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How NASA Designs for the Future

NASA UX Designer Krys Blackwood teaches us how to build interfaces for users who are a decade away from using them. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emma McKhann

In 2023 (at the earliest), NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper spaceship into the solar system.

It’s mission: to orbit Europa—one of Jupiters’ moons—and study its surface to gain a deeper understanding of its geology and composition.

Like any mission from the 83-year-old space exploration agency, the project is awe-inspiring—not to mention incredibly daunting.

One of the many hurdles NASA must clear is the question of, “How do you design a mission that’ll occur that far into the future? So far into the future that most people who’ll work on it don’t even have their degrees yet?”

That’s the question Krys Blackwood, senior lead user experience designer at NASA JPL, works to answer.

Krys has spent the bulk of her career at the administration working at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) on the Europa Clipper and Deep Space Network (DSN) projects. Her focus on human-centered design has helped NASA communicate new initiatives and ideas to the scientists and engineers behind some of their boldest missions.

We caught up with Krys at the campus of the JPL in Pasadena, California. She talked to us about NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, how she designs for change-resistant users, and the magic of working with citizen scientists.

How do you describe the difference in your work between the Europa Clipper and DSN?

It’s night and day.

On the DSN, I’m truly doing a software design project. I'm attempting to improve efficiency of operations and give operators the tools they need through software to do their job as well as they can.

On Europa Clipper, I’m early enough involved in the mission that we don't have a spacecraft yet. We don’t have software to work with. So at this point, I'm researching and communicating concepts amongst this 300-400 person team.

I'm helping to make sure that the scientists who are going to be receiving the data from the mission are getting a say in the design of the operations of the mission. And then I'm helping to design all the processes that we'll use to run this mission once we launch (hopefully) in 2023.

When did you start getting more involved with the Europa Clipper?

Two years ago, I joined the mission and reduced my time on DSN. It was quite an adjustment, because I went from designing a tangible piece of software to designing lots of diagrams—storyboards that will communicate how the mission will run.

But in the end, what I'm designing for the Europa Clipper is intangible. It's conversations. It's a true user experience, because it's entirely independent of whatever screens users may ever touch.

But in the end, what I’m designing for the Europa Clipper is intangible. It’s conversations. It’s a true user experience, because it’s entirely independent of whatever screens users may ever touch.

Krys Blackwood

Tell me a bit more about that. How is it intangible?

Ultimately, the Europa Clipper spacecraft is a really smart robot that is going to do this really complicated, many-petals orbit around Europa and Jupiter. So it's orbiting both planets in this weird elliptical pattern.

Because it's going to be circling Europa, which is also circling Jupiter.

Yes, and there are people on the ground here who have to tell it what to do at every point. Because even though it's incredibly smart, it doesn't know where it is or what it's about to hit. It also doesn't know what it's taking pictures or radar of.

So as we do fly-bys on this mission, people need to be able to plan for unknowns. That’s an incredibly complex concept.

We want to be able to automate more. We want to be able to enable the spacecraft to be as independent as possible. And we want to maximize the use of our people and our limited bandwidth for sending data home.

So I'm helping design all of the processes. I'm not the only one. There are other designers as well. For example, system engineers help figure out how we architect our systems so that we can share models from instrument to instrument.

These instruments come from disparate teams spread out across the entire country at different institutions. So along with NASA, we have JPL and the Applied Physics Laboratory. We also have colleges like the University of Colorado that are contributing an instrument.

So I have to be concerned about how we help all of these teams work together to plan activities this spacecraft will do on these fly-bys. You’re speeding past the planet and you've got to cluster all your activities in that little space of time. How do we help people partner together to do that?

It takes a fair degree of speculation, then, to design for something that launches in 2023.

We hope that's when it launches. Best case scenario we have a two-year cruise, so it doesn't even get to Jupiter until 2025 or 2026 at the earliest. Then there's a little bit of time to adjust to the orbit.

This is the longest of long hauls for design. Any processes that I'm making, I need to prove out now before we launch, but they won't be used until 2026.

