Designing for Highly Specialized Usage Environments

Desiree Johnson

4 min read

Apr 26, 2017

Designing for Highly Specialized Usage Environments

Creating a user interface requires designers to make well-informed assumptions about the user and their environment. At Big Nerd Ranch, our design team backs up those assumptions by conducting research about the user’s environment, building the foundation on which user experience and user interface rest.

It’s important to take into account the user’s environment so that we can deliver a quality experience in every type of use case. In most scenarios, designers can make accurate assumptions about a user’s typical environment. However, highly specialized users and environments require us to rethink and reconstruct our knowledge of the situation.

I recently did just that when designing an iPad app that allows F-18 pilots to comfortably complete various in-flight tasks.

The User Experience Pyramid rests on environment

User Research is Key

To design a helpful, intuitive application for an F-18 pilot, I needed to know not only how the user’s environment would impact the experience, but also how this physical environment would impact the usage of the device itself.

I asked those who knew the situation best: the F-18 pilots themselves. I started by asking the pilots questions to better understand what they heard, saw, felt and thought while flying the F-18.

I discovered that pilots face a unique set of challenges during flight:

  • They cope with bright sunlight during day flights and pitch dark during night flights.
  • They face a limited range of movement within the cockpit.
  • They wear gloves and helmets that limit their ability to use an iPad.

With these restrictions in mind, I could create solutions to physical, real-world problems that pilots face when using an iPad during a flight.

Overcoming Limitations

If you’ve ever used an iPad in the sun, you know that the glare on the screen can make it impossible to see.

To overcome this problem, I adjusted the contrast ratio of the UI elements, but also addressed the physical element in a practical way: I suggested a glare-reducing screen for the iPad and that the pilots wear polarized sun visors. Because we carefully took into consideration the context in which the pilots would be using the app, these design decisions made viewing the iPad much easier.

Next, I needed to consider how the pilots’ gloves would interfere with their ability to interact with the iPad. Wearing capacitive gloves would permit the pilots to press buttons in the app, but they would not be able to input required notes while flying. This meant that a capacitive stylus was required.

From my environmental research, I knew that the stylus:

  • could not rely on a wireless WiFi or Bluetooth connection;
  • should not require charging; and
  • should have the ability to be tethered within the cockpit.

In short, the stylus needed to “just work,” even without power, and it needed to be tethered in order to prevent harm to critical aircraft components.

With these constraints in mind, I did some more research and found the best styluses in the market that met the users’ requirements and made it possible for them to use the iPad mid-flight.

Delivering on Client Needs

Without a solid understanding of the user’s needs and how their environment impacts use, it is difficult to deliver high-quality user experience for specialized use cases. But by taking into account the unique client needs and the environment in which the app would be used, we were able to overcome a number of challenges:

  • The iPad app had to be visible in both bright light and at night.
  • All components had to be tethered.
  • Pilots needed to be able to use a touchscreen while wearing gloves.
  • Important flight documents and maintenance information needed to be able to be reviewed and updated easily.
  • The app needed to provide user feedback to confirm that it worked even in noisy, vibrating conditions.

By doing the crucial research to understand the user’s environment, I had the opportunity to make design decisions that were key to making the app usable. We:

  • Delievered an app that gives user feedback through innovative UI animations.
  • Created a streamlined navigation and intuitive display that allows pilots to effectively enter data and find the information they need.
  • Built a design that works not just in daylight, but also in moonlit and night vision modes.
  • Suggested anti-glare screens and polarized lenses to prevent glare, further improving user experience.
  • Identified a stylus that will work effectively with the pilots’ gloves and stay tethered within the cockpit.

Does your new app need to work in unique circumstances? Is your current app not cutting it with your core user base? Our team is happy to provide a design solution that gives your users the best experience possible. Learn more about our app development and design solutions or get in touch with our sales team to see how Big Nerd Ranch can help.

Zack Simon

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Zack is an Experience Director on the Big Nerd Ranch design team and has worked on products for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 100s. Zack is passionate about customer experience strategy, helping designers grow in their career, and sharpening consulting and delivery practices.

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