UX in space: The role of human-centered design in space exploration
Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Whenever Senior lead UX designer Krys Blackwood is having trouble with a particularly challenging communications or design issue, she will sit in here and listen to operations to help find the solution.
Designing for space exploration comes with its own unique, complex challenges. It requires new concepts and new technologies that need to be realized, and some projects have very long timelines — often it takes many years for them to go live. The user groups involved, meanwhile, are varied and have very different, specific needs: flight controllers, scientists, engineers, software developers, and — of course — astronauts.
Just like any design problem, however, these challenges can be solved with a user-centered approach, and over the last few years UX/UI designers have increasingly played a critical part in helping to break down complex problems into innovative, yet easy-to-use designs. These days pretty much any space mission and project has a group of UX designers assigned to them to support the users’ workflow and make the tools they use more efficient. The design process is collaborative, so that everyone can figure out together how to turn a vision into a tangible product or service years into the future.
We talked to four designers at NASA and SpaceX to learn how they take a design thinking approach to problem-solving and apply human-centered design principles to create a user experience that’s out of this world.
Designing for the future with UX skills at the heart
Krys Blackwood is a senior lead user experience designer in the Human-Centered Design group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which specializes in the robotic exploration of the solar system.
“The one thing each of our robots has in common is the fact that there’s a human being somewhere, telling it what to do or trying to get data from it,” Blackwood explains. “The Human Centered Design group’s entire mission, if you will, is to apply UX research and practices to everything from how we design our spacecraft to how we operate missions and share data with the world. By designing our processes around the needs of the people who use them, we not only save the taxpayers money, by making people more efficient, we maximize the science we can get out of each mission.”
By way of example, Blackwood points to a mission concept she’s currently working on to land a spacecraft on Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter, and take samples of the surface. Europa Lander is a highly autonomous mission, and the team has never operated this way before, so they conducted a massive research study in which they simulated operations — 10 to 20 years before there’s even a spacecraft or software for it.
As a result of the related Europa Clipper mission, which will send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s high radiation orbit to study Europa, the team learned some amazing insights about how scientists interact with autonomous systems.
“We’ve found that the UX skillset is useful in a few different ways,” Blackwood points out. “First, there’s communication. These mission concepts are incredibly complicated and need to be explained to hundreds of people from different backgrounds, so that they can work together to make the mission happen. Next, there’s the typical design of software. We help drive the requirements through discovery research, then design the UIs and test them to make sure they’re right. And last, we’re doing something akin to service design, designing the processes people use to share information and work together.”
Blackwood’s team starts with storyboards to explain processes, which has made a massive difference to the work of JPL.
The single storyboard panel below even features a tentacle waving from the crust of Europa:
“We don’t think this would ever happen, obviously,” Blackwood laughs, “but we use extreme scenarios like this to inspire creativity in creating plans and contingencies. Whatever will work for the insanely unimaginable scenario of a tentacle will work for much more likely things like encountering a plume of water coming up from the surface!”
Simulating realistic spaceflight conditions with user testing
The onboard user interfaces for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle were designed and developed in collaboration with an all-star team of software engineers, operations engineers, and NASA astronauts. Unusually for a spacecraft, Crew Dragon features a nearly completely touchscreen-based interface, which needed to be compatible with glove use.
“The UI takes into consideration the conditions of the vehicle during all phases of flight,” the principal UI/UX designer for the final three years of the project explains. “This includes the shaking of the vehicle on ascent/descent when the crew is also wearing a helmet, suit, and gloves. All buttons in the UI have a minimum size which we do not go past and which still work with thicker gloved fingers.”
A wide variety of UI/UX decisions were informed by all flight phases and the cabin environment. For example, the location of the primary navigation elements are at the bottom of the UI because the crew must lift their arms up to interact with the displays.
“We designed the interface with a lot of padding and white space to let the information breathe and make sure it’s as readable as possible,” the designer recalls. “More important UI elements like the command buttons are in the top of the interface, outside of high activity areas, so that interacting with them was always intentional. We also used a unique circular contrast filter that allows for all of the digitals in the interface to be easily visible on top of varied video lighting conditions. All units are readable even if the video feed behind the UI is pure white or black.”
