Touchdown is a mobile application that aims to minimize the amount of error in flight times recorded by pilots. I am working with two pilots and fellow engineering students, Nehal Kanetkar and Matthew Gougeon, to design and develop a simple mobile application that brings technology into the cockpit of smaller aircraft to reduce manual recording of data, and thus decrease error.
If you know a pilot, please refer them to touchdownapp.ca, as we are actively recruiting pilots to beta-test our software.
With Touchdown, I am responsible for all design-related tasks. Most recently, this has related to defining an overarching vision for the product, and defining the primary user flows that must exist for users to achieve three major goals within the app. I have also helped in prioritization of upcoming development work based on the user research I have conducted, and by considering short-term work for longer-term benefit.
- Pen & paper for sketching and wireframing
- Sketch for higher fidelity wireframes and mockups
- HTML / CSS for touchdownapp.ca
- Roadmunk for maintenance of a product roadmap
Aviation in Canada and the United States is heavily regulated – take a look through some of the regulations and it quickly becomes overwhelming. Pilots are responsible for keeping logs of their time in the air, and an entry into a logbook includes additional information, including departure and arrival airports, instrument or visual flying and pilot in command, among others. This is known as the Pilot Logbook. Owners of private aircraft are also required to maintain a separate log of all flights taken by a particular aircraft, known as the Journey Log. The Journey Log requires similar information to the Pilot Logbook, but with some important distinctions.
Currently, all information for the logbook is manually recorded, including the air time of a flight. To record air time, a pilot typically looks at his or her watch just before entering the runway to prepare for takeoff, and then upon return, logs the landing time after they have landed and taxied off the runway and come to a complete stop. My classmate Nehal, a pilot training out of the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, began to notice that the times he was recording as air time were between 2 and 4 minutes longer than the time spent in the air. We began investigating ways to better collect this information by using a mobile device, a tool that nearly all pilots carry with them when flying.
I am not a pilot myself, and until recently, I have not been surrounded by aviation. As a result, before even considering what the app should look like or how it might function, I spent time observing pilots prepare for flights, in flight, and post-flight, recording their actions and trying to understand their thought process at all stages of a flight. I have also spent time shadowing pilots who fly with a flying school, as well as pilots who own their own aircraft; both are important users and differences in workflow must be considered when designing.
When preparing for a flight, the pilots I observed all checked the weather, often multiple times before getting into the cockpit, and occasionally even in flight to ensure the path we were flying was clear of poor weather. I watched them record the times for takeoff and landing, some mentally, others on a slip of paper if it was available. After returning to the airport, they had sometimes forgotten the takeoff time and had to estimate before writing it down for it to eventually make its way into a logbook entry.
Designing Basic Flows
My next step was to begin to develop basic flows that a user would follow after downloading. The three major features we are going to build out for our initial release to the App Store are (1) the ability to see contextual weather, (2) the ability to quickly and easily track a flight and share it with friends and family to follow in real time, and (3) the automatic creation of a digital logbook. With these three features, we also require authentication and the ability to create an account, so that the user can come back and see their previous flights at a later date.
In order to develop logical user flows to achieve the goals of tracking a flight, viewing a logbook entry and checking the weather, I began with sketches on paper to lay out the basics and ensure that all the necessary connections were made. I then moved into Sketch to begin creating higher fidelity screens.
Users begin on a screen that introduces them to Touchdown and its major value propositions, so that they can begin to see very quickly if this tool is suitable for their purposes. Users then progress to the authentication screen, which is currently implemented as authentication via Google. They are then deposited either onto a screen that allows them to directly track a flight, if they are within a given radius of an airport, or onto a “home” type screen that allows them to see a contextual summary of weather, past flights and statistics. One of the main goals is to encourage pilots to log flights using Touchdown, so it must be very easy to initiate this process; a large, orange button to “Track New Flight” is available on the majority of screens. Once this button is pressed, the user is asked for basic information about their aircraft, and is then able to share a flight for family and friends to follow their progress. After this, the pilot can tuck his or her phone away until after landing, while Touchdown automatically tracks position, takeoff time and landing time, and creates a new logbook entry for the flight.
One of the advantages of collecting data such as the location, altitude, and speed at every point of a flight is that this data can then be displayed for the pilot. Such data is otherwise unavailable to the average, non-commercial, pilot. At the end of every flight, an entry in their digital logbook is created, and they can view this entry at any time they choose. In this logbook entry, all elements of a physical paper logbook are included. In addition, I have featured a map displaying the route traveled by the aircraft, as well as a graph showing the altitude and speed profiles vs. time.
In showing our application to numerous pilots, I have noticed that the map at top of the logbook entry is extremely exciting to the pilot, as it allows them to see where they flew after the flight. Then, as they scroll down the screen, they encounter the speed and altitude plots, and again, are very interested. The map and graphs are reasonably easy to implement given that we already have all the data, but are delights in the yes of our users. It has become apparent to me that enabling the pilot to visualize and interact with data from their flights is new, different and exciting. This is a principle I have, and will continue, to carry through the design of this application.
One of the major challenges I have identified through this process is that pilots work heavily with paper documentation, and must always have a backup plan. Accordingly, in developing software for pilots, we must be able to convince them that the technology works accurately, and possibly better than what is recorded manually, while also maintaining the understanding that there must be backup plans in place. Additionally, using an app such as Touchdown introduces a new step into their workflow of preparing for and finishing a flight. Changing workflows takes time, and requires reminders to the user. We are actively working on developing a way that allows us to provide contextual notifications to a user to remind them to use Touchdown in flight.
I have also faced more design-oriented challenges. This project has been my first opportunity to develop a product right from the ground up, and this has given me insight into all the design-related tasks that are essential and often difficult in laying the foundation for a successful product.
At present, I am working on developing a polished UI framework that can be used throughout the mobile app, and on any other platform for which a UI might be developed. I am also working directly with Nehal to determine where we want to add tracking for analytics in order to be able to quantify the user experience of the app, and gain meaningful insight into how pilots are using our product.