Podcast: A look at Viasat’s focus on human-centered design

Viasat VP of Engineering Kristi Jaska on the application of human-centered design element throughout Viasat’s products and services


Kristi Jaska, Viasat’s VP of Engineering, has deep ties to the company and has been instrumental in developing many of its products. She’s been helping guide the company’s focus on human-centered design — a concept that emphasizes creating products and services that are meaningful, intuitive, and pleasant for people to use.

This means considering not only function – often the primary goal of engineers – but also focus on customers, their needs, and providing meaningful solutions delivered through well-crafted products and services. Jaska stresses the advantage of starting the creation of any product or service with all of this in mind, instead of considering usability later in the development process. Human-centered design also helps guide decisions about which products or services to create.

She also discusses how Viasat is working internally and through a partnership with UC San Diego toward a future aimed at consistently exceeding customer expectations across the Viasat business segments.


Alex Miller: Hello and welcome to the Viasat in Conversation podcast. I’m Alex Miller with corporate communications. And with me today is Kristi Jaska, the vice president of engineering here at Viasat. So Kristi, thanks for joining us today. Great to have you here. There’s been a lot of interest to have you on the podcast because we’re intrigued about Viasat’s role in the area of human-centered design. In fact last November Viasat announced a donation to UC San Diego to help researchers provide guidance to engineering organizations on ways to implement that human centered design thinking approach to drive global and social impacts. So to kick it off, I just wanted to ask can you: Describe what do we mean when we’re talking about human centered design.

Kristi Jaska: Absolutely. Well in fact we’re writing a guide for Viasat on human centered design and what does it mean to do human centered design at Viasat and I’ll actually read the first sentence of that and then talk about it a little bit. So human centered design is a field that helps us focus our efforts on actual problems and needs that real people face and then guides us to provide meaningful solutions delivered through well-crafted products and services. And you mentioned UC San Diego and the design lab there they are helping us write this guide and I think that sentence came right from them. So human centered design encompasses everything from trying to figure out what problem are we really trying to solve. How should we solve it. And what’s a good design to solve it? It can apply to our physical products for example for our satellite internet, our satellite modems. What are the buttons and the lights and the connectors and do they make sense? It can apply to digital products for example a human experience in using a website or an app. And indeed it can apply to entire service experiences for example. What is it like to use our Internet service on an airplane? Everything from getting connected in the first place to using it. Some words that are often associated with human centered design are user experience or US that’s often focused on digital products. First and foremost does this digital product do what it needs to do to help the user with something? And then how easy and intuitive is it to use to download to navigate the tabs? Does it stall et cetera. Other terms kind of associated with this are customer experience -- CX -- which is a little broader than UX, and that deals with all the interactions that a customer might have with our product. For example we’re deploying Internet hotspots mostly internationally where people come to a site to use the Internet and what is it like to use the Internet there? Do you have to for example stand outside on a slab of concrete or can you go under cover of a roof and maybe even have a comfortable chair to sit on? So what is the entire customer experience with our product. So I think I hope that gives you a good idea of what we mean by human centered design.

Alex Miller: Yeah I think you know we all intuitively know what that is. We all have all had experiences with things that don’t work very well and and things that do work really well. So it’s it’s a it’s very important part of the customer experience but I think it might be fair to say that the better the experience is the simpler it is and also maybe the simpler it is, it was probably that much harder for the company to create that thing to make it simple. Is that pretty accurate?

Kristi Jaska: Well absolutely as they say it’s harder to write a short paper than a long one right. So you really have to think about what’s most important to the end user and putting in a lot of extra bells and whistles does not necessarily make it a better product right.

Alex Miller: So going to the processes that go into creating a good human centered design Why what are some of the challenges why why is it so difficult.

Kristi Jaska: Well you know sometimes it can be challenging to come up with a good design for something as we discussed -- writing that short book or making it simple. But even more fundamentally sometimes I see companies run into other challenges. One is that they didn’t even bring in design or didn’t bring it in early enough. And the other is kind of involved with the skill and practice of design. So on the first one bringing in design in the first place. You know, I’m an engineer and so sometimes we have five engineers in a room designing a product but we sometimes think of the technical challenges and we come up with brilliant solutions to solve really hard problems but sometimes we don’t look enough at what it is like to use that end product where our solution is buried somewhere. Solving that hard technical problem. And so just just the bringing in designers from the beginning of the product design cycle is one important challenge and the other is as I mentioned the skill and practice of design. We have really brilliant front end developers i.e. those people who write the code to implement an app or a user interface for example for a digital product. And they are really really good at coding but when they look at the designs that our designers come up with for that app or that web interface they say wow you know I wouldn’t have thought of that. And so you know there are people who are educated and also practiced in design and it’s not something that you can just do right away without that education and practice. And so another challenge is just making sure that you bring in the designers for their art.

