UX/UI in the Defense Industry

When we started Coolfire Solutions in 2010, our mission was simple.  To bring good user experiences (UX) and user interfaces (UI) to users in the defense industry. 

What is UX and UI?  I certainly didn’t understand either of these terms in great detail before Coolfire.  I knew that user interface meant the screen on a computer in a software program, and that’s about it.  But what I’ve learned over the past four years had let me to believe that UX and UI are the single most important things that product and software developers do.

User Experience

UX, or user experience, is the way a user interfaces with a technology.  In its simplest terms, UX is the process by which a user enters information and receives knowledge.  UX is the process through which this information is transferred, and the order in which knowledge is presented.

Lauralee Alben defined UX as follows:

“UX is all the aspects of how people use an interactive product: the way it feels in their hands, how well they understand how it works, how they feel about it while they’re using it, how well it serves their purposes, and how well it fits into the entire context in which they are using it.”

To me, UX is the process, the workflow, the experience a user has when interacting with a product or system from the very moment they first see, touch, or hear it until well after they are finished using it. 

User Interface

UI, or user interface, is the actual interface to the technology.  In software it’s the screen interface on a website, app, or desktop.  In hardware, it’s the physical connection between the person and the machine, such as buttons, lights, and knobs.

A good deal of UI is rooted in human psychology and ergonomics.  The size and location of keys on a computer keyboard.  The shape and position of a door handle.  The background color of a website and the size of clickable buttons.

The best definition of UI I’ve ever heard was the core premise in a book called The Design of Everyday Things.  The author, Donald Norman, said that “the needs of the user are different than the needs of the developer”.  Meaning that if you don’t want a user to push a “pull door”, then design the handles in such a way that it is obvious to them what to do. 

The product absolutely needs to perform the desired tasks within the parameters of its environment (security, size, cost, etc.).  But many time a decision on what product to select ends with those analyses alone.  But UX and UI are the two very important elements that lead to user adoption.  And user adoption is the key to ensuring a system is successfully implemented.

UX/UI in Military Technology

As soldiers, we are taught early on in basic combat training that we can expect military equipment to be hard to use, heavy, and not work all too well.  It was always that way, and it is assumed to always be that way going forward. 

Nobody in defense is really trained on what it means to design something with UX/UI in mind.  They know only that the technology needs to work, and they need to learn how to use it to do their job.

So when the Department of Defense (DoD) asks the defense industry for a technical solution, they don’t really know how to ask for a good user experience or user interface.  They ask for “best practices” and “consumer-grade experiences” but that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Defense contractors, for the most part, are a collection of former military personnel and engineers.  Neither of these groups have much experience or interest in good user experience or user interface design. 

Engineers are primarily concerned with making something work.  They like to see a lot of data and have access to a lot of controls in the resulting user interfaces.  User experience is, in their minds, the experience they as engineers desire.

Former military personnel are mostly focused on making sure the technology actually works and won’t break when given to a soldier.  But again, the focus on making it simple to understand and easy to use is set behind function in priority – way far behind.

Look at smartphones.  A smartphone is basically a handheld computer with a bunch of radios, sensors, and processing power packed into it.  These devices give users the power of a laptop computer in their hand.  For a lot of reasons I write about in other blog entries, the DoD has been slow to adopt smartphones, but that hasn’t stopped defense contractors from rolling out their own prototypes. 

But what they provide look like ancient relics compared to what is released every month by smartphone companies like Samsung and Apple. 

Then look at web-based software.  This is a quick-reference guide that’s supposed to help a company register with a procurement service called SAM.  It makes hardly any sense.  The rest of the SAM website is impossible to understand how to navigate.  It took me three hours to use the site to conduct a task that took about 30 minutes on the site it replaced.  Someone obviously thought they were improving the user experience and managed to do exactly the opposite.

Here, here, and here are examples of UX/UI commonly used in the defense industry.  It takes soldiers months, if not years, to use this technology.  In many cases, by the time they are proficient at using it, their service is complete and they go to work for one of the companies that provide these interfaces.  And because they’ve used the equipment for years, they don’t think it is difficult to use.

Consumerization of Technology

But something has changed recently.  All of a sudden, the pace of technology development has reached a level that far outpaces what typical defense contractor companies can achieve on their own.  In some cases, technology created for consumers is as many as 10-15 generations ahead of what defense contractors deliver to soldiers right now.

The problem is that the time to train soldiers on how to use arcane user interfaces with little regard to user experience is growing.  Soldiers are coming into the military with a keen understanding of how to use modern technology.  We spend months and years of time teaching them how to use antiquated technology.

For years, companies that were developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) were recreating the cockpit of the plane on the ground.  The idea was to use pilots trained on the plane type to fly the UAV in a simulator.  But training UAV pilots took years of training, and UAVs were being produced and used at a pace that was unsustainable.

Finally, someone realized that young soldiers have been flying UAVs for years – in video games.  So the best user interface and user experience for a UAV pilot is, well, what they know.  A Playstation controller is now used commonly to fly UAVs. 

At Coolfire we developed a satellite communications toolkit called Reconn.  Basically Reconn is 120 lbs. of test equipment, and months or years of training and knowledge in a 10-lb. box.  We make the user interface to the box a smartphone app with a multitouch interface.  Better, we include workflows to guide a user through just about any task a satellite communications engineer could be expected to perform in the field.    This means technicians can quickly learn the same basic skills of a field engineer in days instead of months.

In addition to Reconn, we’ve also developed a technology called ISR-V.  ISR-V stands for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Visualizer, and provides a soldier with the ability to see ISR video feeds from UAVs on their wrist in the battlefield.  Believe it or not, this is not a capability soldiers have today.  We still send dismounted soldiers into combat with little more than a gun and a radio.  ISR-V changes that by giving them the ability to see video on their wrist.  We put a lot of focus on making that interface simple to understand right away.  Imagine if you had to press the Start button at the bottom corner of the screen with a stylus while you’re under fire.

Our goal with products like Reconn and ISR-V is to bring a new era of focus on user experience and user interface to the defense industry.  We are combining UX and UI with defense-grade technology, security and durability to change the way soldiers interact with technology. 

And if the interests of our warfighters is really at the heart of everything the defense industry does for the military, then the rest of the industry should follow our lead.

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