The benefits of User-Centred Design in Defence User-Centred Design (UCD) is about ensuring users are at the centre of all we do, whether it’s designing or upgrading a product, application or service. It is about minimising our own biases and assumptions and instead, through user research and evidence, we build products that users actually need.

But it’s not a new phenomenon. While Apple technology (circa 2007) brought it to the mainstream, which then propelled it into its own multimillion-pound industry, there is evidence to support that it was part of ancient civilisations such as the Greeks, and how they designed their tools and workplaces based on what we now call ergonomic principles.
But how can this approach work in a sector like Defence? Actually, pretty well. 

Users first and always

On first glance, UCD can sound a bit like interviewing and yes, it is qualitative. However, UCD has noted differentiators. For example, good UCD practitioners will deploy what is referred to as the ‘Master-Student’ technique. Put simply, we go in to observe and listen and we ask questions of understanding later.
Try this quick experiment at home or in the office. Look at a product you use frequently and ask yourself ‘can I see if UCD was used in its design’? Take your microwave oven interface. Chances are you may have taken longer on your first attempt to find the right sequence to initiate the 30 second cooking time you wanted to warm up your food. You either have to realign your preferences per session or just live with it.
These user-centric design issues are not restricted to day-to-day products either. In one example, a product was being tested and it was attached to a vehicle dashboard and precisely at that point, it was rendered unusable.
That’s because the device had been built in a workshop rather than contextually, so when the sun shone brightly on its test day the device interface was totally unreadable. A small mistake but it was discovered after the product had been built, which meant redesigning the colours and interface capability; refitting the device and no doubt retesting it in various environmental conditions for good measure. Not exactly the most efficient or effective way in designing a product.

Bigging up the benefits

So, what are the benefits of UCD in Defence? Three immediately come to mind. Firstly, to understand context. Those of us who design products, applications or services must-not second-guess how others use a product or assume our own behaviours can fill gaps of understanding.
Even if we deploy the best practices around psychological, physiological and sociological ways of working, that will not identify hidden insights such as what workarounds users may have developed; whether there are time-pressured aspects in completing tasks; what is the end to end workflow and whether the system itself has shortfalls, through no actual fault of its own.
Secondly, UCD methodology is iterative by nature which encourages cross functional collaboration, continuous learning and improvement, and any design or course corrections are small nudges rather than seismic shifts. And thirdly, all of these complement Agile methodology which in turn empowers teams to develop, learn and discard basic prototypes as we build better functionality.

Balancing budgets

We empathise with our clients as projects constantly compete for budget, time and resources.  However, this is perhaps still one of the underestimated benefits of good UCD methodology. You do not need a cast of thousands, user researchers or participants to gather sound evidence and build a feature or product with confidence, purpose and value. The ROI will be measurable as soon as the functionality is released.
There are numerous articles and metrics from private and public sector programmes alike that recognise the ROI value that even the smallest investment in UCD will reap rewards as the product evolves. Again, think about the dashboard interface design that the sun rendered useless. Good user research would have identified that scenario long before prototyping and testing.
If the approach embraces both the methodology and industry standards and stays true throughout, a small team of user researchers will capture insights, metrics, ROI and reassurance that the activity is on the right path, just as a series of large-scaled, semi structured interviews in a controlled area will also do. UCD lends itself to anyone who wishes to understand contextual user behaviour. And by engaging with users and taking them on the journey of Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live cycles it will ensure that functionality will be built in, rather than bolted on.
A final point that we know through user research is that the modern-day conflict zone is both data and digital intensive. Exercises ‘within the zone’ will generate petabytes of information, much of which may be discarded or siloed because the decision-maker is simply unable to physically decipher the data in time.
As part of our award-winning engagement with the Royal Navy, we have shown that UCD is an integral part of how we deliver new ways of working. Our most recent showcase, Route Survey and Tasking Analytics, illustrates its benefits in Defence and ensures that the right information gets to the right user, at the right time and in the right context.

About the author
Helena Bishop is a human-centred design consultant at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

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Helena Bishop

Human-Centred Design Consultant, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence