The PSC case-studies: entry

Case Study: User journeys to understand civil users’ needs to track space debris

The UK Space Agency asked us to help them understand an incredibly interesting area: what do civil (i.e. – non-military) users need in the way of information about objects in space?

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More and more people are interested in this! Firstly, there are increasing numbers of companies capable of launching and operating satellites: the UK has several great firms working in this area, all of whom need to know if something is about to crash into their incredibly expensive kit. But there are also insurers who are being asked to insure these satellites. And there are academics who can use the information for studies.

Case Study: User journeys to understand civil users’ needs to track space debris

Space pollution image credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, photo gallery, Public Domain

But what are all these objects in space?

Well - I’m afraid this is a slightly sorry tale.

Although there are a fair few meteorites and other natural objects, the problem is almost entirely human-made. As well as 70 years of simply discarding used rocket bodies, there are hundreds of thousands of small pieces of debris, all whizzing around at 11 km per second. In some instances these can be traced to specific incidents: in 2007 China carried out an anti-satellite missile test which alone created up to 150,000 particles. In 2009, two Russian satellites collided and created another 2,000 pieces of debris.

The website Stuff in space gives an excellent picture of the scale of the problem and the different orbits which it affects.

So space is pretty big and we are not yet at the stage where it is unusable, but space is getting more congested – particularly at orbits close to the earth where most satellites are. 

What are the benefits of all this debris in space?

There are no known benefits to debris in space. Insuring against crashes and avoiding crashes are pure costs. Keeping your satellite clear of random pieces of junk is difficult, expensive, and it takes up valuable time and energy. If the skies were clear, you could spend all that time and money on doing something more productive.

Unfortunately then, the pollution which we humans have brought to space, particularly close to the earth, has created a serious problem for ourselves. There are solutions in train here, but they are slow, not everyone agrees with them, and certainly no-one massively wants to pay for them. Why should one business clear up after another? Let alone after a state actor?

Our satellites will therefore be avoiding junk for some years to come.

How did we go about discovering the needs of users?

Although the top line was pretty clear – as someone interested in a satellite, I need it not to crash into anything, so that I haven’t wasted several years of my life – the detail was much harder to get to. What information do operators need to stop this crash happening, and when do they need it by? What information do insurers need to price risk fairly?

The PSC applied agile techniques to try and solve this extra-terrestrial problem.

We started with that most basic, and yet most important of skills: going to speak to users and potential users, and listening to them. Where possible we visited people in person, trekking around the country including visiting stakeholders near the Diamond Light Centre in Harwell. And since the Government Digital Service has had us all listening to our users since 2014, there was a large amount of existing material we were able to read and research – giving us some really good quality insights into what our different user groups needed.

Converting all this information into user journeys

From there we moved onto our second agile tool: user journeys. Like most digital professionals, we have a long background in drawing user journeys; and normally these are a set of rectangles linked with arrows, and maybe a smiley face to signify a successful journey.

In the space surveillance field, we had to develop journeys in ways that were entirely new to us. Our users were all performing highly technical operations, all of which were very different from each other. Each user journey had to be carefully constructed to capture what our users were trying to do and where the problems were:

This archive shot of people sitting next to each other (dated to early 2020) shows us trying to boil down our interview notes into journeys. In each instance we had to ‘pair-programme’ the journeys: two people co-designed the diagram, working closely with our notes to make sure we had captured the journey correctly.

The pen-drawn draft of one of our user’s journeys with green marks where we marked each others’ work. At this stage, they went through a further validation process before being checked with our users.

How did the user journeys help?

User journeys are almost always very valuable tools:

  • They capture the whole journey for users – including when people have spent 15 hours doing some preparation before they even begin to engage with your service
  • They force you to break down journeys into logical steps, which is the starting point for software engineering. They can help us to bridge the gap between lived experience and a helpful, robust product.
  • They are a brilliant communications device that helps everyone understand what our users are trying to do.

In this instance, boiling down the complexity of scientific operations into their most crucial steps - combined with their rock-solid foundation in research and re-validation with users - meant we could be extremely confident we had captured the needs of civil users for space surveillance and tracking information.

This allowed us to take an extra step: we could clearly see where those needs were being met and where they weren’t. The user journeys helped us discuss how existing product ideas could be improved and which new ideas should be explored.

As we neared the end of this project, the Covid-19 lockdown began! We will shortly write about how we coped with that – but in the meantime, get in touch if you have found user journeys valuable in unusual situations, or even if you have reached places where they didn’t help!

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