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To the Moon

A PWA FOR Astronaut Exercise
NASA Astronaut Holding Tablet with To The Moon experience
  • Role: Research, UX, Visual Design
  • Completed: August 2018
  • Client: Concept for NASA

Challenge

A personal challenge to create a delightful experience for a worthy audience, and have FUN with design again. Craft an engaging experience that encourages astronaut exercise on board the International Space Station (ISS.) Transform rough, raw data provided by the COLBERT and BD-2 treadmills into consumable, actionable statistics. Offer astronauts their personal exercise metrics as well as ISS crew progress via a leaderboard. Engage a diverse group of international astronauts and the public, if appropriate.

Solution

Employ gamification to infuse delight into an otherwise grueling daily exercise routine (2.5hrs!) Amplify camaraderie through the pursuit of a common goal: a relay to the moon from earth. Utilize a progressive web app to ensure the experience is available on any device aboard the ISS. Compensate for less-than-stellar internet connectivity with PWA offline functionality. Integrate a multi-lingual approach to ensure participation. Increase traffic on the NASA homepage by allowing us earth-bound star-gazers to follow crew progress in real-time, and maybe someday play along with them.

My Users

Step 1:  Question.   Delving into the beautiful mind of an astronaut...not a bad gig! This user base appeals to me because they're an inherently interesting, complicated and diverse group of people. I know the basics but desired a deeper understanding. For instance, what technical and interpersonal skills does it take to become part of this rarified group of humans? What joys and stresses are placed on the human body during space travel? To find the answers, I consumed countless astronaut interviews (both on-the-ground and in orbit), combed through NASA and Wiki profiles, submitted multitudinous Google inquiries, and read astronaut Chris Hadfield's tome An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.

Step 2:  Discover.   This experience caters to the current residents of the ISS. At this time, that's Expedition 56, which began June 1st of this year. Current occupants are Americans Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Ricky Arnold and Commander Drew Feustel. The Americans are joined by their European counterparts, cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Commander Sergey Prokopyev of Russian, as well as Alexander Gerst of Germany. It's a mix of cultures, genders, and levels of experience. Some are return visitors to the ISS while others are first-timers. Each is insanely competitive, resilient, goal-oriented, and supportive. I keep these similarities in-mind while designing for the ISS crew.

Hit the Books (and the internet)

The Internet.   Youtube videos, Wiki pages, and the NASA website offer valuable insight into the unique needs and circumstances of astronauts. Some are delightfully surprising. For instance, ISS treadmills require a specially fit backpacking harness to maintain a consistent load (see video below). In the last year, I've gotten heavy into backpacking, and was ecstatic to see this familiar harness used in zero gravity. I also took note of the exercise software. It is neither delightful nor engaging (see slide four, above). They deserved better. Furthermore, exercising on the treadmill is a quite solitary experience, completely cutoff from the team. I aim to remedy the UI and introduce a communal element.

An astronaut's autobiography.   Col. Chris Hadfield explains in An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth that if astronauts did not exercise, their muscles would atrophy and "their bones would reabsorb into their body." In order to maintain optimal health and be ready for anything, they must focus on monitoring and maintaining their bodies. This fact hit me hard; it's intensely motivating. I found purpose in their sacrifice.

Pen to Paper

Flows.   In my head, I had the first-time login flow all sorted. Load > Login > Dashboard...simple, right? As I learned more about the multi-national ISS crews, I knew I was missing an entire step. If this game is to appeal to everyone on the ISS, and truly reinforce crew relationships, then multi-lingual is a must. To my surprise, the "Language Selector" screen became the first step in the flow. Now it makes so much sense I can't imagine the experience without it. Another big switch: moving the personalization feature into the login flow. Initially, this screen was optional, hidden behind a "Settings" icon on the Dashboard, likely to be overlooked by a busy astronaut. In my research, I found crew members give each other nicknames, and this personalization feature would reinforce this real-world behavior. Embedding the screen in the first-time login flow not only insures completion, it brings a sense of familiar delight.

