Product Design & Data Science at The Boeing Company


Product Design & Data Science at The Boeing Company

Author: Ben Libby, Creative Director, Bear Notch Studio
Contributing Author: Liz Juhnke, Product Designer & Data Scientist, The Boeing Company
Editor: Kathy Bizzoco, Green Frog Publishing

The first airplane successfully flown 115-years-ago by Wilbur and Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina has always inspired me. To this day, inventors and engineers are still pushing aerodynamics to the limit with modern aircraft that ultimately provide safe transport from airport to airport. Not all landings go smoothly; I witnessed some terrifying landings in Germany due to crosswinds. How do pilots combat that? Integrated but complex interface systems and user/computer experience.

“Boeing has some of the most complex systems in the world. And for a good reason—hundreds of thousands of human lives are in our hands every day.”

— Liz Juhnke, Data Scientist & Product Designer, Boeing

Today, I have the absolute pleasure of chatting with Liz Juhnke, the Senior Product Designer and Data Scientist for The Boeing Company.

[Bear Notch Studio]: You absolutely love what you do. How did you get started? How long have you been doing it? Were you a nerd in high school?

[Liz Juhnke]: I’ve always loved computers. In high school, I was the co-editor-in-chief for the yearbook, and I digitally cut all the music for my drill team (upgrading us from cassettes). I went into college intent on studying oncology, but chemistry quickly weeded me out. Next, I tried computer science. I understood the concepts but didn’t quite feel like I fit in. Then, I tried Informatics. As luck would have it, I found my people. We are the extroverted engineers.

I was attracted to the technology aspect and how Informatics focuses on people and how they think. While I’ve learned over 10 different programming languages, I don’t particularly love coding. I would rather be talking with real people about their problems and needs, and visually validating solutions.

[BNS]: Data science and designer infographics go really well together. Have you ever given data science to a graphic designer so he/she could build/design an infographic?

[LJ]: Hmmm, well, Data Science and User Centered Design (UCD) skills do go hand in hand. I’ve been uniquely fortunate to study both. UCD skills help build context around a user population and a problem. Assuming that you have access to related data, the data science methods help you more quickly come to insights and/or recommendations about something. However, it’s only worth spending the time and money if you’re going to take action on the results.

If I were on a business operations team, it would definitely be good to work with someone who has an eye for design to make sure the business information I was providing was coming across as accurate, easy to read, and unbiased. The value of combining the two disciplines is more about what the data is saying and that it’s easily understood.

In my line of work, I work closely with data scientists to develop features. Consider the Amazon “recommended items for you” feature. Data Science works on figuring out what items are related to the product you’re looking at. It’s my job to figure out how you would best recognize and understand those recommendations, and how you could most easily take action (purchase!).

[BNS]: Human Computer Interaction (HCI)—do you think there are two different sides of this, such as one part being the psychology behind the interface and the other visuals that stimulate the brain?

[LJ]: Essentially! Psychology is the study of the mind—how humans understand and interact with the world. The mind dictates user behavior, motivation, emotion, reaction, perception, and on and on! HCI takes this study and applies it to all things technology. The user’s mental models are shaped by the user's past experiences and learning. All of these fascinating user characteristics is what UX professionals seek to understand! When I put a design in front of you, I'm using a visual to validate my assumptions about your expectations. I am seeking to learn your problems, needs, and triggers for action. I am seeking to understand what will motivate you to choose my particular call to action. Visuals are more than just pretty pictures that stimulate the brain. Visuals are a huge part of this quest because they bring teams to a shared understanding of a solution. Prototypes are so powerful because we are talking about something concrete, and iterating on it together based on our own ideas instead of talking at each other abstractly.

[BNS]: What’s one insanely complicated design challenge you faced (that’s not confidential), how did you approach it, and what were the results?

[LJ]: Boeing has some of the most complex systems in the world. And for a good reason—hundreds of thousands of human lives are in our hands every day. I am fortunate to be able to sink my teeth into some really high visibility engineering challenges with the best folks. It’s been an awesomely diverse range of projects too, from standard web apps to RFID scanners and HoloLens concepts.

A recent design challenge was for the safety of our mechanics at the Delivery Centers, where finishing touches are put on our beautiful planes, and loose ends are tied. This means they could be working on literally any system. They are also working in one of the most hazardous environments in the world—a powered plane. If you imagine what it would take to replace the garbage disposal in your house by yourself, you have an idea of what our mechanics might be tasked with day-to-day.  

