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May 21, 201912:15 PMOpen Mic

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What working in Mission Control taught me about product development

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4. Make your users real.

Mission Control fills many roles in manned spaceflight. Most critically, they’re a last line of defense against losing astronauts when things start to go south. Crew safety, vehicle health, mission success — in that priority order. Challenger and Columbia are the failures. My very first NASA group lead demonstrated on STS-51F that sometimes Mission Control does save the day (see point No. 2 above)! I also advised getting to know astronauts on a personal level. Encounter astronauts as real people, not just as names. Real people in space make Mission Control’s role tangibly immediate. Likewise, a critical part of creating amazing products is making truly compelling user personas to help us understand use cases. Know what they care about, what need they’ll satisfy as users of the product you’re developing, and why it’s important to do the job right. I never wanted to let the crew down. I never want to let the user of a product I help develop down either.

5. Observe, listen, learn — soak it up!

There’s no better way to prepare for the role of a flight controller than sitting inside Mission Control at your console, experiencing someone doing the job. It’s how the culture is passed along. Another bit of my advice was to find any excuse, even if it means sacrificing some nights and weekends, to spend time immersed with people managing the ISS for real. In product development, the equivalent is ethnography, and it rests alongside point No. 4 about understanding your user. Observe users trying to do the task that you hope your new product makes easier. Absorb their pain. Understand their joy when things go right and they’re successful. Get inside their heads, learn their culture, their motivations, and anything else that might help you design a better next product. Then apply what you’ve learned.

There was plenty of other advice in my note to the student, but these five points do a pretty decent job of highlighting the surprising ways that Mission Control — surely the best job in the world — prepared me to help my current colleagues create kick-ass products that I hope make the world a little better. No spaceships, no headsets, but I still get to love what I do.

I hope the student has a great co-op tour, learns a lot, makes lifelong friends, and then eventually gets a chance to certify and do the best job in the world — for real.

Steve Cantley is director of innovation and advanced research for bb7, a Madison-based comprehensive design and product development firm.

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