Layouts.   Putting pen to paper allows me to quickly determine layouts by priority, in this case focusing on personal growth + team progress over individual ranking in the leaderboard. My first thought on the leaderboard layout was half personal stats, half ranking list. As I continued reading and watching interviews with astronauts, I realized the importance of teamwork to the crew. So much is at stake, not just for the astronauts personally, but for humanity as a whole. The success of the science on board depends on the crews' ability to work together. The relay element, a group effort towards running the distance from the Earth to the Moon, reinforces synergy in pursuit of a common goal. This realization led me to position the group progress above individual ranking.

Prototype + Test + QA

Prototype + Test.   Iteration is crucial, and it's particularly so in preparation for the harsh environments of space. Previous and current astronauts, as well as their trainers and support team, gain early-access to the beta version in order to provide invaluable feedback on features and functionality. User groups perform multiple simulations (or "sims"), entering daily logs on performance, engagement, accuracy, and overall enjoyment. This feedback is then analyzed for patterns, both positive and negative, resulting in actionable improvements to the UI and UX.

Quality Assurance.   After the internal teams have thoroughly tested the prototypes, NASA tracks down a solid team of QA experts. They search out every bug and technical flaw, testing both multi-device and multi-lingual capabilities, ensuring a quality product. According to comments on exercise apps (see "Hit the Books " section above, slide 2), the #1 customer complaint is bugs. Thorough QA, both before and during launch, significantly reduces these occurrences.

Sign me Up!

The Purpose.   Being a government PWA, NASA provides a simple username and 4 digit pin to each astronaut. NASA also provides login info to non-American ISS residents who choose to participate (fingers crossed!) Support staff preload basic info, including a NASA/state issued headshot, the astronauts full name + birthdate. This saves the ISS crew valuable pre-launch time better spent reviewing launch checklists and hugging family. If this experience was geared towards consumers, the Sign up process would be more in-depth.

The Style.   The dashboard UI walks the line between professional and whimsical. My plan was to keep inline with NASA's buttoned-up aesthetic, while also appealing to astronauts on a personal level. They're on the ISS because they're curious about the universe, and I wanted to infuse that sense wonder (carefully) into the design. Lines may be crisp, and data may be clear, but moon-surface textures and constellations are lingering just beyond the data.

Leaderboard

The Purpose.   The leaderboard allows astronauts aboard the ISS to keep an eye on their personal stats on the treadmill. More importantly, they're able to track crew progress towards their goal of running the distance from the earth to the moon. It's a destination only arrived upon through teamwork.

The Style.   This UI came together quickly, comparatively. The basic layout was determined in the sketch phase, and I was able to utilize patterns established in the first-time login experience. Expanding on the design system to suit this larger format was one of the most satisfying parts of the project. I treasured finding opportunities for creativity and flexibility within the system. I began to work on both experiences in tandem towards the end, finding inspiration in one that transferred to the other.

Looking to the Future

The NASA Train Like an Astronaut homepage

Train Like an Astronaut.   The goal of this NASA program is to encourage children to lead an active lifestyle, using astronauts as role models, even heroes. Another goal is to foster a life-long love of space. In the words of Col. Hadfield "Educational outreach is part of an astronauts job." I see "To The Moon" fitting right into their curriculum, as it encourages cooperation and fosters self-confidence.


Thank You Notes

Thank you to the women and men in space programs. It was an honor to study your experiences, and heartening to learn of the incredible impact of your work. Selflessly, you risk your lives for scientific discovery, medical research, and exploring the unknown. I can't think of a group more deserving of thoughtful design. Studying this profession has put a few things in perspective for me, and renewed my interest in the space program, so again I thank you.

Thank you to my husband Craig. You listened with the patience of a saint as I gabbed endlessly about astronauts for three weeks straight. We both learned a lot, one of us more willing than the other :)  Your support is invaluable, and I'm not just talking about the hash browns (those were clutch tho.) Thank you for all the small things, and the big things too.

Thank you to Bruno Mars for 24K Magic. And not just because the product name "To The Moon" is in the lyrics. This track kept me awake and smiling on many a late night... and I maybe might never want to hear it again :)