Space Tech: A new frontier for UX designers

The RUXERS newsletter is our monthly share out about ux, design, and research.

A few years from now, in a galaxy of our own, a new force explores the space between our planet and those unknown to mankind. The true age of space exploration is upon us thanks to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk with Space X, NASA, world leadership efforts, and now with the newly announced American Space Force.

This new frontier means new economical value, jobs that allow ordinary citizens to explore space, colonize planets, and requires major software engineering and design innovation.

Imagine the software that future spaceships will need to have in order to support human life: from navigation software that guides crews through asteroid fields, software that lands ships on weathered planets, software that maintains a habitable environment, software that simultaneously cross checks for any oxygen contaminates or system malfunctions and has the ability to auto resolve said malfunctions.

Now, imagine, the extraordinary user experience that will be needed to support space exploration… one confusing workflow could mean doom to dozens or hundreds of human lives…

How can we, as ux designers, prepare ourselves to help space explorers confidently explore space — and stay alive while doing so? How can we prepare ourselves to have the skillsets, knowledge, and flexibility to design some of the most elaborate systems in existence?

Let’s explore just that in this theoretical dive into what it will take to create human centered space tech software by design.

Note to reader: This article is meant to make you think, and have fun! Take notes as you read and discuss your thoughts in the comment section below the article.

Matrix team & education structures between product, design, scientific and engineering teams

Do you work at an organization that divides product initiatives into separate and disperse teams? If so, you may understand the pain of not knowing what is going on from the overall forest view of the product. Sure you may be an expert in your specific feature or subset product but you are siloed. Your product team is on its own. Aligning across teams is a manage organizational pain and time consumer.

Space tech cannot be created in silos. Cross team collaboration is completely vital to a crews survival. In order to minimize human error in system engineering teams need to consistently:

  • Cross team critique early stage designs & iterations
  • Demo design concepts early across product organization and key stakeholders
  • Ensure cross-platform (device) usability through accessibility reviews
  • Scientific review from industry experts: health, science, aerospace, etc
  • Consistent knowledge through appropriate venues
  • Environment test

As a result, ux designers will have a solid understanding of multiple competencies: engineering, science, health. We are essentially designing a manmade navigable world for humans to survive on.

UX designers need to undergo major on boarding initiatives to develop core and advanced knowledge in order to effectively design great experience. On the other hand, scientists and engineers could undergo heavy user experience training.

Top UX talent will be those with many years of experience designing complex, enterprise applications within the health, scientific, and engineering industries.

Heavy understanding of development and engineering constraints

For example, power consumption of proposed technology. Our user’s have a limited source of power (at least in the initial years). If we designed every experience to utilize high fidelity visuals, virtual reality, and GPU draining experience our crew wouldn’t get far. Understanding engineering and development constraints is huge.

Designing for the space explorers physical and virtual environment

James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar – holographic UI

Experiences span across multiple devices, machines and tools

The user experience of space tech needs to expand beyond a computer, phone, or tablet screen. Clues to this principle can be found in every space sci fi film in existence. For example, maintenance tools for external ship repair need to be easy to use from inside of a space suit. Space gloves are bulky and assumably less mobile than gloves used for skiing. By considering this environment, which is, the suit, maintenance tool, ship, and space, we can hypothesize the user’s need to have a user experience that is accessible from within the space suit, the ship mainframe, and the tool itself.

The ship’s mainframe guides the user in the space suit to the ship malfunction, meanwhile, the tool has received special repair instructions from the ship’s mainframe. The user, simply delivers the tool to the broken part and activates the tool. The software guides, informs, and assists the user while securing the human’s life.

Why is the suit, tool, and ship’s mainframe necessary to consider from a design need? Well, imagine having to take off your space glove to operate a tool in space… if you’re lucky your hand freezes off, and if you’re not so lucky, you suffocate to death.

Other design considerations:

  • Does the maintenance tool utilize physical input buttons or a digital display with UI?
  • If digital, will it work with space gloves?
  • Does the tool utilize voice commands?
  • Does the tool have inputs at all (system runs tool once it detects broken part)?
  • Is there a manual override incase of systematic error?

Systems utilize multiple visualization technologies: traditional displays, augmented reality, virtual reality, and eventually holographic technology

Strategies for determining visual needs, need to be put in place early on. As mentioned earlier, augmented and virtual UI experiences require a lot of power. Determining the acceptable power consumption per use case will be key information to define in early discovery work.

For example, navigating a space ship is a core use case for space exploration and survival. The crew needs the system to be able to autopilot, provide details views of space around the ship and universe in general, map routes through space debris. This core system function may be allocated a large level of power consumption in order to achieve of all the user needs through:

  • Virtual reality: mapping
  • Holographic (if available)
  • Augmented reality
  • Accessibility across mobile devices/tablets

As a result, user experience designers need to have a strong skillset for designing across all of these platforms. Additionally, designers absolutely must understand the strengths and weaknesses of each platform and how to design around the individual constraints.

To summarize: Space tech UX designers will have the competencies…

User experience designers in the space tech industry need to have complex application design experience preferably in the enterprise classification. Designers in this industry will have a strong academic background with the ability to understand complex notions from health, human anatomy, biology, engineering and advanced technology: aerospace, satellites, even defense. Designers in the space tech industry have no difficulty designing across platforms with heavy engineering constraints such as power, human mobility, bandwidth transfer speeds, and environmental.

Did you put yourself in the mindset of a space tech ux designer? If so, I am curious to know what you think. What does this future look like to you? Share in the comments below.

The RUXERS newsletter is our monthly share out about ux, design, and research.

Zack Gehin
Hello, I am Zack! I founded RUXERS. I am an entrepreneur, and UX leader residing in Denver, CO. Thank you for reading RUXERS!



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