Project Goal: Leverage d.School design process to increase user engagement and attract new users for CRAYFIS, a citizen science project aimed at detecting cosmic rays using smartphones. 

Role: Lead User Experience Researcher

Methods: Empathy Map, Affinity Diagram, Storyboarding, Personas, Cognitive Walkthrough, Heuristic Evaluation, Usability Testing, and Paper Prototyping

Highlight: Identifying primary user groups and generating ways to meet their needs  

Outcome: A novel design solution which could boost user engagement and acquisition. 


Cosmic rays remain a scientific mystery: What are their origins? What cosmic object causes their acceleration?

Observation of cosmic particles used to require costly equipment. 

Enter CRAYFIS, a citizen science project that uses a smartphone's camera, GPS sensor, and wi-fi capabilities to transform it into a cosmic ray detector. Users simply run the app to begin observing cosmic rays.


In preparation for launch, the CRAYFIS team wanted to increase user engagement and number of users


Due to the unique nature of this mobile app, I suggested engaging in User Centric Design.

  • Discovery Research: Understanding the existing project's strengths and weaknesses
    • Affinity Diagram
    • Empathy Map
    • Problem Statement
  • Solution Brainstorm: Generating a massive number of potential design solutions
    • Personas
    • Ideation Session
    • Storyboarding
  • Prototyping: Using insights from previous steps to develop an interactive solution
    • Paper Prototype + POP App
  • Analysis: Validating the solution and identifying actionable points for improvement
    • Heuristic Evaluation
    • Cognitive Walkthrough
    • Think-Aloud Usability Testing


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Empathy Map

By documenting what users think/feel, say/do, see, and hear when using the app, we uncovered its strengths and weaknesses.

In summary, engaging in scientific discovery and participating in collective citizen-science research movement came at the cost of smartphone usability in the form of battery life. 

Thus, our design solution must minimize inconvenience to users and add value to their lives. Users want to feel like they are valued as more than just computing power.


Since user engagement encompasses both user acquisition and retention, I led competitive analysis of previously successful citizen science projects. 

Initiatives such as earthquake detection and astronomic discovery require active user participation. 

Unfortunately, the nature of cosmic ray detection is passive, and rules out solutions that actively engages users. 

Accepting this constraint, we realized that since the app typically runs while one sleeps and does not require input, an integrated smart alarm clock could incentivize app usage and provide utility to its users. 

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To gain feedback on this idea, we created hand drawn sketches and stitched them together using POP App. The result was a novel CRAYFIS Smart Sleep App that promotes healthy sleep with calming noises and an alarm clock that wakes you at the conclusion of a sleepy cycle. 

This quirky design solution creates a win-win situation for both users and the CRAYFIS project: Users benefit from better sleep and waking up on time, while CRAYFIS detects cosmic rays all night long. 

 Closing Thoughts

The primary objective for CRAYFIS was engaging new users and retaining existing ones. At first, we identified the two primary user groups:

1) Citizen science enthusiasts who will run CRAYFIS on multiple devices due to passion for the project mission.

2) Casual users less passionate about the project but willing to run CRAYFIS on their primary device given some incentive. 

Gamification in the form of a point scoring system and public leaderboard already existed in the app. 

We initially struggled with the passive nature of the user experience and toyed with the idea of an augmented reality game. However, cosmic ray detection quickly drains battery and heavily slows phone performance. As a result of these constraints, enabling the phone to do something useful for its owner while it discovers cosmic rays became the ideal solution.

Since the app is typically run throughout the evening as the user sleeps and the phone is charging, a smart alarm clock came to mind as an interesting, feasible design solution.

This was a unique challenge. In the future, I would spend more time conducting research of previous successful citizen science projects to distill elements of their success that could be universally applied. There was also a social media marketing component of user engagement which we did not consider that could help engage and acquire users.