User testing was crucial. The displays team performed multiple vibration tests with male and female participants of all ages and heights who wore actual crew helmets and sat in actual crew seats. The seats were placed on a vibration table to simulate ascent/descent conditions. While the seat was shaking, participants would use an Xbox controller to play a custom game that tested the readability of word and number sequences with randomized font sizes, colors, and text positions that were also shaking randomly in the UI. This helped confirm that the readability decisions the team had made held up under extreme environmental conditions. It also showed that essentially every sci-fi movie interface was unrealistic and would be unreadable.
Heuristic evaluations to measure the usability of rover UIs
Tiffany Truong is a UX/UI designer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, currently collaborating with a team of developers, scientists, and engineers to lead the UI design for NASA’s in-house rover driving and data collection software. Truong’s role consists of ideating and designing solutions for user interface challenges found in the software and has been working on two major products that will be used in the upcoming VIPER mission, which will explore the moon in search of water ice and other potential resources in 2023.
“One of the challenges that I’ve encountered while designing in the space exploration sector is the ability to develop effective solutions that address crucial pain points experienced by our different user groups,” Truong points out. “Our target users include scientists, rover drivers, and operation specialists, who vary greatly in their user needs and frustrations. Working in this unique space has made me realize that prioritization is of the utmost importance.”
The team is almost always presented with newfound design problems, and though they aim to find solutions for everyone, it’s not always possible due to team capabilities and technical requirements. As the target users are methodical thinkers, new features must be designed deliberately in a way that provides them with affordances that foster learning and discoverability, all while addressing key user pain points and fulfilling mission-critical requirements. Truong therefore takes a heuristic approach.
One of the projects that Truong worked on was to create a status indicator dashboard feature for the user interface of a rover driving software:
The feature serves as an important tool that allows users to make real-time decisions based on situational awareness. The heuristic approach that Truong used includes some of Nielsen-Molich’s usability principles and Hick’s Law.
“During the ideation phase, I had a vision of a dashboard UI that was visually minimal to allow users to focus on the task at hand, but direct with the information that it provides to enable users to make informed decisions,” Truong recalls. “For this dashboard feature particularly, this meant creating comprehensible icons that signify to users what type of information is being displayed and whether the user needs to take immediate action based on the rover’s health, position to the sun, and current location on the moon.”
Build, test, refine, repeat: the iterative prototyping of space suits
Amy Ross leads the advanced space suit pressure garment development team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She helped design the new spacesuit prototypes intended to be worn by the first woman and next man on the moon during the 2024 Artemis lunar mission. It’s part of a larger strategy to send the first astronauts to the surface of Mars, and currently, Ross is developing new suits for humans to wear on the Red Planet. Last year, NASA’s Perseverance rover carried the first samples of spacesuit material, including a helmet visor, to Mars, where it’s currently studying them. The ideal is to build a spacesuit that’s light, comfortable, flexible and allows humans of any body type and size to be productive in more demanding and hazardous environments, while also keeping them safe.
Amy Ross with prototype spacesuit, the Z-2.
“In my experience in testing space suits, if I were the only user I had to satisfy, I’d still be working on the physical and data human interfaces,” Ross says. “But I’m not designing for just me. A variety of users with a variety of anthropometries and preferences drives the UX work. It’s my job to provide space suit technologies and architecture for wherever the nation’s, hence NASA’s, objectives take us. Different tasks in different environments for different objectives with different expectations and/or requirements also drive, not surprisingly, a different answer. The more specific the design space the better you can design for it… but how often do you design to do one thing one way all of the time? Well, space suits don’t have that luxury either. The real trick, that takes the most creativity and hard work, is UX design for flexibility. It’s the challenge. It’s also what makes it fun!”
Focus on the user, whether they’re on the ground or in space
Designing for space exploration might seem incredibly daunting, but as with any other project, it always helps to take a step back to remind yourself what you are trying to achieve. In that respect, NASA and SpaceX are no different from other organizations: The focus is squarely on making life easier for the users, and so designers use their honed UX/UI skills to become their allies. That’s why building a strong relationship with the different user groups involved is important in figuring out what research method or design technique to use to make sense of and solve a complex problem, even if it reaches beyond our planet.