Design Thinking for Aerospace Systems Innovations
Design thinking is a human-centered design philosophy that has grown to prominence out of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. One of the…
Design thinking is a human-centered design philosophy that has grown to prominence out of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. One of the primary features of design thinking is that it centers around users, how they feel, what they need, and how they do what they do. A key differentiator of design thinking to other innovation strategies is more than just the human centeredness — rather, it is the fact that it is not driven by a strategy but that the strategy falls out of the process to ensure that your strategy matches with your customer needs and wants. This will help guarantee that your product-development strategy is in line with the needs of your customer rather than looking for customers to fit your product line.
Currently, we are likely reaching a peak in design thinking, because, as a concept, it has already made the cover of the Harvard Business Review1. Design thinking is also widely used by many consumer-product–driven companies like Apple, which introduced design-thinking processes in 19972 and has since grown into the largest company in the world3. But how can a human-centered design philosophy improve systems that may never be seen or touched by a human after installation?
How Does Design Thinking Work?
Let’s take a look at how the design-thinking process works. In its general form, it is a five-stage development process that flows through stages of (1) empathy, (2) defining, (3) ideation, (4) prototyping, and (5) testing (Figure 1)4. The first steps of design thinking are where the human centeredness of the philosophy really comes out: We empathize with our users and define their problems before we ever begin dreaming up solutions. Although design thinking has five stages, it is important to understand that there are no hard lines between them; rather, all stages slightly overlap, and you will most likely iterate across all stages to produce a great design.
You can take those five stages and put them in two simpler phases — namely, (1) observe and understand and (2) ideate and refine. The stage of observing and understanding comprises the empathy and define stages — and this is one of the keys to design thinking. Before you build a solution, you must find, understand, and define the problem your design will solve. Another key insight you will take away by empathizing (the first step!) is that any constraints are discovered and defined during this observe and understand phase. By performing this step first, you reduce the iterations needed during the final design of a product, enabling you the time needed to find areas to add real value to your customers that competitors may miss if they start at the ideation stage.
The second phase, ideating and refining, comprises the ideate, prototype, and test phases of design thinking. Once you understand the people, systems, and environment that will be interacting with your design, as well as a fully defined problem and a set of constraints to solve, you will be on the path to generate the ideas to solve your problem. All three stages of this phase should be accomplished in an iterative fashion and should not be performed separately or completed entirely until you are nearing a final design.
The mantra of “fail early, fail often” can be a scary concept for any aerospace product, because we tend to think of failure as a loss of aircraft, loss-of-life situation, but it is important to keep in mind that this adage is intended to be applied during the ideation and refining phase of design thinking. During the ideating and refining phase, the more ideas that you can truly prototype and test will translate into added feedback, and, in time, a better understanding of how to solve a problem will emerge. Take a moment and stop to understand that, as an innovation process, design thinking happens prior to the final product development process, so the test stage is not meant to be qualification or certification testing; ideally, this stage of design thinking means testing the product or concept with customers, in their own environment, to ensure that a final design has all the proper input from its users/consumers.
So how can we apply these human-centered processes to aerospace systems innovation? Let’s go through the design-thinking process and observe how it plays out in aerospace systems.
Observe and Understand
The first stage is the empathy stage. In a traditional design-thinking project, we would concentrate on the consumer, or, at the very least, the person who will be using our product or service. For an aerospace system or its components, we must remember how important it is to observe where humans are touching our design. In particular, we have three areas where we can make a big impact by understanding how our parts are touched and manipulated: (1) manufacturing, (2) installation, and (3) repair. All three of these points are very often the only time that any human hands might touch our designs, but these points can also represent a large cost of the system to our customers or operators. This goes to the point that suppliers of systems often need to be cognizant of the fact that humans do indeed make the purchasing decisions, and oftentimes with the input of engineers and supplier management staff, so these are people for whom we should also be empathizing with as we go through the design-thinking process and systems development.
