Human Centered Design: What Warfighters Need to Win, Part I

By Aaron Festinger, Machine Learning Engineer

As a Radio Telephone Operator (RTO) in an infantry platoon, I maintained radio communications throughout missions. The most advanced radio my unit had was the AN/PRC-150 Harris radio, which we called a ‘Harris.’ The Harris can transmit and receive VHF as well as broadcast/receive HF (shortwave) radio for beyond line of sight (BLOS) communications. The Harris can also form a tactical mesh network to broadcast data rather than speech. The tactical mesh network allows the Harris a secondary means of BLOS comms via radio-to-radio relays.

We also had the AN/PRC-119 radio known as an ‘ASIP.’ The ASIP has the basic VHF capability offered by the Harris in a similarly sized package. But even though the Harris radio had greater capabilities, it sat in the connex shipping container through all our missions while the ASIP was used. It may seem strange that we preferred the radio with lesser capabilities, but there are good reasons for it, which are far more apparent to the operator on the ground. The Harris was just too complicated.

Examples such as this illustrate how people working on the technology development side of defense often fail to anticipate the needs of the warfighters whom they endeavor to serve. Expanded capabilities are advantageous in theory but come at too high a cost in their complexity. The solution is human centered design (HCD). Building in ease of use by practicing HCD is essential to creating practical, effective tactical equipment. HCD enables development of robust tools that simplify tasks. And in the case of the warfighter, these tools can save lives.

Key to tactical success: lightweight simplicity

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Tactical success requires seizing initiative while denying the adversary opportunity to respond effectively. Taking action with haste and secrecy is paramount to success. To that end, ground troops and all in the tactical professions strive to optimize speed, covertness, accuracy, and precision.

The warfighter who trains to perform combat tasks in this manner is an athlete, and as with any athlete, equipment has certain desirable characteristics. One is reliability to ensure consistent performance. Warfighters must be prepared to perform consistently across different types of terrain and conditions, many of which are unforgivably harsh and chaotic. This makes technological simplicity, ruggedness, and lightweight design necessities.

Good military equipment is as light as possible while being devastatingly simple and virtually indestructible. Of the three of these, simplicity is the most important, but this is often underestimated as a critical factor. The battlefield is a chaotic place, and the strictures of being operable while the operator struggles to maintain enough situational awareness to shoot, move, and communicate dictate a more exacting definition of simplicity. Anything that adds complexity without making an essential task substantially more achievable should be left in the connex. Conversely, something that simplifies the combat experience will be treated as essential even if it does not make a substantial contribution to capabilities. A good example of this would be custom kit items and GPS devices that many operators carry even at personal expense.

Evicting The Good Idea Fairy

“Military term; The Good Idea Fairy is an evil mythical creature that whispers advice and ideas into the ears of military leadership, causing hundreds of unnecessary changes and countless wasted man-hours every year.” —Urban Dictionary

The overall takeaway for those who outfit ground troops’ equipment is that every piece of equipment must be dead-simple, lightweight, and highly robust to have a real likelihood of becoming a part of the modern warfighter’s standard kit. Simple and lightweight equipment is beloved by warfighters because it makes operational chaos more tolerable and orderly. Something more complex or bulky which provides an indispensable advantage will be brought along (out of necessity) regardless but will be resented for its excesses and may prove to be a liability.

The perfect device provides a quantum-leap advantage for an essential task while remaining small and weightless. It can withstand practically limitless punishment, and it is easy enough for a novice to use while running toward or away from a lethal enemy. That last part is where many high-tech accoutrements fail to prove themselves and end up in The Good Idea Fairy pile. Whether a particular device can be designed to overcome this hurdle can be determined by the minimum viable product concept: Can it be made so that it achieves its primary function without much more than a single button push? If so, build it that way. Otherwise, back to the drawing board.

In Part II of this series, we’ll discuss acoustically based artificial intelligence for simplified situational awareness that can truly support the warfighter when designed to be lightweight and simple. In the meantime, for questions on Octo’s approach to HCD an d how we work with warfighters as end users, reach out to a member of Team Octo.