L.A. Designer: Ben Adair of Our Malibu Beaches

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Environmentalist/activist Jenny Price has made it her mission to arm the public with the know-how to access beaches in affluent Malibu communities that are legally public, but have become de…

Environmentalist/activist Jenny Price has made it her mission to arm the public with the know-how to access beaches in affluent Malibu communities that are legally public, but have become de facto private as a result of efforts by some homeowners to obscure access in various ways (concealed gates, fraudulent ‘No Parking’ signs and so forth).

She started gathering information several years back (initially following the paths trod by paparazzi, the only people who knew some of the access points of the beaches) and then was approached by Ben Adair, an interactive designer who works extensively with nonprofits and news organizations. He suggested they compile her research into an app. They funded the project with a successful Kickstarter campaign, and last year launched Our Malibu Beaches, an app for the iPhone that maps out Malibu’s beaches, access points and other useful information.

Just last month she launched an update for Android as well as a Spanish-language version of the app.

Ben, whose office BA Creative is located in Los Angeles, talked to DnA about how you go about designing an easy-to-use app that not only gives geographic information but also has to convey the complicated legalese associated with beach access in Malibu.

ben blowing bubblesDnA: How did you and Jenny start the collaboration?

Ben Adair: So I have a startup called Escape Apps, and there’s a group we got involved with in SF called SPUR and they did a report on privately owned public space in San Francisco.

They just had a PDF on their website that listed where all of the privately owned public space was in San Francisco, but it wasn’t very user friendly. We wanted people to access this kind of information really easily on their mobile devices. For example, find a really cool roadside attraction, a beach, all kinds of different stuff.

So Jenny had done something similar with the L.A. Urban Rangers, and she did a major project on public access of Malibu beaches. She’d written a summary of it for L.A. Observed for Kevin Roderick’s blog, and when I found that, it was a number of years old but I thought this is exactly what people need.

I approached Jenny with the idea of making it into an app, and when we started that conversation, we knew we’d have to present it in a completely different way than it had been presented before. It was very collaborative, with me coming up with ideas based off of her research and us coming up with mockups and figuring out how to keep it simple.

DnA: What was the goal of the app, information-wise?

BA: The app does a few different things. It shows where each of the public access ways are on the coast in Malibu, and when we started doing this, this wasn’t even information available on Google Maps. Now Google Maps has all of the access ways to Malibu beaches on Google maps.

The other thing that the app does that’s really amazing, it shows you each beach and it shows you what parts are public and what parts are private. And that’s a really complicated thing. In California, parts of every beach are public. The high tide line, or wet sand, to the coast is all public. That’s the rule of thumb. Large stretches of dry sand on the other hand can be private. Carbon beach is a huge beach, but huge parts of that beach are covered by high tide, so many people think it’s private, but it’s not.

So the app walks you down beach by beach, house by house and tells you what parts of the dry sand you can or cannot use. That’s previously been a huge issue where nobody would know where the public could go, because you’d have security guards coming down telling people they can’t use the beaches, but now people can know.

And so even though there are beaches that are technically open to the public, a big point of contention in Malibu is that people come up there and trash the beach. But the same homeowners have rejected attempts to put trash cans on the beach. They’ve rejected all efforts to put bathrooms on the beach.

DnA: People are reading this primarily on a tablet or a smartphone screen. How does the medium affect the design?

BA: The medium is integral to the design, especially on the smartphone, because one’s using it oftentimes while trying to do something else, like walking or driving. It our malibu beaches apphas to be super simple, extremely intuitive and very easy to scan and absorb. People just click through the instructions, they treat them like advertisements. We’ve been trying to figure out ways to get people to get to read those.

You can’t argue with user behavior. So it’s up to us to make things so simple and so easy so we can deliver the experience that we want to. It has to be simple but comprehensive. It’s really hard.

DnA: So what strategies did you use to achieve this?

BA: We spent a lot of time trying to reduce the number of buttons on the screen and figuring how to divide the screen into discrete content packages, so people can easily sort content out into information they need, information they can ignore and information that can be scanned quickly.

We want our information to be really, really scannable, so that at a glance users can know what parts they have to pay attention to and the parts that they can pay attention to later.

So while driving you may not be able to read a paragraph, but you need to be able to read the address. Sometimes people just want to be able to look at pictures.

You have to look at the user experience from different points of view. How are they using their app? How are they using their phone? Always with an eye to reducing and simplifying. The design that is going to be the best design is going to be the simplest.

DnA: Do you enjoy interface design that has an activist bent?

BA: I wouldn’t say I’m an activist. I enjoy the challenge of taking something very complicated and making it simple. That’s what I enjoy most of all. The LA Times called us hacktivists. But I’d consider myself more of just a journalist. I see this Malibu project almost as an investigative reporting project, and as a journalist I’m very, very interested in taking stories and information very relevant to people’s lives. I’m really interested in changing our journalism so it’s not something you simply read for your edification, but can actually use. It’s a tool to use to get more out of your day to day life. And that’s what the “Beaches” app is about first and foremost.

ourmalibubeachesDnA: How popular has this app been? What’s been the general feedback?

BA: I’ve been really blown away by the popularity. We came out with the Android version, and the iOS version was downloaded almost 30,000 times, and now we are approaching 32,000 downloads for iOS and Android.

The enthusiasm for this project has been really overwhelming, far more than we thought it would be. 30,000 downloads for 27 miles of coast is really, really amazing.

DnA: Have you noticed more beachgoers in Malibu?

BA: We don’t have data on people being on the beach but we haven’t heard any complaints from home owners. One thing that’s great about these beaches is that they are so big that even if those 30,000 people went to the beach within a month you may not even notice the huge influx of people.

DnA: Is this a template for other tech-based interactions with public space?

BA: I would love for it to go far and wide. We got so much feedback from the East Coast, West Coast, California and even someone in Lebanon told us about their lack of beach access in Lebanon.

The hard part is that doing the research and finding out everything we find out. The user interface part is easy, getting the information is what’s hard.

You can’t really crowd-source it. It really takes somebody or a group of people who know what they are doing, and walk the beaches.

It’s hard to get this information for public space applications. So that’s why we partnered with a lot of non-profits because they already have this information.

DnA: Are there differences between the iPhone and newer Android apps?

BA: The difference between the iPhone app and the Android app is that a lot of improvements have been made. We’re constantly trying to make it simpler. The design is flatter, but user expectation is for it even simpler.

DnA: What are the primary challenges associated with presenting serious information?

BA: For me I always go to the user. What is the user problem I’m trying to solve? So it’s about being clear and focused about that and letting the information flow from our malibu beaches 1that.

The problem with most general interest apps is they don’t know what problem they are trying to solve. So things get cluttered, they get complicated, they get hard to figure out.

DnA: How did the Spanish-language version of the map come about?

BA: It’s called Nuestras Playas De Malibu, and it came out of an experience we had last year. I was on the beach with Jenny Price in Malibu talking about the app, and I saw this Latino family randomly using the app. I talked to them, and they were from the Valley and they made it their mission that summer to go to every single beach on the app. And so then we sort of looked at each other, Jenny and I, and thought, what if we made this for spanish-speakers as well? That would increase our user-base tremendously. There just isn’t a lot of information out there about how to use our Southern California beaches.