Gravitational lensing. Einstein rings. High-redshifted quasi-stellar objects. You may not have heard of any of this stuff, and you’d need a Ph.D. in astrophysics to fully understand it. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t help astrophysicists do their jobs, simply by using what God gave you–your basic human intuitions for pattern-matching. That’s the promise of Spacewarps.org, an interactive website designed to let anyone with an eye for detail and a yen for science help identify warps in the fabric of spacetime. (Yes, you read that right.)
What Spacewarps.org does is actually pretty simple: It asks users to examine images of deep space gathered by the CFHT (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope) legacy survey, and make little markings on anything that looks out of the ordinary in them. In this case, “out of the ordinary” has a very specific definition: You’re supposed to be looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon in which the light from ultra-distant galaxies is bent by the gravitational force of other galaxies standing in the way. They call it “lensing” because gravity acts just like the lens in your eyeglasses, bending the path of the light–except instead of bending the light with glass, gravity is actually distorting the curvature of spacetime itself. The neat thing is that the results of this weird, rare gravitational lensing are simple to spot: The telltale sign is usually a tiny blue ring or arc around a galaxy, kind of like a deep-space lens flare.
Spotting these visual artifacts doesn’t require specialized training–which is why Spacewarps.org can crowdsource the labor to you and me. But the task wouldn’t be very interesting (or intelligible) without a lot of UX design working on our behalf, which Spacewarps has in spades. First of all, the overall design looks worthy of your trust and attention, with clean typography and functional-but-clever interaction design (hover your mouse on the circular image on Spacewarps’s homepage, and you’ll see a live demonstration of gravitational lensing in effect). In other words, the site looks like a real digital product made in 2013 by professionals, not some shoestring side project cobbled together by overworked graduate students. (This is a big deal: Compare Spacewarps to NASA’s own page explaining gravitational lensing, which looks like it was put together by someone who got fired from GoDaddy.)
And while the actual task of spotting the lenses might be simple, laying all the explanatory groundwork necessary to get a first-time user to do that task isn’t. This process, called “onboarding” by UX professionals, is de rigueur for any consumer app or website but is often completely bungled (or just plain ignored) by scientific outreach sites. Spacewarps is the exception that proves the rule: It provides succinct, layman-friendly (but not condescending) popovers that lead a novice through a game-like tutorial of scanning telescope imagery and highlighting anomalies. I daresay it comes darn close to being delightful. In any case, if designers of pointless photo-sharing apps consider onboarding essential, you’d better believe it’s a no-brainer for a bona fide citizen science project like Spacewarps.
Spacewarps was created by Zooniverse, an online clearinghouse of interactive digital products that let everyday folks participate in real scientific research projects. Browse through the Zooniverse’s offerings, and you might be pleasantly surprised at how–and I’ll just be blunt here–not totally pathetic they all are. Sure, Zooniverse is no Google Creative Lab, but this stuff is actually appealing, engaging, and well-designed–period. (As opposed to, “for a science project.”) Meeting and exceeding this baseline of cultural relevance is what science–“citizen” and otherwise–desperately needs to do if it is going to stand a chance of communicating and demonstrating its clear and essential value to society. These days, encountering a half-decent piece of mainstream digital science communication is about as rare as finding a gravitational lens in one of Spacewarps.org’s blurry telescope images. There’s no reason it has to be that way.