Accelerating Change: 3 Tips for Designing UX-Friendly Mission-Critical Systems

User experience isn’t just important, it’s crucial — and even life-saving. Here’s how Colt Whittall, U.S. Air Force’s first Chief Experience Officer for the U.S. Air Force, is improving UX for airmen, and how your agency can follow suit.

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The tarmac is in sight, but instead of deploying the landing gear, the pilot opens the bomb bay doors and the airplane crashes into the ground. Stories like this were an all-too-common occurrence during World War II, with the United States Air Force losing approximately 457 B-17s over a 22-month period to “pilot error.” 

For months, the U.S. Air Force chalked incidents like this up to poor training and human error. However, when Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitts looked into the accidents in 1944, he uncovered something so obvious it was almost unbelievable: Many of the crashes were a result of poor design, as the switches for the wing flaps and the landing gear looked similar. In recent years, the defense sector has sought out ways to improve design, reduce confusion and mitigate human error. But as technology advances at a rapid pace, it’s important to consistently interrogate and improve design with the aim to improve the user experience.

No one knows this better than Whittall, who spoke with Casey Weinstein, Director of the U.S. Air, Space, and Joint Forces portfolio for ServiceNow during the recent State of Defense Summit  about how the Joint Forces can continue to promote a better user experience. 

Here are three takeaways from their discussion. 

1. Build Awareness 

Improving user experience looks different for each industry, agency, and mission. That’s because it depends on what each user needs in a specific situation.

“UX in the cosmetics industry is a very different thing than what it is here,” said Whittall. “UX in the U.S. Air Force is really about making airmen more productive, making them more lethal and building their morale.” 

In order to build intuitive, user-friendly solutions, leadership and employees need to first understand what UX is and how it can help the agency deliver on mission-critical objectives. 

For this reason, the first stop in the journey to improve UX is education and awareness. 

Organizations can build these in several ways, but arguably one of the most popular methods is through hosting “lunch and learns.” During these sessions, upper management and employees can learn more about UX, highlight concerns, ask questions, and ultimately learn about how good design can benefit the warfighter, setting the stage for a culture that embraces and understands UX from the top down. 

2. Set Standards Early On 

Gathering information and data about design flaws and possible improvements is vital to improving UX, but it can prove challenging. 

For agencies, data collection is a critical part of the design process. Without solid data points, designers are largely fabricating solutions in the dark. Conversely, when designers seek out solid data points, they can pinpoint potential problems and ultimately build solutions tailored to the warfighter and their needs. 

“One of the holy grails in my profession is finding the data that links [mission and mission effectiveness] together, because it always tells a story,” said Whittall. 

Common data collection challenges like a lack of quality assurance or inconsistent standards can pose a threat, but agencies can easily overcome these obstacles. Benchmarking, a process popularized in the private sector, is one such example. By measuring data collected against an ideal set of standards, agencies can ensure consistency, and in turn, establish standards across the entire program. 

3. Include the Warfighter in UX Tests 

When Fitts investigated the cause of the B-17 crashes, he worked alongside pilots and attempted to understand the situations they faced and how they would’ve reacted.

“[Fitts] pulled the pilot into the cockpit and they started doing an analysis of it and they figured out that the problem is not the pilots, the problem is the plane,” said Whittall. “[From there] they came up with the idea of shape coding, which you can see to this day in cockpits, cars and in many consumer devices.” 

In simpler terms, Fitts focused on keeping the warfighter in the loop. By doing so, Fitts averted a false consensus bias, the assumption where individuals may conclude that others will think or act as they do. 

A false consensus doesn’t always have to be a matter of life and death. Take, for example, the process of designing new software. Oftentimes, designers will focus on how the software interacts with the latest operating system update; this too can lead designers to a false consensus when they start believing everyone will be using the same OS, as highlighted by Whittall. 

“If you’re sitting in some locations using certain equipment, say your most updated PCs, your user experience is actually pretty good,” said Whittall. “But if you’re sitting in other locations, maybe the other side of the world, and you’re using a shared computer that’s three, four years old [and] using a spinning disk drive, your user experience is very, very different. In fact, [it’s] pretty bad.” 

To counteract this bias, national security agencies should work closely with a broad range of individuals and focus on creating user scenarios and personas for several  different individuals who may be using the system. In creating personas and soliciting feedback from the warfighter, agencies can help negate the effects of false consensus and start designing better systems for all involved. 

Discover how ServiceNow can help your agency build better user experiences.

This content is made possible by our sponsor, ServiceNow. The editorial staff of DefenseOne was not involved in its preparation.

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