Helping the aviation industry share and exchange information to solve long standing challenges

TL;DR

My role:
Design strategist / Researcher
The initial brief: Refine the product and business strategy
Deliverables: A series of strategic recommendations, product pivots and experimental framework, pitch deck and research documentation
Timeframe: 6 weeks (I worked on the live product for 1.5 months either side of this piece)
Impact: Supported the client in getting a 8 figure investment.

CONTEXT

The aviation industry is one of the largest, most secretive, and arguably one of the most inefficient sectors in the world. Furthermore, many of the airlines and OEM's are reportedly feeling the squeeze of decreasing profit margins and increased environmental pressure. I was attracted to the project because of the potential ecological impact which would be created by a mere 1% increase in efficiency in the industry.

I spent a little over four months working with an innovation lab of a client who is looking to make a change. Not only were they looking to transform the ways organisations share information and collaborate as with other digital transformation projects, but they were looking to change the way the industry works fundamentally. They want to break down silos and get people to share information between companies.

We had an MVP with a user base, which they were using to try and get investment and ultimately create a separate venture. My first month on the project was spent making incremental improvements to the product, following some research done by my colleagues, and I then took the opportunity to revamp the product strategy, the philosophy behind production and creating metrics for the team. 

We were helping the client to pitch for investment, continually refining the value proposition for an incredibly diverse venture. This case study will focus on a period of six weeks, during this time we set out on a defined and agreed upon period of research, driven primarily by the need to validate the proposition further for investors.

Please note: Due to an incredibly strict NDA, some of the information has been changed, and other parts omitted to protect myself, the client and the opportunity.

What we set out to achieve

Primary Objective


“Improve our understanding of the *problems to refine the value proposition, validate service assumptions and develop the product roadmap.”

Secondary Objectives

• Generate concepts to improve the current product and consider priorities for Q3 & Q4

• Improve our understanding of industry and user pain points

• Refine product-market fit

• Refine the current product roadmap and consider its potential application to other industries.

* The problems can be defined as:
• Individuals in organisations want to solve meaningful problems to develop their career and increase job satisfaction
• Leaders want to, reduce the cost of innovation, reduce operational waste and find other sources of revenue
• Industry bodies want to minimise duplication of effort and decrease the time it takes for a decision to be made
• Buyers are unable to compare and buy solutions easily
• Sellers have an inefficient and expensive selling process

ProJECT STAGEs

 lead this research piece with another designer, and we were also joined by a third. My focus was slightly more on the product side of the proposition, whereas the other lead focused somewhat more on the service elements of the proposition. It was challenging to find people to interview, and despite having a recruitment list and introductions, it was tough to arrange anything.


Ironically, this unwillingness to share information and feeling of fear is one of the issues we wanted to solve. Consequently, throughout this piece, we relied heavily on personal contacts, and enterprises already involved with the current product to ensure an adequate sample size.




We increased our understanding by:

• Conducting interviews with different parties of the aviation industry to feedback sessions, and using surveys with managers across a range of various organisations and team sizes

• Sending out surveys

• Secondary research by examining multiple publications, studies and reports.

• Conducting internal ideation sessions with members of the design team, to create feature ideas for the product backlog, mapping them against pre-established metrics and priorities.

• Holding workshops with managers, and HR leaders, in current customer organisations

• Creating marketing-site style prototypes to present back to the client.

The proposition consists of the following elements:

• A community made up of handpicked individuals in aviation

• The ability for those individuals to share information, data and collaborate to solve problems, reducing duplication and waste.

• A marketplace where the results of collaboration and existing solutions can be monetised 

• Finally, an accelerator/incubator where ideas develop

We had previously broken down this behaviour into various behavioural modes. In the research spike, we set out, to understand more about the individuals and businesses looking to:

Each sprint had a theme, and the findings have been grouped accordingly. Despite this grouping, it was a very agile process and hypotheses developed over the entire six-week period.

The work itself

Sprint 1 • Macro lens and ramp up

During the first sprint, we focussed on data services, accelerators, incubators and spent time looking at past failures of ventures in the industry. After each interview, we  conducted regular ideation sessions, which the whole team took part in, and had daily research catch ups. Some of the concepts generated are shown throughout, but please note, I was not involved in the design at the high-fidelity stage, just the idea generation, direction, and linking the concepts to product framework and backlog which was an important part of our process.

During this sprint, we were in contact with many people in our personal network, our current user base, as well as senior individuals in the data services industry. The contacts we had been promised by the client took time to come to fruition, so we were pressed to be resourceful.

My colleague and I also held a day long session with one of our partners, a data consultancy and service provider, where our time was split between interviews and a workshop.

Key learnings from the week

• The problems faced after leaving accelerator programmes are substantial. The feelings Feeling isolated, a lack of continued support, the expectation of meeting financial commitments are all things which are hard to deal with. An accelerator is just the beginning of the journey, so we would need to find a way to make sure the support was sustainable.

