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The Problem: NASA JPL is planning on launching the Mars 2020 mission to explore the habitability of Mars and prepare for future human missions. NASA JPL wants to find a way to let scientist and engineers pick points of interest on the terrain map for the Mars rover to explore while ensuring the rover’s safety.

Final Product: A functional VR tool visualizing mars rover data

Award: UW College of Engineering Capstone Grant

Process: Research (1 month) + Ideation (1 month) + Prototype & Testing (1 month) + Finalization (1 month)


Desk Research + Expert Interviews

Understanding The problem space
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Desk Research

Approach: Find and read secondary research about the challenges in the Mars missions

Obstacle: High confidentiality prevents access to most sources.

Results: After negotiating with JPL, they agreed to release reports from at least 6 years ago for us to research on. We learned a lot about what engineers and scientists usually care about during the mission and what are the challenges for the Mars missions.

Lesson learned: Some information can be hard to access during the research phase. It’s important to know how to negotiate with stakeholders to work around the obstacle.


Expert Interviews

Primary research methods: 2 expert interviews

Google Lunar XPRIZE’s team +  Rover Engineer at JPL

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Findings: The factors they care the most about during the mission are:

  • Ensure the timing of the mission is right because there is a time difference between Earth and Mars

  • Interpret large volumes of data that the rover sends back

  • Collaborate with different kinds of scientists and engineers to make a decision

  • Guarantee the safety of the rover based on the terrain data and images around the rover

Outlined Design Requirements:

  • The design should show the condition of the devices on the rover.

  • The design should visualize terrain images and data.

  • The design should display the rover’s movement over time.

  • The design should allow the user to switch views based on image, temperature, and terrain.

Lessons learned:

  • Secondary research helped us to understand the context before the interview so that we can make the most out of expert interviews.

  • Experts usually express their expectations on the product or complaints with the current product, which is very helpful for defining the project.



1-day Team Design Sprint

Approach: 2 personas -> design sketches ->  storyboards -> 1 task list -> paper prototype + test plan

Goal: Generate design ideas and a simple prototype to validate the ideas

Lesson learned:

As a designer, it’s important to make sure everyone on the team is actively involved in the design ideation process. Debates and discussions during the brainstorm are extra safety nets to test the idea.


Prototype & Evaluation

Paper Prototype + Usability Study

Approach: 1 pilot usability study + 2 remote usability studies (on the graph it should explain why the usability studies are remote)

Result: Also in the picture show some quotes of feedbacks

Lesson Learned:

  • When the participant is an expert in the problem space, the study feedbacks are more high quality and justified. In this case, the pilot usability study helps to make the most out of the study.

  • Paper prototype is low cost, but also require extra effort during the usability study planning in order to get user feedback on the targeted aspects.


Finalizing & Delivering

Build Product in VR + Present to NASA JPL
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Approach: UI Design + Implementation in VR + NASA JPL Visit


Delivered a functional VR prototype in HTC VIVE and presented at NASA JPL HQ. We were chosen to be displayed on UW College of Engineering business cards.

Lesson Learned:

  • After the team outlined the project, very concrete evidence is needed to convince the team to make changes on the direction of the product.

  • Presenting to an engineering-oriented community like NASA is challenging. Instead of simple Q&As, back & forth conversations helped me learn more about their perspectives and feedbacks on the product.



Remember the key UX value

During ideation, I could not turn down my team’s idea of putting display panels in the VR prototype. But after researching existing VR games and software, I realized that the key UX value of VR is to allow interactions in a virtual environment that is impossible in the real world. Using the new learning, I convinced my team to think more about how to make the interactions more natural and intuitive.

Work with stakeholders

At the beginning of the project, we were stuck a lot because of limited resources and background knowledge. We didn’t think about asking our stakeholders at NASA JPL for help until we ran out of options. It turned out that most of the stakeholders I worked with, including JPL, are willing to help because they want the project to be successful. Through this project, I learned more about how to properly communicate with the stakeholders.

Design as a team

As the only designer on the team, I found that some team members might be reluctant to participate in the design process during the ideation phase due to a lot of reasons. That’s when I realized that my duty as a designer is not only to design but also to make sure everyone on the team can actively participate in the design decision-making process. During my experience in HCDE, I realized the more active everyone is during team brainstorming, the less likely that the team’s idea will encounter major problems.