Now let’s look at what other systems are touching or interacting with our design; for some of us, it will be easier to understand how other subsystems or components are interacting on a physical level, but what about on a higher level, such as intentions and expectations? Many engineers might struggle to “anthropomorphize” inanimate objects, but doing so where we can could indeed add real value to our customer. For instance, if your component can reduce the work load on the next component because you understand what it really needs to operate, that reduction in complexity could add real value to both the original aircraft manufacturer and the aircraft operator.
The second stage of define can also be a bit difficult for aerospace engineers to understand because we are bombarded by an alphabet soup of definitions, particularly when it comes to our components or systems. There are RFIs and RFQs and SCDs, then there are standards and regulations and regulatory bodies, and the list continues ad nauseam. But, here’s what is important to remember: The design-thinking process of innovation should be occurring before our final product development, and the RFIs, RFQs, and SCDs — and a whole slew of other three-letter acronyms — are final product definitions. In this phase, these definitions are not part of the define stage as it relates to design thinking. It may be helpful to think of these all-too-recognizable acronyms as ways to define your constraints in a design-thinking project. In the setting of design thinking, the define phase is utilized as a method for observing the wider world — not just looking at what your system or component needs to do, but what the people and other systems who interact with our system need to do.
For example, think of logo lights on an aircraft. Most logo lights today are placed on the surface or the tip of the horizontal stabilizer to illuminate the livery of the airline. The airlines almost always select these optional lights because the lights allow them to advertise their airline to people in and around an airport. And , although no requirements exist for the lights from regulatory bodies, the US Federal Aviation Administration5 recommends in its in the Aeronautical Information Manual, section 4–3–23(e), that the logo light — along with other lights — be on “to signal intent to other pilots” when taxing or preparing to taxi. So, even though a simple definition of the logo lights would read “lights placed on horizontal stabilizer that will illuminate the empennage of the aircraft,” a better definition using design thinking would read something like “illumination of the airline logo.” Admittedly, the differences aren’t huge, but the implications can be. The first definition leads the solution (you will need to place some type of light on the horizontal stabilizer), whereas the second definition leaves the solution much more open, even allowing for some type of LED backlighting on the tail section itself.
Ideate and Refine
The next three stages of a design-thinking project — ideation, prototyping, and testing — are practices much more familiar to most engineers. The important thing to remember during the ideation and refining phase is that failure is not only an option but is actually encouraged. For example, if you prototype a new two-handed control surface and discover during testing that it would require the operator to have a third hand because during a specific phase of flight one of his hands must be used to operate another control, you will have potentially saved money and time by exploring this issue prior to its final product development and qualification testing — or worse, during design deployment.
The first of these phases, ideation, is not that different from the ideation processes commonly in use in aerospace today — the main exception being the overlapping and iterative nature of design thinking that could have you going back and redefining your problem or constraint space as ideas are brought forward, prototyped, and tested. Some of the real insights that can be gained during the ideation stage can be obtained by avoiding the killing of ideas too soon, instead allowing them to be tested or at least built upon. Another method of gleaning interesting solutions is to observe adjacent markets to your own. Let’s turn back to the logo lights. Think of adjacent markets for that problem: they could involve billboards, taxi roof signs, or light shows at popular landmarks like Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower.
Typically to aerospace engineers, prototyping tends to be the most familiar of the design-thinking stages, because computer-aided design modeling is a form of prototyping; oftentimes, we also have access to tools such as three-dimensional printing or a machine shop to visualize our products in their physical forms. Lest we forget, too, about the growing industry of virtual-reality modeling, which could allow us to travel through a fuel system to better understand how it operates.
But the design-thinking process emphasizes even faster methods, such as using the minimum viable product strategy: What is the cheapest and fastest prototype you can build to receive meaningful feedback? Oftentimes this can make our prototypes look like they belong in a kindergarten, because we might be using pipe cleaners, cardboard, or even papier-mâché. And why not? Sometimes a child can get more out of the box a gift came in than the gift itself because a box can be anything.
