Environmental managers and planners have become increasingly enthusiastic about the potential of decision support tools (DSTs) to improve environmental decision-making processes as information technology transforms many aspects of daily life. Discussions about DSTs, however, rarely recognize the range of ways software can influence users' negotiation, problem-solving, or decision-making strategies and incentives, in part because there are few empirical studies of completed processes that used technology. This mixed-methods study-which draws on data from approximately 60 semi-structured interviews and an online survey--examines how one geospatial DST influenced participants' experiences during a multi-year marine planning process in California. Results suggest that DSTs can facilitate communication by creating a common language, help users understand the geography and scientific criteria in play during the process, aid stakeholders in identifying shared or diverging interests, and facilitate joint problem solving. The same design features that enabled the tool to aid in decision making, however, also presented surprising challenges in certain circumstances by, for example, making it difficult for participants to discuss information that was not spatially represented on the map-based interface. The study also highlights the importance of the social context in which software is developed and implemented, suggesting that the relationship between the software development team and other participants may be as important as technical software design in shaping how DSTs add value. The paper concludes with considerations to inform the future use of DSTs in environmental decision-making processes.
Keywords: Activity system; Decision making; Decision support tools; Geospatial; Learning theory; Planning.