps program and Bigbang cohort in 2021 at UC Davis. We also participated in the Big Ideas Contest. During these workshops and a series of mentorship sessions with people in engineering, business and marketing, design, startup owners, and business professors, we received a lot of valuable feedback. We could learn more about the business side of my idea, doing customer discovery and narrowing down the content of the app 



What I learned as an architect and UX researcher and designer in this project are: 

-Design is a learning process

I grew my skills in user experience design and research. As an independent designer and researcher for the project, I learned about every step of design research, and how design thinking can lead to make a better digital platform.

-Mentoring is a practice of learning

As I mentored my student in this project, I also improved my skills in teaching UI/ UX and doing research. 
It was also a great experience to see the product from the lens of an end-user as a designer and researcher of the project. 

-Design is an interdisciplinary field

Once more, it confirmed to me that designing a product is an interdisciplinary work. With this project, I learned more about how business goals and user goals overlap with each other. 

-Visual aspects are also important 

I also learned how the visual aspect of the design influences people's interaction. It can also lead to more coherent information architecture. 

-Researchers should be prepared for the surprises

 There are many stages in the design  in which you become surprised and you should go back and reiterate the design research. 

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