Designing for Altitude:
Collaborative Solutions for Airline Operations

GE Aviation designs the most part of the airplane engines in use

Article by Phil Martin Balagtas, Lead Designer & Researcher for GE Aviation Digital Solutions,

This is an exciting time for innovation. From putting people on Mars to developing artificial intelligence and autonomous cars. These are all difficult problems that we finally have the technology to begin solving. Another movement you may begin to hear more about is the The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) aka the Internet of Big Things. This is simply connecting the data of massive industrial machines to analytics and software so that people can understand, predict, and optimize their behavior and operation. Some of these machines literally run the planet and transport us across great distances, but it’s only been recently that we’ve really begun to apply the power of big data to learn more about how to make these machines (and their operators) more efficient. This is massive and it’s leading us into a new revolution, the Digital Industrial revolution.

I work for GE. General Electric is over a hundred years old and boasts well over 300,000 employees. And until recently, the only product of theirs I was familiar with was light bulbs and microwaves. However, they span the globe with several industrial verticals including manufacturing locomotives, power plant turbines, MRI machines, jet engines, and now…software. I joined a little over 3 year ago and was immediately working on User Experiences for power plants and flight safety. But I quickly discovered that Design Thinking was just beginning to blossom within the small software center in San Ramon,CA and we had a huge opportunity to both educate and pave the path for innovation by bringing new processes and techniques to some of their businesses who were traditionally conditioned for hardware manufacturing alone.

In 2015, I was asked to join a small team in the office of a small consultancy. They were hired to train and consult GE (and other businesses) on a process we now call Fastworks. Fastworks was developed to bring all the best facets of Lean Startup, Design Thinking, & Agile into 1 methodology that businesses could use to learn and develop software for customers quickly — basically operate like a startup. GE had already excelled in manufacturing processes using methods like Six Sigma. However, this was designed to be a new approach on how to work with customers early, fail fast, build cheap, and get to the right solution quicker.

Our team was dubbed the “Aviation Customer Collaboration Team” and our task was to work directly with airlines to solve their toughest problems with our new platform for the Industrial Internet, Predix. Predix was a full-stack platform developed by GE since the creation of it’s Software Center in 2012. Initially, it was built solely for internal GE customers and machines, but over years of trial and error and collective learning from all of it’s industrial verticals, it was ready to go live to the rest of the world.

Now, running an airline is expensive. We feel it in the ticket price we pay and another thing we discovered is that they’re generally some of the most risk-averse businesses on the planet. They have to be…for safety and the expense it takes to own and operate. Fluctuating fuel prices, high operational and equipment costs, and growing numbers of travellers year by year also make it a tough business to sell software to. In fact, It’s not unlikely that you’ll meet an airline that’s been building their own software in-house. Some even have entire teams dedicated to application development and analyzing flight data. Smaller airlines usually have to outsource. The sales process can take months to years depending on the type or size of the solution. These factors presented many challenges for us.

So how do you approach an airline and help them solve a problem when they have little to spend and have a team already working the issues?

Very carefully.

As a designer, facilitation is an important skill. So one of our approaches was to conduct strategy, vision and co-design workshops. It was absolutely critical that we build trust with the customer through these engagements. A “workout”, as we called workshops, was meant to gather all stakeholders in one room and “work out” all the details of what we had to solve. I would run multiple workshops investigating the problems, talking to users and leadership, and negotiating w/ our engineers and leaders on what we should build and the strategy to get there.

But it didn’t end there. Once a plan was in place we needed to do deeper user-specific research. My team and I would spend days, even weeks, working w/ them to understand their workflows and issues. But the one magic pill in our strategy was developing the customer relationship. We saw them almost every day. We interacted w/ them as if we worked for them and were “therapists” there to listen. Building this customer relationship on a friendship level as opposed to merely a client/vendor level allowed us to unpack some of the deep-rooted issues within the operation. We gained allies and even those who were skeptics of our ideas were proponents after seeing the outcomes of our work.

In Fastworks, we talk about “moving in” with the customer to step into their shoes. There are many ways to gain empathy, but if you literally have to move in (one airline gave me a desk in their Network Operations Center) you should. And be patient. Sometimes the nuggets that can really innovate your design or understanding of the problem may only appear after many long conversations or even an evening over a beer. Become part of their family. Show transparency. And believe that you are there to win for their business as well as yours. This approach continues to help us with customer buy-in and help us find and test new solutions to solve some complex(sometimes archaic) problems that exist at airlines today. Build trust. Have rigor. And develop a strategy to modernize. Everyone wants it, it’s just a matter of how you get there.

While we have packaged these approaches as part of the Fastworks methodology, it really is just good old-fashioned Design Thinking. It’s in our DNA and we’re using it to our advantage to find new ways to work with customers and deliver solutions.

To learn more about how Design is leading the journey into the Digital Aviation space, come to UXCON16 in Brescia, Italy on Sep. 30 to hear Phil Balagtas, Senior Designer/Researcher for GE Aviation Digital Solutions.

Tickets are available at

We are Sketchin: a strategic design firm that shapes the future experiences.

We are Sketchin: a strategic design firm that shapes the future experiences.