National Marine Sanctuary Foundation

FKNMS Explorer App

UX Design

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation & NOAA's Office of Marine Sanctuaries engaged with Mindgrub to create an interactive guide to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, in the form of a mobile app, to educate and inform the public in responsible stewardship of the sanctuary and its resources.


America's National Marine Sanctuaries are an incredible resource open to all Americans to explore, to play in, and use. But, there are of course many rules and regulations surrounding the proper care and stewardship of these sanctuaries. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) is one of the largest sanctuaries in NOAA's sanctuary system, and it is used by thousands of people every day for all of the reasons stated above. But, it can be hard for the sanctuary's administrators to impress upon visitors the many important things they need to be aware of in order to be good stewards of their shared resource.

The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF), together with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) worked closely with Mindgrub to develop a mobile application, to not only better inform the visiting public about rules and regulations, but also to help them find interesting sites to visit, learn exciting facts about marine wildlife and habitats, and get in touch with tourguides to make their visit to FKNMS the best it can be, for everyone.

A Patchwork of Rules

The Florida Keys NMS is a veritable Venn-diagram of zones and locations that each carry their own specific set of rules and regulations. Visitors to the sanctuary need to be aware of these guidelines so that they can be good stewards of the natural environment, but understanding how these areas lay out and interact with each other is a huge pain point. The first step in determining how to present this vital information to users of the FKNMS app was to analyse and examine the geospatial data provided by the client, a task I was well-suited for thanks to my familiarity with open-source GIS software like QGIS. I used these tools to render maps that the Mindgrub and client teams uses to stay on the same page.

A map depicting FKNMS and the various zones and areas that make it up.
A visualization of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, made with QGIS.

Visitors' goals are different from the sanctuary's—first and foremost they're looking to have fun, to go fishing, and to explore the sanctuary's waters without having to worry about how to take care of habitats and engage in safe boating practices. The FKNMS Explorer app tries to meet visitors halfway, by offering them useful information and discovery tools for interesting sites to visit and explore throughout the sanctuary.

Our Solution

As the lead user experience professional on the team, my role was to understand both the goals of the sanctuary's visitors, and its administrators. Together with the rest of the Mindgrub team, I conducted interviews with NOAA and NMSF stakeholders, tour service vendors, and members of the public who spend large amounts of time on the waters of the sanctuary.

I developed a UX focused around points of interest, employing a bite-sized "stories" concept to educate visitors in best practices associated with each area and site. I also worked closely with our content specialist to determine the appropriate voice and style for content. The app is designed to use real-world location information to notify users when their vessel enters a new area, allowing visitors to relax and let the app do the worrying about rules and regulations for them.

Testing is Key

To verify that our efforts were on the right track and that what we were building satisfied everyone's needs, I and others from the Mindgrub team travelled to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in person, to test the app under real-world conditions.