Viasat collaborates with university to improve product design for customers

Human-centered design is critical to ensuring good technological ideas make the successful leap to becoming truly useful human tools.


Five years ago, the fitness tracker was at best a novelty; for many, a curiosity typically mistaken for a watch. Today, the bracelet-like device is an easily identifiable part of modern society, so much so that the concept of getting 10,000 steps has segued from a dull doctor’s recommendation to daily watercooler talk. Why? The manufacturers created a user-friendly product that’s easily incorporated into everyday activities and whose benefits are easy to understand. That human-centered approach to design is vital to the success of any company – including Viasat – that produces services and products for consumers. Though Viasat is no stranger to human-centered design, it wants to expand the concept to all its future products and processes. To that end, Viasat recently donated $250,000 to The Design Lab at the University of California San Diego. UCSD is just down the coast from Viasat’s Carlsbad, CA headquarters, and two of Viasat’s founders – Steve Hart and Mark Miller – are UCSD alumni. The investment supports the lab’s Center for Design-Driven Transformation, a program that helps companies shift to a human-centered design approach, one that not only helps end users but eventually translates to a healthier bottom line. The center will collaborate with Viasat to help it infuse that approach throughout the organization. “It’s a win-win in that they are learning, too,” said Viasat’s Engineering Vice President Kristi Jaska, who worked with The Design Lab to coordinate the donation. “They get to be a fly on the wall, observing how we bring customer experience and human-centered thinking into our globalization process and building global products. And, of course, we will learn a lot from them.”

From tech to tools

Thinking this way is critical to ensuring technological ideas become useful tools. “Without human-centered design, you might have five engineers in a room technically figuring out very difficult problems and coming up with brilliant technical solutions. But even though it does amazing things inside the box, it may or may not be a good customer experience to use the product,” Jaska said, adding the best design considers all aspects of a customer’s interaction with an item. “It’s everything from what does the box look like when you buy it, how does it fit into the environment, is it complicated, is it difficult to sign up for?” Successful products are those with which people can easily engage without feeling outwitted by the technology. The question critical to human-centered design is not what the company needs from the product – often brisk sales and high returns – but what the customer needs from it. “For the companies that do it right, it’s the key differentiator between being super successful and just another me-too player in a particular market,” said Viasat’s Head of Product Design Pascal Marsch. As an example, Jaska pointed to Viasat’s Community Wi-Fi, a fast-growing way for people in remote areas to access the internet. To use it, people typically pay a store merchant to access the internet via their own device or a store-owned device. “When we think about human-centered design and Community Wi-Fi, we could think about what’s it like to use that hotspot. Do you go to the store and stand outside on the concrete in the rain? Or do you have a place to sit, even a nice place to sit – perhaps a comfortable chair?”

Across all products

Viasat is not new to this idea, but aims to incorporate it across the board. “We want to be thinking about the customer experience in the process of developing all our products,” said Viasat’s Director of Customer Experience Carminia Panlilio. “That way, we may be able to catch some things sooner. So as you’re doing (website) wireframes, maybe first think out how an interface will work on pen and paper; that’s less expensive than actually coding something in software and then figuring that it isn’t really easy to use and we have to re-do it. “The idea is to help us to get to a good customer experience more quickly and with less cost.” It’s a significant shift for companies like Viasat that started with – and continue to have – an engineering base. “As a primarily engineering company, Viasat has a vertical integration of many players that make the service what it is,” Jaska said. “So the question for us is, how do we bring more of that connection to the customer when you’re three or four layers removed from the customer? If you’re designing a back-ops or billing system, you still need to be thinking about how to make this a delightful experience for the customer.” The timing for the work is ideal. The first of three ViaSat-3 satellites that will provide global internet coverage is expected to provide service starting in 2021. And ViaSat-2 is already opening doors in Mexico and other countries. “We’re on the cusp of becoming a global company,” Jaska said. “The experience a customer has in the States might be very different even in Mexico and Brazil. So we need to be sure we’re thinking about those customers, and future customers around the world.”