• The ability for ideas to be developed would be an important part of the proposition. We had already conducted off-line events and knew about the benefits and limitations. During our contact with a large accelerator, we heard rich stories around the importance of the face-to-face element, seemingly ruling out, or at least limiting what could be done online.

• Throughout this sprint, we spoke to senior individuals in industry bodies, and heard  stories about the time and money spent on individuals gathering together for events, conferences and how hard it was for any decision to be made.

Quotes of the week


“Too many of the early stage ideas which I come across are not mature enough, nor I do I believe that anyone would pay for them.”

“I have a lot of passion and knowledge in my area, but I don’t know how to build a team and support new opportunities for innovation.”

“ There is such a large amount of duplication and wasted effort. The cost of innovation is high, and the number of solutions in the market doesn’t reflect the effort put in”

"It would be a complete waste of time to hold any sort of accelerator programme online. The entire point is to bring people together, have an experience and feed off the energy. No... online would be a disaster."

Internal discussion and pain points


• The importance of human beings in the data services industry as they are needed to uncover insights. If we are able to persuade organisations to share information, how are we going to be able to uncover insights as we scale?  

• What is the cost of building the data services in house?

• Exploring the possibility of mentorship and API innovation taking place entirely online

• How can we ensure solutions created are of a high enough standard? Otherwise we have nothing to offer investors.

Click on the images below for more detail, which show some of the planning and synthesis which took place at this stage
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Sprint 2 • Communication and Collaboration

The second sprint focussed on collaboration and communication, where we spoke to a range of individuals in organisations, members of governing bodies and took a comprehensive look at existing communication tools used by individuals in the aviation industry and outside it. We also looked at a range of online forums and learned about events to examine the behaviour and types of communication taking place.

What also became apparent during this period was the top-down paradigm we were creating. Many of the most active communities we found had taken a different approach and were grassroots organisations, who generally had a level of distrust towards the governing bodies and a lack of belief in the organisations. Despite this, for large scale change, we would need to be able to either bring them together or create successful top-down initiatives.


We set out to learn more about the operation tools individuals were using to communicate and collaborate.

Communication

A mix of primary and secondary research led us to learn more about how individuals in aviation were communicating. It would apply to other industries too. Still, it seemed particularly prevalent in aviation, due to the outdated technology and the lack of willingness of organisations to work with each other, even within alliances. We created a range of concepts which could address some of these concerns.

Communication and Collaboration

The different forms of communication were extended to the below and highlighted the fact that although we were wanting to solve higher level needs such as workflow and data collaboration, many people on the ground were still struggling with basic forms of digital communication. Whatsapp was being used in so many places because people couldn't share useful or business critical information.

Key learnings from the week

• We discovered that data-led problem solving is occurring exclusively at the senior level and is often an executive-led initiative. We would need to find an additional angle or service element to encourage this sort of activity to be done more at the grassroots level. Regardless, it would require buy-in from the leadership, which up until this point was challenging. Encouraging the leadership of these large organisations to take part in discussions, took months of planning, and even longer for them to make a decision.

• Administration and IT departments are the gate-keepers; lobbying is the only way to get them to open up their data. They require a robust business case, reassurance their competitive advantage is not compromised and often have no idea about how to create business cases in the first place.

• We had been using discussion groups in the platforms, hoping that individuals would be motivated to solve problems and collaborate. We heard numerous accounts of individuals who had made improvements to internal processes only to be stopped from implementing the changes at scale, never mind sharing the solution with other companies.

• Aircraft maintenance was the subreddit of the day in August 2019, with over 20,000 active members sharing professional and personal pain points. The community was thriving, and the individuals responsive and helpful. It contradicted the previous assumption and the previously given reasons for failures with other platforms and initiatives. The safety community, both online and offline, is far more secretive and needs to be due to the nature of their work. How can we best facilitate their needs?


Internal discussion and pain points

• The need to address our recruitment strategy became ever more critical. We were partnering with a marketing agency, who was converting leads. Still, we needed to create a more scalable and efficient way to bring the right individuals onto the platform to solve problems. The client was running a 1-1 recruitment strategy, and we advised towards a more initiative based B2B approach.

• The need to improve our content strategy and provide quality journalism

• How might we get industry bodies (ICAO, SITA) more involved, without closing off the grassroots members?

• NOTAMS. NOTAMS. NOTAMS. They are something which we had become familiar with during our time on the project, but they represented everything which we were trying to solve. A method of sending critical information to pilots, which hasn't changed since 1924 and is in dire need of improvement. The organisations and governing bodies were not attempting to improve or solve this issue, but grassroots organisations were. How could we facilitate such discussions? Why would these self-sustaining groups need us? Grassroots level organisations, such as the one we followed care about optimisation and getting work done. They make up for poor tech and ops and are committed to helping each other.

• Discussion groups had been seen as a silver bullet for a multitude of use cases. This requirement may best be solved via design consultants or accelerator programme to produce desirable solutions.