This leads us naturally into the final stage of a design-thinking project, which is the testing phase. In a similar vein, a cardboard prototype can be quickly modified based on instantaneous feedback. Even more to the point is that a tester, by human nature, might be more open to suggestions when a prototype only took her 10 minutes to make and a testee is more likely to give open feedback on something that is clearly not done yet. The primary takeaway of testing in a design-thinking project is that, as much as possible, we must perform our testing with the end user in the end user’s own environment. To that end, many aerospace companies have full-size mock-ups for testing purposes, but the environment can be lost when the cockpit is inside an air-conditioned building rather than on an airport ramp in the middle of the night at Kangerlussuaq Airport in Greenland when it’s –25 °C outside.
You don’t need to wait for the beginning of a project to start applying design thinking within your group. You just need to start applying the lessons of design thinking into your current project. To get a jump start, use these simple tools that follow.
Empathy maps and profiles are the first set of tools in the design-thinking repertoire, and are generally considered the most basic. Any empathy map is a simple collection of observations and feedback from users — namely, the map asks questions: What do they (1) think and feel, (2) hear, (3) see, (4) say and do, and (5) what are their pains and gains (Figure 2). Many important insights can come from what your users say they do as opposed to what they actually do, so make special note of these incidences/divergences.
Once you have a collection of empathy maps, you can build an empathy profile of a composite user. This “user” will be what grounds your designs. Any time you are developing a feature or making a change, ask how will this affect the “user” — remembering, of course, that a “user” can be either a person or an interacting subsystem or component.
Most people think of movie production in regards to storyboarding, which is drawing out all the scenes of a movie, and the scenes are then displayed on a wall for everyone to see the bigger picture (Figure 3). With the design-thinking model, storyboarding is basically used for the same purpose. Build a storyboard that takes your product from cradle to grave, and move your empathy profile “user” through the storyboard, or multiple “users” as the characters change over the life cycle of a product. Utilize real pictures, sketches, and descriptions as part of your storyboard.
Product Life Journey Map
A product life journey map builds off of the information from your storyboards to give you a larger picture of a product’s path and its interaction points with users, subsystems, and, perhaps, its locations. It should look similar to a mass-transit style map of your product (Figure 4). Its interaction points are like the transit stations along its life. You will also build out the journey — or at least small sections — of the users and other components that interact with it so that you will be left with a larger picture than what your storyboard gave you.
For example, if your system requires a 6-month inspection, you would draw out the journey line of the inspector prior to and after the inspection of your system. What system does he/she check prior to yours, and what tools will he/she have for that system? Draw that same mapping on that system inspection after and before your system. If you can reduce the number of trips back to the shop between system inspections by using the same tools, you can add value to your end user.
The key takeaway to design thinking is discovery. It equips us with the process and tools to understand a set of requirements, understand our users and their environments in order to discover the problem to be solved. That is how we create lasting solutions that add real value for our customers. In the end, innovations are more than just ideas—they are the creation of value from those ideas.
Harvard Business Review. Published September 2015. https://hbr.org/archive-toc/BR1509. Accessed April 16, 2018.
Elmansy R. Design thinking case study: innovation at Apple. http://www.designorate.com/design-thinking-case-study-innovation-at-apple. Accessed April 16, 2018.
Gandel S. These are the 10 most valuable companies in the Fortune 500. Published February 4, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/02/04/most-valuable-companies-fortune-500-apple. Accessed April 16, 2018.
Stanford University. Bootcamp bootleg. https://dschool.stanford.edu/s/METHODCARDS-v3-slim.pdf. Accessed April 16, 2018.
US Department of Transportation; Federal Aviation Administration. Aeronautical Information Manual: Official Guide to Basic Flight Information and ATC Procedures. Published April 3, 2014. https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/media/aim_basic_4-03-14.pdf. Accessed February 1, 2017.