Alex Miller: And is that something that’s relatively new at Viasat recently to kind of get that sort of integrated approach.

Kristi Jaska: Well I think in some areas we’ve been doing this for quite a while but not in all areas and so we are working hard at bringing that approach of a designer working with a technical person or an engineer from the very beginning of the product lifecycle. So we’re working on getting more of that at Viasat.

Alex Miller: So let’s talk a little bit about what these what sort of successes look like -- maybe like which companies are leading the way in this area and what can we learn from them.

Kristi Jaska: You know I think the classic example is the Apple iPhone. You know that everyone brings up for a simple elegant design that that does what you need it to do. But really once you start thinking about design it’s really interesting to look around at examples in your everyday world. You know from the good to the bad and really learn from those. Don Norman who runs the design lab at UCSD has a video called The Norman doors on the Internet and it’s a door where you walk up to the door and you think you’re supposed to push but really your supposed to pull so you kind of jam into the door and it’s kind of abrupt and then you figure out oh I’m supposed to pull it instead. That’s not a great design. It’s not intuitive on how you’re supposed to use the door. For us, it’s just very interesting to look around at websites and apps at physical products and experiences and start noticing the good and the bad and learn from that.

Alex Miller: Right. That’s one of the nice things about working in the digital world it’s really easy to compare all kinds of different websites and apps and see what you like see what works well and maybe you know use that as inspiration.

Kristi Jaska: Yeah but also beyond that, beyond looking at examples in the everyday world, we do have people who have practiced at that art who have learned about design and that’s also a key ingredient.

Alex Miller: You know another component to this this kind of design is aesthetics or for lack of a better word just some some things just look cool and they’re kind of fun to use. You know whether it’s just a website or an app or whatever and I think people really respond to that and they’ll you know they’ll like a product better if it’s not only easy to use but it’s kind of a little bit fun. So is intuitive function and use just as important as you know that ease and how do you strike the balance between like you know it working well and it being kind of simple?

Kristi Jaska: Yeah. I mean I think ease and intuitive function is a fundamental part of the beauty of the product. But also for human centered design, you know there or and customer experience and user experience. Some people think that it’s something you do at the end. So okay we figured out this product we figure it out what it’s supposed to do and we’ve we’ve already built it. And oh now let’s say it’s again it’s a digital product. Oh now designer can you make this look good? And that’s way too late. So really human centered design as we practice it and as the world practice it starts really at the very conceptual stage - the strategy stage. What is the right problem to solve. You know there have been companies who have built the wrong product because they didn’t really get to the fundamental root of what that product should do. So really research finding out more about the potential users of the product and what problems are they looking to solve. And by the way problems that you’re looking to solve is our way of saying ... for example a chair is solving the problem of someone not having to stand at a meeting. And so that’s what we mean by problems we’re looking to solve. Anyway there’s the strategy what’s the right problem to solve, the research, customer journey maps and service blueprints. What is the experience in using the product or service? Wire frames for digital design, prototypes and mockups. How do you easily navigate through the pages. So it’s intuitive and you don’t have to tear your hair out looking for a certain function say on a website. And then all the way down to the final visual design which should be both functional and beautiful.

Kristi Jaska: When you’re thinking about going down this path is it more expensive to make something that’s easy to use or design friendly and technologically smart or is it just require a shift in thinking from the start?

Kristi Jaska: Interesting. Well I mean you do need to include designers as part of the team and I mentioned a whole wide range of design starting from strategy all the way down to the visual design. There is a cost in including those people but the overall total cost I believe is always less expensive. If you look at the whole life of the product. I mean first of all are you even building the right product? It’s very expensive to go develop something and then realize that you didn’t really build the right product to solve the customer problems. If design thinking helps you build more innovative versus just incremental products more people may buy the product if it’s obviously easy to use. There may be less returns of the product or less cancellations of the service. If the product is actually a service. Less calls to customer support -- if it’s easier and more pleasant to use people will keep using it. And so again if you look at the overall cost I believe it’s always less expensive to employ designers and to think about human centered design from the get go.

