NASA Ames Research Center

Capstone group project

In progress

January - August 2014

Adam Menz
Derin Akintilo
Kirsten Yee
Maggie Bignell

Domain research
Contextual inquiry
Prototyping (current phase)
User testing
Final prototype

 Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA


The work of NASA on the International Space Station and at test facilities revolves around carrying out highly specific tasks and locating the tools, materials, and machinery needed to carry out those tasks. Crewmembers and engineers perform detailed tasks for experiments and maintenance by gathering tools and following instructions on static documents, called procedures. Currently, NASA personnel must manually track the location and status of their equipment, so tools are often misplaced, and logs, often unreliable.

On the ISS, a three-person crew is able to devote 35 hours per week to scientific experiments, but the rest of the crewmembers’ time is required to be spent on maintenance. In order to perform experiments, astronauts must first locate tools and materials stored on the ISS, which spans the size of a football field. 

Our team has been tasked with understanding the context in which astronauts and engineers find tools and carry out procedures, in order to design a smarter, context-aware system that will increase the efficiency of their work and further NASA’s mission to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

 Understanding the issues, what's core and what's peripheral

Understanding the issues, what's core and what's peripheral


We began the project by having a kick-off meeting with our client, NASA. During this meeting, we presented our understanding of the problem space (based on the brief that we were given), what research tactic we are thinking of employing, and our timeline for the project. Together, we did an affinity diagramming exercise, during which we scoped out the main issues and the characteristics of the users that would later inform our search for analogous domains.

 Brainstorming affinity with our client to determine needs

Brainstorming affinity with our client to determine needs




When designing for NASA, the user is often very specific, such as an astronaut or a test engineer for a specific function. Therefore, we used contextual inquiry as our primary research method, so we could observe participants' behavior without their acknowledgment or awareness of usability issues. Since NASA personnel are difficult to observe in-context (especially astronauts), we found several analogous domains to observe: lab scientists, test lab technicians, machinists, and medical personnel.




For our field research, we observed with 6 machinists, 8 lab scientists, 6 test lab technicians, and 2 medical personnel. After each observation, we have created sequence, flow, artifact, physical, and cultural models based on the notes we took at the observations. We then consolidated those models and created a large affinity diagram to find common threads between domains and tied them back to the NASA domain. 


Our team has generated five initial visions that we have shared with our clients. We created storyboards for each vision to explain how the scenarios that each solution applies to and the technologies involved. After we "speed dating" these ideas with NASA personnel in the upcoming weeks, we will be refining the visions to find a direction for the design phase of our project.



For the summer team, our team has relocated to the NASA Ames Research to begin the design phase of our project. Throughout the summer, we will be creating prototypes of varying fidelity, starting with paper mockups and ending with an interactive prototype. Each week, we will be designing a new iteration, generating new prototypes and testing them with users. 

To start, we created low fidelity paper prototypes of our solution in three forms: armband, wristwatch, and augmented reality. Each form has benefits and drawbacks. The wristwatch and augmented reality forms depended on voice commands, which are ineffective in high volume environments. While the armband display has enough real estate for a keyboard, it is larger and more cumbersome to carry. Choosing the right form(s) to pursue in our next iteration is one of the main goals for the low fidelity prototypes. 



The user tests from the low fidelity prototypes helped us to eliminate the wristwatch as one of our forms. It didn't display enough information as the armband and also wasn't completely hands-free. Also, because of its limited screen size, many features did not seem intuitive to the participants. 

Currently, we are creating and testing a set of clickable mobile screens to gain insights into a medium fidelity version of the armband display.

A series of screens that display the functionality of the Notes tab in the system.



For the remainder of the Summer term (May-August), our team will be prototyping, user testing, and iterating on the system until we have a final working prototype to present to NASA.