EXOTIC Software Tutorial

Finding an effortless approach to astronomy for beginners.

Role Team Tools Timeline
UX Researcher Anna W. Miro Oct '22 - Dec '22
Caitlyn C. FigJam
Google Sites

You don't have to be a rocket scientist or an astrophysicist to participate in studying the distant world of exoplanets. When you look up into the night sky, do you ever wonder what's out there beyond our solar system? Exoplanet Watch is a NASA citizen science project that lets anyone learn and contribute to exoplanet observation data through their Exoplanet Transit Interpretation Code (EXOTIC) software.

However, doesn’t this all still seem too daunting and complicated for astronomy beginners?

This is where we come in.

Houston, We Have a Problem

What the EXOTIC Software Tutorial looks like

We were tasked to assess the usability of the EXOTIC Software tutorial and how appealing it was to targeted users. They ranged from high school to college students with less knowledge and experience with astronomy.

This tutorial serves as a bridge for these users to be introduced and learn about how to get involved with discovering exoplanets through the software. Therefore, exploring their reactions and feedback to the tutorial is vital to user engagement, retention, and participation, which is the overall goal of our client.

Our Hypothesis

Novice users of EXOTIC would be less engaged than expert users, due to:

  • Difficulty understanding the tutorial’s terminology and purpose
  • Novelty of using the Jupyter Notebook platform, which is where the tutorial is housed on
  • Overwhelming presentation of information, data, and text

Unveiling the Mysteries of the Universe (and Its Users)


We conducted usability testing (UT) interviews with 7 college students; 6 of these participants had little to no experience with astronomy and one had an education in aerospace engineering. Of the 7 participants, 3 had never used Jupyter notebooks before the usability testing interview.

NASA swag bag sent to every participant!

Each interview was conducted using a standard script of questions and tasks. The interviews were conducted on Zoom, where participants shared their screens with the facilitators. We recorded data using an internal-facing Google Form with all of our questions, and these interviews were also recorded for future analysis.

Charting the Uncharted Territories:
Product Reaction Word Cloud

We created a word cloud out of words our participants chose to describe their experience with the EXOTIC tutorial to find the most common reactions. On first glance, the word cloud depicts a mix of positive and negative reactions towards the tutorial, with words like "overwhelming" and "convenient" seemingly similar in size.

However, when the top 5 most selected words are counted (depicted in the table below), we can see that 3 out of the top 5 words that participants resonate with the most lean more towards a negative reaction to the EXOTIC tutorial.

Charting the Uncharted Territories II:
Affinity Mapping

After looking at our quantitive data, we grouped qualitative data from our interviews into thematic ideas to find the most common user pain points and successes.

01. Lack of information hierarchy

Users who had never used a Jupyter notebook were immediately intimidated by all the information. Other users underestimated the amount of time the tutorial would take to run because of the length text.

"It's so many words, I feel like I don't even know where to start reading.” (P6)
“What the f*** is this?” (P5)

02. Plug and chug

Users plugged in numbers and followed instructions, but were not confident in replicating this process with new data. Data input caused a lot of confusion and involved tedious back and forth scrolling.

"I don’t know if I could do this by myself.” (P3)

03. Unclear material

Users did not understand when/where to input values and could not interpret the end results presented. This decreased satisfaction and limited the EXOTIC’s impact as a tool. Terminology was confusing for everyone, regardless of experience.

“A lot of things are happening, there are a lot of numbers I don't know, it looks fancy.” (P2)
"I have no idea what I'm looking at." (P4)

04. Videos had mixed reactions

Some enjoyed it, some preferred shorter videos, and others did not view them at all.

“Whenever it comes to videos embedded, I never really watch them.” (P4)
“I really liked the video because it was a break from all the reading.” (P5)

Charting the Uncharted Territories III:
Experience Mapping

Using our affinity map, we illustrated our persona's, a novice college student astronomer, journey as they used the EXOTIC tutorial for the first time to fully understand when and where the pain points we found occurred and find opportunities for improvement at those stages.

From Gravity to Galaxies:
Fixing the Astronomer's Journey

We recommended the following changes based on our research findings.

Post-Mission Assessment

We were able to provide our insights confidently in front of our client's team due to the supporting evidence that we found. It also felt nice to be validated as past research companies have found similar findings as us! We came into the project worried due to the lack knowledge of about the software/platform and astronomy, but it worked in our favor as we could closer identify and empathize with the targeted user.

We couldn't have done this project without the support of Professor Lynn Boyden from UCLA, Rachel Zimmerman Brachman from NASA JPL Exoplanet Watch, and Lujayn Megally, our Project Lead (who was highlighted as Jan '22 Member of the Month in the Exoplanet Watch Newsletter!).

To infinity and beyond,