MHCI x NASA 2022
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MHCI x NASA 2022

Sprint 3: Maps, Models, & Pretotypes, Oh My!

Hopefully, with our design solution, astronauts won’t ever feel this lonely. Image Source.

Greetings, readers! Michelle here in (mission) control for this sprint’s blog post.

With sprint #3 marking the halfway point of our research phase, we can really resonate with science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s claim that

“If you can get your ship into orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere.”

Well, we’ve definitely launched our ship far into orbit this sprint with 5 more SME interviews (for a total of 13 interviews so far), a diary study underway, and even a pretotype to get our creativity flowing (no, not prototype– we’ll explain later).

These research efforts have given us so much valuable information to work with and truly any direction we could possibly take our project in. While this seemingly magnifies our problem space, we feel that with every additional perspective we hear, we’re actually getting one step closer to defining our place in this space.

But, we needed a way to collect our thoughts and assemble the individual pieces of our research into more comprehensive insights, which meant diagramming…and lot’s of it. So, let’s get into it!

Affinity Mapping

To help us synthesize our research findings, we coined our Thursday night internal meetings as “Sticky Thursdays,” where we devote time to turn our interpretation notes from each interview into sticky notes that we group together under overarching themes. This process results in the creation of an affinity map, which is a commonly used tool for organizing qualitative data into clusters of similar ideas. To tackle our monster of stickies, we threw on some tunes (thanks to our new team Spotify playlist) and started off by grouping loosely related stickies, then dividing each group into more specific labels. For example, we categorized a lot of stickies under Constraints, Preparation & Reintegration, Importance of Astronaut Training, Emotional Impact, and Family Back at Home.

Our monster of an affinity map
A closer look at our affinity map. Writing “I” statements helped us put things in the perspective of an astronaut’s experience.

These emerging themes led to 7 key insights that we composed to better understand prevalent pain points and potential areas of opportunity:

  1. What constitutes “meaningful” communication is highly dependent on the astronaut’s individual personality and communication style.
  2. Astronauts struggle to reintegrate into their families after being gone for so long, so it’s important to keep them in the loop about both small details and larger updates that occur in the family.
  3. Astronauts would like a diverse range of options/means to connect with people on Earth, but these communication channels cannot be too mentally demanding.
  4. Lack of communication between astronauts and family members can be extremely damaging to their relationship.
  5. Communication can be draining, especially when it feels transactional or obligatory.
  6. Communication expectations are important to set for the mental wellbeing of all parties involved.
  7. There are many creative ways to leverage asynchronous communication.

For each new batch of interviews, we go through the same process of adding stickies into existing groups, as well as creating new categories where we see fit. As our affinity diagram grows larger and larger, so does the breadth of ideas that we have for potential design solutions.

Conceptual Modeling

The team working hard…or hardly working? 🤔

With a diverse range of sources, including astronauts themselves, family members, analogous populations, psychologists, technical experts (and the list goes on…), there’s certainly a wide variety of information to wrap our heads around. In parallel to our affinity diagrams, we have been creating conceptual models to try to connect these different sources of information and visualize how they might interact with one another instead of floating around as independent entities.

Our models for visualizing current communication channels & technical constraints

It’s safe to say that these models have begun to take over all of our wall space– I wouldn’t be surprised if our windows were next to go, and at that point, we might as well be living in a black hole.

Live footage of our lab space (jk). Source.

In particular, we found that our customer journey map has helped us bridge the objective facts with the subjective emotions that astronauts experience during different points of a long-duration mission, starting from pre-flight preparation to life after reintegration.

Following the journey of an astronaut embarking on a mission to Mars

Pretend + Prototype = Pretotype

With the prototyping stage coming closer into orbit, we definitely want to validate our assumptions and hypotheses before we invest time and effort into building a real prototype. To avoid the risk of wasted resources, we created a pretotype– think of it as a prototype for our prototype. A pretotype is a testable idea that involves minimal effort to produce yet provides valuable guidance for steering our ideas in the right direction.

While we have learned a great deal about the intricacies of long-distance communication from our research thus far, we still needed to test some of our assumptions about this topic:

  • People tend to share more big-picture details when there is a time constraint.
  • With infrequent communication, people are less likely to share small details about their day.
  • In long-distance relationships, the small details matter.
  • It is difficult to have a meaningful conversation with time delay but it is possible over text-based communication channels.
Spot the difference!

Our pretotype was used to specifically investigate how frequency of communication influences the content of conversation over text. We deployed our pretotype by leveraging existing SMS platforms to facilitate communication between two participants in a long-distance relationship. 5 pairs of long-distance relationships, including partners, family, and friends, were recruited to test our pretotype and challenged to send 1–2 texts as their only form of communication over the span of 2 days. After the study, they were asked to compare the content of their conversations during the study to their typical day-to-day interactions, as well as how this limited communication made them feel.

Through their experiences, we found that:

  • People put more thought into the content of their messages out of concern that they would be wasting these precious moments of communication.
  • People generally talked about key updates and summaries of their day as opposed to small details.
  • With limited communication, you miss out on the gratification from receiving an instant response.
  • Less details are shared because they don’t seem relevant if they are not sent in that exact moment.

Overall, our participants found this test to be very difficult, especially with the sudden transition from freely communicating whenever they want to the limit of only 1–2 opportunities of interaction. This frequency restriction evidently impacted the content of messages being exchanged. Fortunately, these findings validated many of our initial assumptions about long-distance communication, which we can now confidently consider as needs to address in our solution.

What we have on our plate for the upcoming sprint

  1. Deployment of our diary study!

Anthony, Vincent, and Kara have been hard at work on putting together our diary study protocol and recruiting participants. The goals of our diary study are to (1) understand why and when participants reach out to people of importance in long distance situations and (2) understand what makes an interaction “meaningful.” We are in the midst of recruiting military members who are separated from people of significance to them and operate under a regimented schedule.

Constructing an analogous populations matrix helped us identify that service members most closely relate to the experiences of astronauts. Keep an eye out for our next blog post to find out how the study unfolds…

2. Continued desk research

Each group member has taken on a separate domain of desk research to focus on. Personally, I’m excited to look into how emotion is conveyed through different types of communication (text vs. audio vs. video), and how this might affect relationships. (Can we all agree that texts ending in periods seem much more serious and intimidating than those without?)

3. More interviews

We’ll have the exciting opportunity to conduct back-to-back interviews with a former astronaut and his wife, who will surely give us unique perspectives on family dynamics from both sides of the coin.

4. And, of course, more synthesis :)

Continuing to add to our affinity map and wall of conceptual models will help us hone in on specific areas of the problem space where we can provide value.


Until next time,





Researching how Astronauts on Mars can have meaningful connections with those back on Earth

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