So not only does it take speculation, it takes validation. We validate every one of our designs with what we call “representative users.” I don't like to do anything in a vacuum.

But in reality, the people who will run this mission are in high school right now. So I can't validate with them because they don't have their PhDs yet.

I’m trying to predict the future. What are these high-school kids going to be like when they are the people I’m working with right now? What social, political, and environmental pressures are they going to be under that they’re going to bring to their approach to how this person does their job?

Krys Blackwood

That’s almost the opposite problem you had at DSN where you were encountering change-resistant users—people who came from this very old-school way of working and you have to design for them. Now you have to deal with people who will come in and will be more tech-savvy.

It's an interesting dichotomy.

At the DSN, everyone is so intelligent. But they are not ready for me to be putting software in touch screens. We tried to give them an Apple Watch app for monitoring tracks and we received so much pushback on them.

And then there are going to be these other users who have lived on digital platforms. Their Apple Watch is like breathing for them. They’re from a digital generation, and they're going to come into what is certainly going to be, to them, antiquated software—no matter what I do.

So it's really interesting to try to think about how I can design these processes for whoever might come along.

Change-resistant users are a big part of the role of any UX designer. What's your biggest piece of advice for a designer encountering a change-resistant user?

My top advice for that kind of situation is that you need to have a good reason for your changes.

It's so often that we just want to change things because we think it's better. I can’t tell you how many times I've come into a situation where there's already a UI, and I look at it and go, “That's hideous! Look at all those bad design decisions. I just want to fix it.”

But unless there's a damn good reason—and “this is a bad UI” is not a good reason—you should not be making changes for change-resistant users.

You should make sure that every change you make has a tangible, measurable benefit to them that’s much greater than the pain they're going to go through in the adjustment period.

Unless there’s a damn good reason—and “this is a bad UI” is not a good reason—you should not be making changes for change-resistant users. You should make sure that every change you make has a tangible, measurable benefit to them.

Krys Blackwood

But with any change you introduce, even if it is good for them, you'll still find people struggling to accept it. That's at the heart of a change-resistant user. How do you go about easing that adjustment?

Three things: First, involve users ahead of time so that they know what's coming and feel that they've had some say in it. 

Second, make sure you verified and validated that this really is a valuable change and that it's going to benefit them.

Third, you stay the course if they start to revolt.

In one of my talks about how to deal with change resistance, I use a slide from Star Wars with a picture of Luke flying and it says, “Stay on target.” Because that really is it.

If you're doing the right thing, keep the course—even when there's a backlash. Don't try to pivot, because the second you pivot you're creating new change and new trauma.

Do you still encounter that friction with Europa Clipper?

Yeah I do, but it's a little different.

With flight projects, you don't want to fly anything that's going to blow up the spacecraft because it's a $1 billion spacecraft that you're taking risks with. And so, there is a reliance on things that are tried and true and trusted.

That's where you hit the change resistance. “We've always planned our mission this way. This is how we've always done activity planning for the spacecraft. If change it, we are introducing a risk that we will crash the spacecraft.”

But the great thing is, NASA understands that we have to push the envelope with every new space mission.

It's not incremental science. It needs to be exponential science in order to be a good use of taxpayer money.

And the resistance we get comes in the form of: “Prove that you can do it and that it's the right thing to do.”

But that's where the pushback stops, because if you can empirically show that you can make the mission more efficient, it’ll get adopted.

That's a good lesson on addressing your target users—going to their level and seeing what they need. You were working with scientists, and they needed evidence. So you needed to get empirical data in front of them.

But not everyone is swayed by evidence, right? There are some people I could give all the evidence in the world and it wouldn't help.

But if I give them an anecdote—a story of a real person who's suffering—immediately they're willing to move mountains to make things happen.

So, I think you do have to target your audience.

What’s the biggest challenge you currently face with Europa Clipper and DSN right now?

The biggest challenge in DSN is that we are introducing automation to the network for the first time. We have some very primitive automation in place now, and we're going to be doing things like fully automated tracks. For example, an antenna speaking to a spacecraft.