Quotes of the sprint


"It quite literally took months of planning to get the directors together, and after three days of everyone in the room we still didn't arrive at a consensus. The only way I was able to move anything along was by having all of the individuals on Whatsapp and messaging them personally"

"I want to connect with other professionals and expand career opportunities beyond traditional networking. More than anything I want to do meaningful work and tackle problems which matter”

"Every time we have created improvements which will save us time and money, and tried to roll it out on a larger scale, it's been blocked. We are always creating hacks and workarounds because the mother-ship is too slow"

Sprint 3 • Solutions and marketplace

The focus of the final sprint was upon the marketplace element of the proposition. We spoke to a range of individuals who regularly procure or sell solutions as well as looking at the competitive landscape. As with the previous sprints, we also conducted ideation sessions after each interview which were developed and put into the backlog.

We set out to learn more about:


• The amount of consultancy and time required to make a sale 

• The amount of software configuration required for large organisations 

• Difficulty in integrating into legacy systems

• Length of the procurement cycle 

• The role of business cases when procuring software

Key learnings

•The difficulty in comparing and buying solutions is apparent, and although the process could potentially be made more efficient, it would require such as change at an organisational level. It seemed wise to focus on smaller products, API's and mircroservices where the procurement cycle may be shorter. This would require, however, a degree of technical maturity which, if not the case, will place a need on service or consultancy element of the proposition.

• Data Integrators have a distinct competitive advantage here as they solve these problems by offering the opportunity to not only monetise APIs, but take a step towards microservices and an API strategy.

• We reviewed many different software reviews and procurement platforms. Shopify became an interesting case study, who have moved beyond a stand-alone product, and offer businesses for sale in their platform. It was a model we learned that became very useful.

• Small vendor products are specialised tools. They require knowledgeable buyers, which is not always the case.

• Contracts can be productised, but configuration, integration and roll-out are not easily repeatable.

• Airline buyers are on a timely and predictable schedule against financial calendars.



Discussion points


How might we establish relationships with senior members of organisations who would be interested in buying software or becoming part of the technical ecosystem, and provide the above individuals with information and business cases to help facilitate organisational buy-in and understand more about the value of APIs.

• How might we create and reach out to developer communities, and agencies to encourage the use of open APIs? Adoption to the ecosystem could help use with future paid products and also promote innovation and open up opportunities to future partnerships. It would also support the 'open and neutral' element of the proposition

• Develop sustainable online collaboration would be key and help to increase awareness of ongoing initiatives and increase technical community size.

• How might we matchmake individuals with organisations and be the trusted experts of the most innovative solutions in the aviation industry

Quotes of the sprint


"Without leadership buy-in it’s impossible to gain traction. We have to lobby and build the relationship for months with the leaders before it’s launched. They need constant coaching with how to use it and get people bought in. We are changing the organisational culture, not helping them send emails..."


"It’s incredibly hard to find solutions on the market, and to compare similar offerings. Buying software is a long, drawn out process. Why does it take 6-9 months to go through this?"

"“It costs me 25% of my revenue to make a sale. It’s too expensive. I go to all of the conferences and I still don’t make a sale. I’m struggling to survive.”


SUMMARY

Over the six week period, we successfully increased our understanding of the proposition, which we continued to refine and validate, making recommendations for the changes which need to take place in the next quarter, many of which were implemented, some which weren't.

The concepts we created in ideation to address these painpoints, continued to populate the backlog and provide immediate answers to some of the questions we had been asking.

We developed our thinking around the pain experienced by individuals in organisations looking to sell and buy solutions, and those looking to make an impact, collaborate and in some cases, communicate to get their job done safely. I believe we also managed to find a way to position the venture in a realistic, and not falsely altruistic position. Yes, it is beneficial to the whole industry and potentially be a framework offered by the governing bodies, but it is also a viable business from which all parties can benefit.

We helped to prepare them for the investment process for a multi-million pound joint-venture.

CONCLUSION

I think as a team, we did an excellent job of continuing to deliver value despite recruitment posing a significant problem and helped the business, narrow its focus. We were very resourceful, conducting guerilla research where necessary, leveraging our network and standing on the shoulders of giants using a wide range of secondary sources.

Working in sprints was advantageous because it enabled us to focus on themes and generate concepts in a focussed manor. Still, it also meant that we had to not only deliver value on an almost daily and sprintly basis, but it added a lot of pressure to the final presentation and strategic recommendations.

Below you can see an example of a framework we used as a team to asses our confidence levels in different parts of the proposition, with results shown before and after the discovery period reflecting the progress we had made.

What I COuld HAVE DONE better

On reflection, I should have done a better job at presenting work and findings regularly. Even though we had regular review sessions and catch-ups, I often felt like I was thinking about gathering more information and making jumps to the strategic impact and product implications and sometimes leaving people behind, particularly those of periphery. This was driven in part by the client looking for crucial information and pivots regularly and also the tight timeframe.


I also think I should have pushed back even more onto the client about the lack of support in providing participants and the difficulties we were having in this area