User Interface Design in the Defense Industry

Suck It Up, Soldier

Soldiers are taught very early on in their career – usually by seasoned non-commissioned officers (NCOs) – three inescapable truths about military equipment:  It’s hard to use, it breaks a lot, and it’s hard to use.  Soldiers just accept for a fact that military technology, especially software, will be difficult to understand and operate. 

So when a soldier is presented with a DOS-like command prompt, they don’t think anything of it and begin to learn how to use the software as the engineers intended.  This typically involves hours, weeks, and sometimes months of training, reading, and on-the-job experience to become proficient at the software.

In the defense industry, engineers aren’t very concerned with how pretty or easy a product is to use.  They are usually focused on making something work to specification.  And rarely does a specification from the Department of Defense (DoD) have a requirement that reads “it has to be beautiful and elegant”.

In most requests for a software-based capability, the DoD focuses entirely on the capability of the software, and references an antiquated human interface design standard as part of the reference materials in the request. 

It is not uncommon to see a software engineer write the control interface to a large communication system emulate the front panel of every electronic component in the system.  Picture in your mind racks of electronics equipment, each with an awkward 4-button user interface and a small 32-character LCD display, each with their own menu logic and command structure.  Now picture a novice technician standing in front of those racks trying to understand what to do.  And then ask yourself why an engineer would emulate that miserable experience in software.

In the defense industry, many would argue that if they are trained on the real equipment they would be comfortable operating the system remotely the same way.

But is this how we do ANYTHING ELSE in life?

Market Demands Drive Design

Imagine if YouTube worked like a VCR – complete with all of the little buttons on that remote you don’t understand how to use.  Think of what it would look like if you had to click on a VCR tape, drag it to a VCR icon, and click on the front panel of the VCR virtual front panel to press the play button. 

YouTube was optimized for use on the web, and then again on the mobile device.  The software conformed to the user experience best suited for each medium. 

YouTube, along with every other consumer-facing software application, is highly motivated to provide their users with a world-class and simple-to-use interface.  This is because they will lose their revenue to competitors who do what they do a little bit better.  Vimeo has provided great competition to YouTube, keeping both platforms enjoyable and easy to use.

In the defense industry, however, competition doesn’t work the same way.  The defense industry is a monopsony, which means there are multiple sellers but only one purchaser (the exact opposite of a monopoly).  This means that the DoD writes all of the demands and sets the rules by which bidders are chosen.  These rules vary wildly – as anyone who has bid on defense contracts can attest – but it is always the same customer who chooses to follow, ignore, or change these rules. 

But as soldiers are trained at an early age in the military, user interface design is not a consideration in procuring the best technology at the best price.  Little thought ever goes in to user experience when a program office charged with purchasing millions of dollars of equipment makes a purchasing decision. They were never taught the true value of a good user interface, and they won’t be rated by their superiors on how pretty the software screens look.  Therefore, in this monopsony, the one customer tends to choose to make user interface an irrelevant factor in procurement decisions.

So there is little incentive on the part of the defense industry to provide equipment and software that are beautiful and easy to use.

Consumerization of the Enterprise

But something is beginning to change – at least in the commercial enterprise world.  Consumers of technology have been blessed with beautiful, easy-to-learn, easy-to-use user interfaces ever since Apple released the iPhone in 2007.  Even desktop software has improved dramatically since then.  Consumers expect and demand an enjoyable experience with their software.  In one study, experts found that consumers would exit an app within ten seconds on average if they couldn’t understand how to use it.  That app would be relegated to the back page, and ultimately deleted. 

Well these consumers have daytime jobs, and having been spoiled by good design in consumer applications, they are rejecting enterprise software that is cumbersome to use and difficult to learn. 

And enterprise software companies are responding to this changing demand. 

Examples of this are Evernote, Expensify, Basecamp, and SharePoint.  These products have replaced older, less easy-to-use products in many new or small companies, and are gaining a lot of ground on more established relationships between legacy vendors and large corporations.

Enterprise users are not as encumbered with the sense that their technology has to be hard to use like most soldiers.  Younger corporate employees are more empowered to ask ‘why’ than younger soldiers.  So it’s a cultural thing.

Consumerization of the Military

Imagine if military software looked more like consumer software.  What if reprogramming a satellite communications link was a simple as purchasing a new book?  What if a soldier never ever saw a user manual for software again?  Think about how many times you’ve read a users manual for consumer software.  If anything, you may watch an online tutorial or follow along with an embedded first-time guide in the software. 

So why don’t we focus on this in the military?  Or, a better question may be why should we focus on this for military software?

Think about the level of training it takes to teach a soldier how to operate a complex communications system that can only be controlled through a command line interface.  Many soldiers coming in to the military today have never seen a command line interface before.  DOS was replaced by Windows in the early 1990s, and ever since 1995 a graphic user interface has been the standard interface to software.

Soldiers must be taught an entirely new way to interact with technology.  They abandon their experience with gaming consoles, multitouch mobile devices, and windows-based interfaces to completely re-learn a new way to work with software.  How efficient is that?

Life Imitating Art

Even the US Air Force has learned that the easiest way for pilots to fly a drone is to recreate the gaming console interface, not the cockpit.

Raytheon predicted that they would save the Air Force more than $500M over the next 10 years by adopting the Microsoft Xbox interface for drones, based on efficiencies in training, logistics, and minimized crashes.  All stemming from users understanding inherently how to use the technology immediately upon sitting down in front of it.

Special Forces soldiers have provided great feedback to the software developers responsible for the SOCOM and Call of Duty games, which has helped make these games more realistic.  But what’s truly fascinating is how these games have helped special forces teams change how they work in the field.  Hence the increasing demand for consumer-based interfaces in tactical environments.  In this example we can see how life actually imitates art through taking best practices and applying them to their own environment.

User Interface Design Matters

In all things this day and age, efficiency, speed, and simplicity are important.  They drive safety and security, two things that really matter to the Department of Defense.  Design is one of those hidden cost/benefit drivers.  Like brand marketing, it’s difficult to find the effect good design has on operational efficiency.  Yet there are metrics that can be used to measure the value of good user interface design. 

Training time, training scores, percentage of downtime, IT repair tickets, and general feedback from users are all things that can be measured.  Those measurements can be extrapolated back in to financial measurements and operational performance thresholds that can then drive better acquisition strategy.

The services of a highly-skilled graphics designer are negligible compared to the cost of operations of many large military programs, yet the return on that investment felt by the DoD, soldiers, and taxpayers alike is immeasurable. 

Leave a Reply