Techniques used:

  • Literature review
  • User/expert interviews
  • Contextual Inquiry 
  • Experiential research
  • Creative brainstorming 
  • Affinity diagramming
  • Low fidelity (lo-fi) prototyping
  • User testing with lo-fi prototypes

Project duration: 8 months (in process). My contribution: Research Team Lead

Project Prompt:

A capstone project with three fellow MHCI classmates for NASA's Ames Research Center to research and design an exploration aid that could someday help astronauts perform geology on the surface of Mars.  

Secondary Research 

Our team kicked off our research by outlining a goal-based research strategy focused on user-centered research.

Our team kicked off our research by outlining a goal-based research strategy focused on user-centered research.

What are the goals of a Mars mission?

We started our secondary research with broad questions, like "What are the goals of a Mars mission?" and "Why send humans to Mars when there are already rovers?".  To answer these we performed a literature review of fifteen scientific research papers on topics such as planetary field geology, the history of lunar science, human-robot exploration, wearable computing, and NASA analog missions.

User Interviews

How does one interview potential users for a digital device to be used on a Mars mission when humans haven't been to Mars yet? This was a unique research problem that we worked around by reaching out to professionals in analogous domains that we felt were similar to space exploration, including an embedded engineer, a surgeon, a 911 call center operator, and a Navy Seal. We then interviewed NASA planetary scientists and engineers about their work in developing missions on Earth and for the ISS.

Reenacting a Mars Mission

At this point in our research we'd developed a firm understanding of how a Mars mission would be executed. However, we still hadn't observed users within the actual mission context. To cement our understanding of mission protocol, we designed a mission for our teammate "astronaut" to travel to "Mars" (a local park) to achieve a specific goal (identify the local tree life). Using imagery from Google Maps we set out a route for our astronaut to pursue and gave him support materials for guidance during exploration. We later recruited users from outside our team to run the mission again so that we could stand back as observers.

Creative Brainstorming with Users

The team then traveled to Goddard Space Flight Center to meet with four NASA geologists. The goal of the meeting was to understand the pressures and pain points involved in doing field science. This was the first time we were meeting potential users in person and we only had one hour with them. To get the most from this hour-long session, we designed a creative brainstorming exercise. We asked the geologists to fill out a worksheet (below right) with a drawing of either a "Fairy Godmother" that could follow them into the field and help them with tasks, or a "Geology Super suit" that they could wear while working. This exercise revealed pain points such as the demanding physicality of the job as well as a lack of data management tools for the users. 

Contextual Inquiry of a NASA Analog Mission

The team performed three days of contextual inquiry with the team members of NASA's BASALT analog mission. To practice for Mars while still on Earth, NASA designs Earth-based missions called "analogs" wherein the crew performs real science while reenacting the specific constraints of Mars. Our capstone team partnered with BASALT for our research because this particular analog mission is performing geological exploration in lava fields in Idaho and Hawaii. During mission run time the team also instantiates a 5- to 15-minute time delay between members of the "Earth-based" mission control team and the team members on "Mars". Observing this analog mission was the closest we could get in our research to the real scenario of geological exploration on Mars. 

Synthesizing Our Research

Our team had three months of research to synthesize – this included data from our literature review, interviews, brainstorming with users, mission reenactments and the contextual inquiry. We used the contextual design process to break down our research into individual notes and reassemble them using an affinity diagram. This process helped us identify themes between all the different stages of our research. 

800+ affinity notes, three walls of post-its and butcher paper, and two weeks later our insights were born. 

800+ affinity notes, three walls of post-its and butcher paper, and two weeks later our insights were born. 

Presenting Our Insights

The affinity diagram illustrated some key themes within the research. However, after the affinity process we felt like there was still something left to figure out. We revisited our affinity notes and our findings from each stage of our research and came out with a singular overall insight – that the value added prospect of sending humans to Mars was not being emphasized in NASA's current plans for a Mars mission. 

The human value is not being leveraged.

This overall insight was supported by four specific breakdowns that we observed in the contextual inquiry with the BASALT team and elsewhere in our research. You can view these insights below or follow this link for a pdf of the insights. 

Moving Forward

The next phase of our capstone project is to spend the summer iterating on a prototype design that can address the breakdowns illustrated in the insights above. We will spend the summer at the NASA Ames Research Center to have access to prototyping materials and to users. Our design process will follow an iterative cycle of low- to high-fidelity prototypes, during which each new design iteration will be thoroughly user tested for feedback to make changes to the design. Our overall goal for the summer semester is to develop a high-fidelity prototype that will be used in a realistic user-testing scenario to gather valuable feedback about the viability of the design. We will use the insights described above as the guideposts for our design process. 

Starting to ideate on possible design solutions. 

Starting to ideate on possible design solutions.