We took a few months in the Spring of 2022 to really familiarize ourselves with the problems that astronauts will likely face in their personal relationships.
To do this, we approached our research through several streams, including user interviews, secondary research, a diary study, and a few speculative experiments.
Familiarizing ourselves with the space and technicalities.
Prior to setting up interviews, we dived deep into some secondary sources to get a better understanding of space travel’s impact on personal relationships. We looked at books, research papers, podcasts, news articles, and movies for inspiration.
This process helped us identify key NASA stakeholders involved in the Mars mission and gave us a passing familiarity with the space as we walked into interviews.
How do astronauts currently maintain relationships on the ISS, and how will that be different on the Mars mission?
In order to design for the Mars mission, we needed a deep understanding of the current state on the ISS as well as expert opinion on the future of space travel. To do this, we set up conversations with 18 NASA stakeholders. This included astronauts, analogous populations, behavioral psychologists, and technical experts.
Astronauts' consistent cognitive load often makes keeping in touch with loved ones more obligatory than meaningful.
Conversations with loved ones often become monotonous. This is monotony is exacerbated by the regimented routine of astronauts.
For astronauts, the small details of their lives are difficult to contextualize, leading to a feeling of disconnection and isolation.
Some artifacts we generated along the way
What do separated loved ones talk about, and what kinds of interactions do they find meaningful?
We wanted to get an understanding of what kinds of interaction separated partners found meaningful, so we conducted a 2 week long diary study with military service members in long distance relationships. Each day, we asked participants to recall an interaction they had with a separated loved one and to reflect on what made it meaningful.
Reflecting on how meaningful an interaction is inherently makes the interaction more meaningful.
Most reported interactions in long distance relationships relate to daily updates about everyday events.
Shared experiences – like activities, games, and date nights – make separated partners feel a sense of closeness.
How does extremely limiting communication constraints impact the content shared in messages?
A 40-minute time delay between communications is a key part of our problem statement, and so understanding its impact on communication was a crucial part of our research. To do this, we recruited long distance couples and asked them to only communicate twice a day for 3 days.
Under extreme communication constraints, messages often get longer, more detailed, and more cognitively demanding to respond to. The impact of these longer messages are especially relevant when you consider the high cognitive load astronauts already experience in their daily work.
Are the needs that we've identified true, and what are some solutions that can best address them?
From all these insights, we created several storyboards that represented different needs and solutions to test with users. This activity was intended to not only explore potential design directions, but to also validate if the needs we identified resonated with our users.
To narrow scope for our design direction, we defined 4 opportunities that would inform our ideation and design. These 4 opportunities are best understood as bolsters to relationships:
New experiences provide new opportunities to grow and connect.
Hearing and seeing loved ones make for more meaningful interactions.
Bonding over a common context fosters a sense of closeness.
Learning about the nuances of daily life makes people feel involved.