An Immersive Approach to Visualizing Birds of the National Parks

Experience Designer | Aug - Dec 2021

How can augmented reality help users better comprehend data visualizations? 

Skills: Data analysis, data visualization, illustration, augmented reality design



Project Brief

National Parks stand as crucial habitats for a wide variety of animal species. Within these 63 parks, there are a wide variety of bird species that call these habitats home. This visualization seeks to portray this relationship through both an infographic poster and an augmented reality data visualization. 

The Problem

In first trying to visualize this data, an issue presented itself as America's National Parks represent such a small percentage of the country's overall landmass, making it difficult to draw attention to additional variables. Created through Tableau, the visualization below shows the relationship between the number of bird species at each park and manifested in a poster that colored the parks a darker shade of red if more diversity was present. 

First Iteration of Data Visualization


The Goal

While this poster was successful in adhering to a style familiar to the established design guidelines of the National Parks, I felt that it didn't communicate the full picture of the types of birds that live in the parks. When looking at this project more holistically, I therefore wanted to add additional variables - park biome type, majority bird type (resident, migratory, vagrant, or breeding) and the average threat these birds face. 

Because I was dealing with these four primary variables and two additional variables (park name and number of bird species) I decided to create two different visualizations to serve two different audience types. The first, another poster visualization that was created to distribute to those with a general familiarity with birding and relatively strong interest in national parks. The second, an augmented reality (AR) visualization intended to prototype the type of visualization a natural science museum or park visitor center could feature. 


Create visualizations highlighting how important National Parks are as bird habitats and advocate for the use of AR technology to help the general public understand data visualizations. 


Excel, RStudio, Open Refine, Tableau, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Dimension, Adobe Aero


The Process

Before any visualizations could be created, I needed to familiarize myself with the data. This involved a process of cleaning the data and analyzing it through RStudio. 


Finding a dataset that contains National Park and bird diversity data


Iterate through designs and graph types


Create a style guide to create visual aesthetic and impact


Test to ensure the data visualizations can be interpreted

Discovery Phase


One thing that was really important to me was staying true to the visual design style already established by the national park service and turned to Google to find symbols the parks already use to communicate information to guests. The symbol that stuck with me was the trail head – as it already has the association of helping orient hikers. Once this symbol was chosen, I started thinking about how the data could be translated using this visual key. The data itself, acquired from the open-source platform Kaggle.com, was vast, with a wide range of information of each bird species, the park they were associated with, the number of sightings they had at these parks, and the threat they faced. I used Illustrator to start designing the trailhead that I would use to translate information to the viewer. 


Since these trailheads would serve as my visual key, I wanted them to be simple enough to read clearly while still delivering all the information needed to understand the relationship between the variables at play. I started by using the visual cues users already know intrinsically. What stood out immediately was using stoplight colors to represent threat level – with red representing a high threat and green representing a low threat. Other variables were more complicated and therefore needed to be considered with more nuance. Looking at the data, I knew that I would have to translate the different bird types (migratory, breeding, vagrant, and resident) through iconography as a general audience wouldn’t know how to associate a color with any one of these types. For this I used Illustrator where I developed an icon for each type of bird. Migratory, breeding, and resident made the most immediate sense as I decided to use a bird flying to represent migratory birds, a bird’s nest to represent breeding birds, and a birdhouse to represent resident birds. In order to visualize vagrant birds, I needed to ensure that I fully understood the definition of what made a bird vagrant before thinking of which icon would represent it. Once I knew that vagrant birds are those that show up outside their normal range, it made sense to create an icon that represents the concept of being lost (a signpost pointing in opposite directions). 


Once these trailheads were created, I kept the overall format of a map visualization and placed them on the map corresponding to the location of the park each trailhead represented. 


In thinking more about bird species I thought about how 3D space could help communicate how the number of bird species differ from park to park and turned to creating an AR visualization that kept the same concept of badges to translate the other variables to the user. In this visualization, created through Adobe Aero, I placed the trailhead on a post and made the post’s height directly correlated to the number of bird species. All posts were then placed on a map of the United States corresponding to the geographic location of the park they represented. 


AR Visualization Preview

Testing the Visualization

Before testing, a series of questions and simple tasks were developed as I wanted to make sure participants could understand the fundamental concepts the visualization was trying to communicate. 

  1. Can you explain to me what the badge tells you about [Sample Park]?

    1. Success: Ability to correctly identify all visual cues contained in the trailhead​

  2. Can you tell me what general trend you can tell about the National Parks of Alaska? 

    1. Success: Ability to identify that all Alaskan parks have a majority of breeding birds with low threat​

  3. Can you tell me the difference between the birds in Alaska and Colorado? 

    1. Success: Ability to understand Colorado has more diversity of bird types, but they are at greater risk. ​


Once developed, these tasks were tested with the following persona types. 


Steve Miller
“When teaching the birding merit badge, I want to be able to tell my Boy Scout troop about the different types of birds that live in Florida's National Parks and the threat they face.”

My Story:
Professional I work as an Electrical Engineer so I'm quite familiar with data visualizations. In my spare time I'm troop leader for my county's local Boy Scout troop where we go on monthly campouts at a variety of State and National Parks. 

My Goals:
Use data visualizations as a teaching tool for young children. 



Mary Beth Jones
“I like to consider myself an amateur birder. At the very least, I've spent the last few years spending my weekends checking out local parks with my sisters and have recently joined my state's chapter of the Trails Association.”

My Story:
II'm a recently retired elementary school teacher who has enjoyed the extra time I now have outdoors. In retirement it's a goal of mine to travel to as many National Parks as I can to see the birds there.

My Goals:
Use a data visualization to plan my trek across the country's parks. 


Following Design Guidelines

Adhering to a Style Guide

In developing this data visualization, it was important to stick to a style guide that felt familiar to the larger design system used by the National Park System. Additionally, I wanted to use colors that would translate meaning to the variables.















Proxima Nova Bold


Proxima Nova

Final Product

Once this work was complete, the final poster visualization was developed: 

Map Legend


Threat Level

Biome Type


Total Bird Species

Park Name

Bird Type

Threat Level



Biome Type












Majority Bird Type










Completing this project taught me a lot about data visualization and the different skills required for designing static and interactive visualizations. By creating both, I learned how to incorporate additional variable types and the importance of identifying target audiences to test the visualizations with. 

The following are the things I learned from testing with my audiences: 

1. Map Legends Have to Be Specific: Users wanted more explanation of what threat level and bird type meant and what data was being translated. 

  • How it was Addressed: The key was changed in order to address the requests of participants.

2. Colors Should Be Distinct: Two users found difficulty in understanding the difference between the colors used to represent the biomes and the threat levels. 

  • How it was Addressed: The color of the threat level was brightened in order to help it stand out against the different colors used to represent the biomes. In addition, the colors used to represent the forest biome was made brown as per participant suggestion.

  • What I learned: Sometimes when working with data visualizations you can't find a color palette that perfectly pleases all users, however, it's important to chose colors that don't directly contradict the variable they're representing. 

3. AR Visualizations Should Communicate As Much As Possible: One surprise from the user testing was how much participants responded to the novelty of the AR visualization. All participants were able to understand the way they would themselves interact with the visualization and could now better identify which parks had more diversity of bird species than others.

Completing this project taught me a lot about data visualization and the different skills required for designing static and interactive visualizations. By creating both, I learned how to incorporate additional variable types and the importance of identifying target audiences to test the visualizations with.