Alex Miller: Let’s talk a little bit about the you know the people here at Viasat -- the design team. Is it important to bring in people with different technical skill sets and backgrounds and personalities to make this kind of thing happen?

Kristi Jaska: Oh yes. Some designers may be computer scientists by degree or by education certainly or other technical degrees but we often find that designers, boy, there’s a whole range of degrees that you may have studied in school or in postgraduate degrees that may include industrial design, visual design graphic design, multimedia design, fine arts, interaction design, human computer interaction, and even areas such as cognitive science or psychology. You know we’ve already talked about there’s many levels of work in design starting from the strategy all the way down to the visual design and so there’s different ... there’s some people that do all levels but others specialize in one or more of the areas and so the degrees on the experience can be quite varied. But I would say they’re definitely beyond just engineering degrees.

Alex Miller: So sounds like assembling the right team is probably a big a big part of the challenge right up front.

Kristi Jaska: Yeah absolutely.

Alex Miller: And when you are looking at different kinds of products and services here at Viasat I’m assuming there’s different teams that are kind of specialized in different things -- is that the way it works?

Kristi Jaska: What we do is we try to form cohesive product teams with the product manager and then a product designer and then a technology or engineering person. And there may be more than one there’s generally more than one product designer and technology engineering person but they they work together on a team often spending time in a product design lab together working very closely to develop the product from beginning through the first release. And by the way it doesn’t end at the first release right. You learn things from the field you always have roadmaps that you continue developing and evolving the product both in terms of features that you know that you need to add and things you learn from the field and you know so therefore need to change and the product as time goes on. And so you bring together a team of people with these diverse backgrounds and have them worked together for some extended period to develop the product and field it and then keep it going.

Alex Miller: Great. Well you know I was thinking a little bit about Viasat as we expand globally. I want to ask you a little bit about how that’s going to impact our design thinking, so when you think about different cultures different languages you know how does that influence our design practices?

Kristi Jaska: Oh absolutely. So I was an early employee at my site and I can say that this is a really exciting time in our journey going global with our Internet service and related products and human centered design will be a really big part of being able to offer delightful products around the world. So we will have slightly different versions of our products and services and interfaces in different countries and areas. Obviously there’s differences in language and currency but also possibly in how the interfaces are presented and even and what kinds of products and services are most needed in a given country or region. So our designs are informed from local research which includes employees and consultants who are local to the region and country.

Alex Miller: So are their product and service areas within our business today where we’re approaching this design philosophy first. Like some examples.

Kristi Jaska: Yeah. You know we’re a relatively big company and we have many products and services and we have been doing this for a while for some of our products. But we are working on expanding our capability here and working on doing much more in terms of human centered design now.

Alex Miller: I was thinking of the wireless gateway that we have in homes now. That’s that pyramid shaped thing that looks very different from other companies’ routers or modems that are on the market.

Kristi Jaska: Yeah. And so that is our satellite modem and it is a triangle shape which is very unusual compared to even our past products and other similar Internet modems that are out in the field. We think it looks nice but there are some practical reasons, there’s some functional reasons for the shape that it is which is the air ventilation that’s needed for the product. We found that with a more standard shaped product sometimes people would pile books and other things on our modem which would inhibit the air ventilation. And on a triangle on the tip of a triangle you really can’t put books. So it’s both functional and maybe maybe a little more interesting.

Alex Miller: So Kristi are there other products or service areas at Viasat where we’re approaching this design philosophy. First.

Kristi Jaska: We talked about our products and the products that Viasat customers might be able to buy or subscribe to. But it’s interesting that the concepts can be also used by other organizations you know within a business. For example at Viasat our human resources looks at human centered design and is looking at how to improve the experience of people interviewing here. Or our facilities department is really looking at human centered design on how we use our spaces for collaboration yet quiet private thinking and they’ve learned from each new building that we build they’ve learned and they’re improving and they’re really thinking about our employee human experience within our building. So I think that’s really cool that we apply these concepts in our internal organizations. In addition to the products that were designing and building but overall I think human centered design in addition to our excellent engineering will make really delightful products that will serve people all over the world. And I’m really excited about that.

Alex Miller: All right well Kristi, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us. We look forward to seeing how these products will look when they become available.

Kristi Jaska: Fantastic. I enjoyed speaking with you.

Read more about Viasat, human-centered design and our partnership with UCSD