I was asked to help evaluate the safety of our Lock Out Tag Out Try Out (LOTO) program. This rigorous process ensures that the plane can be fully powered so that some mechanics can work/test in one area of the plane, while other systems are “de-energized” so other mechanics can work on other areas safely. Needless to say, it’s complicated! I gave a paper at MIT last year on our evaluation process using STPA. All rigorous processes come with cognitive friction, so I set out with my team to discover what was causing the friction and how we could minimize it.

Observation is king. Step one is always to understand your end user’s environment, tasks, and concerns. I brought a user-centered aspect to the safety analysis. During the research study, I was also tasked with hosting monthly check-ins with the LOTO focals. This ended up being an excellent forum for focals to bring up concerns in a safe place. This feedback ultimately helped me build trust with the mechanics that would later evolve into user adoption of the prototype we built for them to manage production operations better!

[BNS]: You’ve been with Boeing for a long time, have you picked out your favorite airplane they’ve produced over the years? (I’m totally going with the B-2 Stealth Bomber, I want a ride someday.) When you retire, do you think Boeing will let you take home one of their airplanes (if you had room in your garage)?

[LJ]: Haha. Yes, eight years has really flown by! I love summers in Seattle, and during Seafair, the Blue Angels always put on an amazing show. Top Gun is also one of my favorite movies. So naturally, the F-18 is one of my favorite products. I hate to “choose sides” amongst our commercial fleet because they are all amazing planes, but I really love the 787. The Hazardous Energy project allowed me to spend a lot of quality time with the mechanics and the planes. On the 787, almost all of the circuit breakers are digital—accessed from the flight deck with computer-like, multi-function displays. 787s are also really impressive with electronically dimmable windows.

[BNS]: For those wanting to get into Human-Computer Interaction and User Experience, what would your advice be? Any great books that you have on your shelf?

[LJ]: The Bible for the Boeing Product Design practice right now is Lean UX. During the past year, we’ve put an extra focus on lean design and doing just the right amount of design and research. It’s been a challenge for me being classically trained in whole systems design. However, it’s helping me to laser focus on listening to users and making sure that the feedback and ideas are coming from their side of the screen. Other books we love: Communicating the UX Vision, Just Enough Research, Don’t Make Me Think, Start with Why, Creative Confidence (also David Kelley's TED talk is amazing).

If you’re just starting college and think this might be a possible career, check out the Informatics program at UW or a similar school. If you like computers and people, telling stories, drawing and communicating visually; if you are fascinated with how the mind works, how people interact with technology and how you might be able to make people’s lives easier—this might be the career for you. Alternatively, some aspects of the job, which David Kelley mentions in Creative Confidence, are scary: working in the messy unknown, talking to strangers, losing control of what you want in favor of what end users need, public speaking, being artistic, creative, and sharing incomplete work. If these are situations where you would not run out the door screaming, you might be able to thrive in this job!

Things I’m doing to build my design career—engaging with my peers on the Seattle Designers Slack channel, following a lot of companies and colleagues who post great articles on LinkedIn, and attending local meetups (my favorite is the Design Thinking Seattle Meetup)

So many great opportunities for Product Designers are out there right now. If you are seeking that dream job, make sure to verify that it aligns with your core design values. For me, right now, a fulfilling job looks like making end users more productive, faster, smarter and happier through productivity tools. I believe my fulfillment comes from building great relationships and delighting users. Delight is a Zen state that few designers stick around long enough to achieve—delight is a state far past useful and usable that most product managers fail to prioritize because those features are not “must haves.” We are advocates for the end users. No one else will advocate for delight.

Thank you for encouraging my behavior.

Liz Juhnke is a recognized thought leader in human-computer interaction and mobile design. Her specialty is making interfaces invisible, deciphering user expectations and managing emotions. At present, Liz is focusing on growing the user experience capability at Boeing by pairing with product designers from around the company to collaborate on designs in their new Digital Transformation Environment. She also leads the Boeing User Experience Community of Excellence, hosting monthly learnings and community usability consultations. She has delivered numerous web and mobile productivity tools and facilitated many “Design Thinking Workshops” for teams across major Boeing programs, including Commercial Aircraft, Manufacturing and Quality, Regulatory Administration, IT, and Rotorcraft.

Connect with Liz on LinkedIn or at a Design Thinking Meetup!