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Rocket-boosting User-Centered Design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) is an engineering-focused organization. Jobs like building and operating robotic spacecraft and conducting Earth-orbit and astronomy missions are as technologically intensive as it gets. Since 1936, JPL has built equipment advanced enough for these tasks based on strict and extensive engineering specifications.

JPL decided to incorporate human-centered design and expansive thinking into their development process. To help this approach succeed, they hired the Cooper Professional Education team to train their engineers on design, research, and storytelling at NASA’s two-day Systems + People conference.

A Keynote + Two Workshops

Design pioneer and “Software Alchemist” Alan Cooper kicked off the conference with a keynote presentation on improving design results by understanding user needs. Cooper then conducted two workshops on techniques for integrating meaningful user feedback into the design process, from start to finish.

Our first workshop zeroed in on on engaging users to produce better requirements. Cooper taught participants interview and research techniques that can help them understand users more deeply. We showed them how to craft research plans and ask the right questions to uncover the customer behaviors, needs, and goals that inform great design. These user-centered design practices boost efficiency by getting developers to see what their users need before starting, instead of building first and trying to adapt to feedback later.

Next up was a storytelling workshop. In this one, we showed how to express complex ideas in simple ways using time-tested storytelling tricks. Participants learned that they could use stories to enhance internal communication. Our techniques helped them explain their uniquely complex projects in a simple way by embedding them in relatable, humanizing narratives. We explored three critical uses of storytelling: idea generation, communication, and execution-oriented building. We even got interactive so that attendees could turn their work into easy-to-understand stories that showed user needs connecting to every part of the design and development process.

Changing Culture

By every account, participants in Cooper’s workshops at NASA JPL were inquisitive, engaged, and enthusiastic. They showed a strong desire to learn, to apply their new knowledge, and to improve through feedback.

The overall message—that adding a human touch to the design process clarifies and streamlines development for even the most complex products—was well received. Participants learned that when everyone in a project shares a vision, great design follows.

NASA JPL has been evolving for a long time, and with a little help from Cooper’s workshops, they can now grow in a yet new way: by transforming how they think about design.

Humanizing the design process brings clarity and efficiency.

JPL is now incorporating design thinking into the development process.
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