Helping Aircraft Maintainers to Identify & Rectify Faults in Record Time

Unlocking user perspectives for better services

In any organisation, people from different departments often hold diverse perspectives on the same problem, which is why understanding the viewpoints of our end users is so important when providing services.

Recently, I stepped in to help a team who had won the trust and support of their client by prioritising, implementing, demonstrating and discarding various features of a new service. However, the end users of the service were going to be aircraft technicians, not the client.

Cultivating design culture

This was the team’s first collaboration with a UX Researcher, and it became my responsibility to implement a strong design culture (enter the Double Diamond!) and show them my role extended beyond merely creating visually appealing mock-ups.

My first task was to gain permission to conduct ethnographic research with the end users at their place of work. Then, I accompanied the development team to the airfield, where we lived and worked closely with the support staff, fostering a deeper understanding of their needs and experiences.

Building trust through empathetic UX research

To build trust, my approach is to prioritise interviewing influential individuals first. My UX research methodology combines a pre-planned set of probe questions with techniques such as self-disclosure, open-ended questioning, and active listening. This approach creates a safe and open space, fostering trust with the participants. Recognising the value of our research, they offered to personally escort our team around the airfield and made sure that people were available for us to observe and interview.

I conducted in-depth interviews with individuals, encouraging them to provide detailed accounts of their functional and social responsibilities, as well as their positive and negative experiences. Throughout the interviews, I used prompts and clarification questions as needed, allowing participants the freedom to elaborate on topics of their choosing.

Immerse, understand, connect

For three days, the team fully immersed themselves in the end users world. We closely shadowed personnel around the clock, observing and documenting their activities, processes and procedures. Throughout the study we traced the flow of data through various systems and individuals. We identified data storage locations, access permissions, responsible parties, and how they used the information. Additionally, we meticulously recorded the duration of each stage of the process.

Insights, ideation & innovative solutions

To analyse the interview data, I followed the six-phase thematic analysis method described by Braun and Clarke (2006), employing ‘bracketing’ to minimise personal bias. This rigorous approach yielded prominent themes and deepened our understanding of the end users work culture.

We identified that aircraft data was used by two distinct user groups: Maintainers, those who use the data for fault identification and rectification, and Trainers, those who use the data for flight training and de-briefing.

The team used ‘How might we…’ questions to spark ideation, and I facilitated the process using a combination of techniques, including ‘crazy 8’s’ to generate a wide array of solutions and the ’round-robin’ method to converge on the most promising features and designs.

We employed affinity mapping to group similar concepts that emerged from our user research and ideation sessions. By visually mapping out related ideas and themes, we were able to identify where we might create value for the most end users.

Bringing our ideas to life

Our primary goal was to streamline the processing of aircraft data and incorporate valuable insights into the post-flight debrief within an hour of landing.

We identified and implemented three key features into a high-fidelity prototype:

  1. Automating data ingestion from the air vehicle to speed up the time taken for data to be available for analysis 
  2. Creating graphical displays of multiple parameters over time to reveal patterns and highlight issues
  3. Integrating the flight path onto a map alongside chronological events so that pilots could see what they were doing when problems occurred

Triumph over the incumbent

We compared our prototype against the incumbent tool and successfully demonstrated that data processing time could be reduced to just 8 minutes. Flight service engineers evaluated the incumbent tool as ‘Poor’ and rated our prototype as ‘Excellent’ using the System Usability Scale (Brooke, 1986). The positive feedback from the assessment confirmed that our solution “would be an absolutely fantastic tool to have after a flight.”