Incoming: Having Great Technology Isn't Enough; Operators Must Use it

July 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

Just about everybody who has worked for the Defense Department has encountered this: A new technology is deployed—a software application, new hardware, a piece of gear or a tool—and after using it, people discover it falls short of expectations. Perhaps it was difficult to operate. Or maybe it didn’t do what was needed. Or it might have done what was needed but did it poorly. Or it worked well enough for some use cases and not others.

This happens on occasion. But it occurs more frequently when there is a highly centralized acquisition and development process at work, such as at the Defense Department. Senior contracting officials assemble all the requirements for a capability; they select a vendor that fulfills the terms of the contract; and then, after some testing, the capability goes out to the field where the intended end users put it to use in the real, operational world.

When technology disappoints, military and civilian personnel will usually make do. In their impressive capacity to be resilient and innovative, they figure out a work-around. But the problem adds up to more than just disappointed end users. In some cases, the intended operators simply choose not to use the capability if, in their calculation, it does not fully meet their needs. This occurs far more frequently than it should, and when it does, Defense Department organizations waste considerable time, money and energy to field that capability.

With budget resources so tight, we no longer can afford to invest in capabilities that are not successfully deployed. In recent columns, I have discussed the need for the Defense Department to embrace new and innovative technologies as it prepares for future challenges, but it is equally important that Defense Department organizations embrace new approaches for how they design and field those technologies to ensure they live up to their promised results. In my experience, the best way to do this is through human-centered design, or HCD.

HCD is a research-based methodology that applies observation, collaboration and empathy to understand the needs of the operators and put those needs front and center when developing new and improved products, services and processes. It does this by bringing together in a room all stakeholders, studying how they interact to execute an activity, and discussing methodically how activities are done currently and how they can be improved and streamlined with new technology or tools. Stakeholders include the intended operators of the new capability, but they may also include others who directly or indirectly contribute to making the activity possible or who rely on the activity so they can perform their own duties.

Designers ask pointed questions of those stakeholders to discern where gaps, breakdowns and bottlenecks in an activity may occur. The simple act of getting all stakeholders in a room to discuss a shared activity can produce surprising results. Problems often emerge that were not even identified when the project started.

When product or system development projects proceed within narrow organizational silos—as many do—they can suffer from blind spots, resulting in capability shortfalls or services that meet only the needs of a small segment of stakeholders. However, when development teams view an activity from the many perspectives of all stakeholders, it results in a more holistic solution to the problem or need. This translates into more effective solutions and, consequently, solutions that enjoy wider adoption and success.

Another HCD factor that contributes to successful outcomes is co-creation. Collaboration among stakeholders can yield important insights used to enhance the end product. Participants develop a sense of ownership over the result and, in doing so, become champions and evangelists for the product within their organizations.

HCD has become a staple practice among innovators in the commercial world, and we see its results frequently in our everyday personal lives through rich user experiences that are easy, personalized, fast, intuitive and responsive. But within the Defense Department, HCD remains mostly unknown. The good news is, as more Defense Department organizations become exposed to it and realize the power that comes with it, the word is spreading.

The key takeaway here is that good design, centered around the operator, is not just convenient. As defense organizations increasingly field advanced technologies to meet future challenges, HCD can help them implement new and needed capabilities that perform better, are more widely accepted in the field, and translate into greater mission success.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.), is managing director for the Armed Forces Sector, Accenture Federal Services. She previously served as the CIO/G-6 for the U.S. Army as well as the commanding general for the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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