Our big challenge for this next year comes down to: How can we empower the human operators to team appropriately with the automated operators? And how do we prevent the human operators from losing skill?

Because it's a known fact that anytime you introduce automation to a previously manual task, skill gets lost. How many people forget how to get to the grocery store without Waze?

Is that necessarily a bad thing though? There could be a line of thinking like, "Well, why should we have to worry about it anymore? A machine is going to take care of it for me.”

There's definitely that. But we know that no matter how great our automation is, there will be situations the automation can't handle.

And if the operator's skill has atrophied to the point where they cannot handle it either, then what happens? Do we lose the data? Do we lose the antenna? Do we lose the spacecraft? Worst of all, do we lose a person?

We need to ensure that doesn’t happen. So we're trying to accurately measure the operator skill level now in order to benchmark it. Then we figure out how can we introduce things to them, without being tedious, that’ll help them maintain their skill, maintain situational awareness, maintain context, and be able to intervene if they're needed in these automated passes.

Goodness knows automation is only going to march ahead. So the more we do now, the more we prepare ourselves for that world when operators are running fully automated tasks and we’re truly just there to troubleshoot.

For Europa Clipper, our biggest challenge in the next year is how we adequately simulate the systems and processes that we'll have once we've launched. Plus, figuring out how we’ll run this mission without having fully designed the software or the spacecraft.

From there we have to pivot and adjust to any changes that might occur in the software. We have to communicate those changes out to 300-500 people in a clear and approachable way. And we have to simulate the operations to prove that this course of action is achievable.

How do you think your own role is going to change in the future, by the time 2026 gets around? Where do you see the landscape of human-centered design evolving at NASA?

We are constantly marching ahead with augmented and virtual reality applications—both for here on earth to drive rovers on remote locations, and for the International Space Station to help them do repairs and maintenance.

The amount of work that we do with ground operations for the flight missions I think is going to increase. The more complex the missions get, the more you need human-centered designers making those missions accessible to the humans who have to consume them.

We're also helping a lot with science data dissemination. So, there's an instrument on an earth-orbiting satellite. I'm helping to redesign how we present their data to citizen scientists so that those citizen scientists can figure out how fast is the earth warming, how fast is our ocean changing, where the wet places on earth are, where the dry places on earth are, and how that has that changed over time.

I think we’ll also do seven times as much work empowering citizen scientists to do good, important science.

I've never even realized that NASA wouldn't even give that much consideration to citizen scientists before.

So many of the greatest discoveries that are attributed to NASA are actually citizen scientists using NASA data.

As I understand it, NASA has a policy that all of the data we gather belongs to the taxpayers, so we make sure it’s published. I know somebody who made an amazing orrery—which is a map of the planets that moves—using JPL data about the position of the planets.

NASA is very aware that that's why we're here. We're here to gather the science that everyone can use to make life better for all of humanity.

I think we can deputize everyone we work with to be a human-centered designer; we don’t have to be this specialist in the ivory tower. Everyone can do this. We can and should give them the tools to do it.

Krys Blackwood

It’s not just you doing all this amazing work—it’s your team too. What’s your team like?

On my team there are 16 people, and they're all working on different amazing projects. In all of JPL there's no other human-centered design team, but there are probably 30 people who have some human-centered design skillset who are working to improve the way that we do missions and the way we as JPLers work together.

It's like a renaissance happening. We’re giving an 80-year-old company those next steps to evolve.

I also started a design community practice a while ago, and in addition to those 30 designers, there's another 30 to 40 people—systems engineers, developers, mechanical engineers, cybersecurity specialists, admin assistants—who just care about design thinking.

They've blended into our community and become a part of it. It's amazing to see that sort of passion.

That level of democratization with design and design knowledge is important for companies and organizations in this day and age to be successful.

Absolutely. I think we can deputize everyone we work with to be a human-centered designer; we don't have to be this specialist in the ivory tower.

Everyone can do this. We can and should give them the tools to do it.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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