Read The Manual, Soldier

When I enlisted in the army all the way back in 1993 (really?  20 years ago?), I spent 8 weeks at lovely Fort Jackson in South Carolina during the hottest and muggiest summer of my life.  We lived in World War II-era barracks without air conditioning, woke up at 4AM to throw up in a field for an hour, ate some of the best food in my life, and fell into a very strict and regimented routine. 

During those 8 weeks, I did more learning than I had done at any other time in my life up until then.  I re-learned how to walk, talk, eat, sleep, put on clothes, organize my closet, and polish boots – the way the United States Army wanted me to. 

But I also learned a lot of other far more useful things – like how to fire a machine gun accurately, how to throw grenades and launch shoulder-mounted rockets, how to live in the woods for a week with nothing but a backpack of supplies and equipment, and how to react to a tactical nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

There were of course manuals for all of these things.  The US Army doesn’t do anything unless there is a multi-volume, multi-edition instruction manual complete with stencil drawings and flow-chart troubleshooting diagrams. 

But none of us ever read them.

The whole point of basic combat training is to prepare us for the pace and regimen of military life.  We could learn all of this from manuals, but a 200-lb. angry curse-laden drill sergeant wearing that iconic “brown round” hat did a fantastic job of keeping our attention and finding ways for us to never forget a mistake.

I specifically remember one time marching underneath a water-filling point (basically a giant hose strapped to a 20’ tall wooden post) for half an hour because one of the  soldiers didn’t pack their wet weather gear “because it wasn’t supposed to rain that day”. 

So the drill sergeant made it rain.  And none of us ever left our rain gear behind.

The best way to learn something is to be involved in it.  There’s a popular expression I remember seeing as a child:  “Tell me I’ll forget, Show me I’ll remember, Involve me I’ll understand”. 

We learn through experience.  We understand things when we use them.  So why in the military do we have to rely on user manuals and online FAQs as the way to learn how to use software?

I hate it when I have to buy a new software program for my laptop.  I especially hate using software created by defense contractors.  It usually seems like the software can do everything in the world – and I’m completely helpless to use it.  Because I don’t even know how to start using it.  I’m usually presented with a half-assed PowerPoint manual that does a great job of explaining how to install the software, but provides no real experiential training on what to do when its installed.

In the US Army, I learned nearly everything I did from other soldiers.  This is commonly referred to as On-the-Job Training (OJT), or as the passing of tribal knowledge from one generation to another.  The manuals were always there – some were very thorough and about as exciting as a phone book.  Others were half-assed and obviously mailed in efforts by engineers not really interested in writing books.  These are easy to spot – they are “contractor-specific format” PowerPoint slide decks with a ton of fluff and zero context.

Now think about the paradigm that mobile apps have created.  As a consumer, if I download a mobile app, I give it about 10 seconds and if I don’t understand how to use it, I’ll delete it and replace it with another easier-to-use app.  It’s not fair to compare an e-reader app or a weather report app with the software interface to say a tank, but what if that tank was as simple to use as a mobile app?

Another great comment I once heard was “if you walk up to a door and don’t know how to open it, it’s the designer’s fault, not yours”.  Think about all those times you “pushed” when you were supposed to “pull”. 

We as an industry can do a much better job in designing the user interface to the technology we give to our soldier customers.  Good user interfaces drive adoption – i.e. the easier and more enjoyable it is to use, the more people will want to use it. 

How do you compete in an industry where dollars are shrinking and your product looks just like your competitor’s?  You get users to look at your product and say “I know exactly how to use that”. 

Better yet, you get the program managers that manage the funding to say they know how to use that too. 

Training can be embedded in the user interface in the form of good user interface design, step-by-step workflows, and educational tutorial videos and walk-throughs.  Our Reconn product is an example of how we are embedding months or years of tribal knowledge into a software interface.  ViewPoint, our SharePoint for iPad product, has an incredibly intuitive interface and a very simple tutorial on how to connect to and access your SharePoint site.

If you’re looking for a way to simplify your technology, or looking for a way to differentiate yourself from your competitors, give us a call and we’ll help you find ways to embed training right in your product’s user interface.  Your end users – the soldiers in the field – will thank you.

Leave a Reply