KATHERINE M. ZHOU
 

AIR FORCE

Time is of the essence, especially when there are lives at stake on the battlefield. While working as a contracted designer at the US Air Force via IBM, I had the exciting opportunity to build a product that has the potential of playing a huge role in saving hours for officers and enlisted members of the Air Force (AF).

I have omitted and obfuscated confidential information in this case study to comply with my NDA. All information shown (including terminology, names, and data) is my own and does not reflect IBM or the Air Force.

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CHALLENGE

The clients (high-ranking officers) I supported at the Air Force expressed their frustration at the burdensome process they had to undergo to collect data from the teams that they oversaw. This data was crucial, as it informed them as they developed their mission plans. The amount of time wasted on trying to navigate clunky webpages for all of the teams they oversaw was shocking. Essentially, the fundamental question was: how do you nix an established but inefficient system and redesign a new process for accessing live information from a variety of sources?

 
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Clunky and uncoordinated.

Imagine having to source your data from a variety of scattered AF teams, all of which present their information on their own Sharepoint sites. Not only are the sites themselves hard to navigate and not consistent in their information architecture, but the process itself allows for many errors and oversights.

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OBSERVING

The primary users were the Air Force officers that wanted to streamline the way they retrieved information from the teams that they oversaw. Our secondary users were the team leads that were responsible for providing access to the data that they had accumulated in their respective fields. We needed to find a way to optimize both of their experiences in a convergent way. By using empathy maps and plotting our their customer experience journeys to find pain points, we were able to isolate specific problems.

 
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Lt Col Mia

Primary Sponsor User

Lt Col Mia has a lot on her plate and has steadily climbed the AF ladder. Currently she oversees over a dozen teams and is responsible for turning the field data they collect into viable strategies for the future. She feels frustrated at times because the current process for gathering data from her teams is incredibly time consuming and messy.

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CMSgt Ahmed

Secondary Sponsor User

CMSgt Ahmed is the lead for one of the teams (let's call it Team Falcon) that Lt Col Mia oversees. Every other week, he updates the site for Team Falcon so that Lt Col Mia can access it. He's no coder by any means; he only uses the rich text editor on the Sharepoint site to enter data and updates. He's not a fan of the layout of the site (it's incredibly confusing), but he's not confident that he can do anything to change it.

 

After conducting short user interviews with several officers in the Air Force, we were able to figure out a few key pain points and frustrations for our clients. We asked them several questions, including the following:

  1. What is your process for completing your mission tasks?
  2. What technological resources and limitations do you currently have?
  3. Has there ever been a time where an error (human or technological) occurred during the current process? If yes, how did that make you feel and think?

As you can see in the following visual representation, the amount of frustration increases during the collation process. The officers expressed the difficulty of accessing the data due to the unstandardized Sharepoint sites that they had to sift through for each team that they oversaw.

 
 
Customer Journey Map x Pain Points
 
 

One particular detail we were excited to learn about was that due to new budget allocations, the Air Force had started to integrate iPads as widely distributed tools for the enlisted members, officers, and civilians (especially so amongst the first group). This was exciting because it allowed us to utilize a new and more versatile platform for the product, and also alleviated some of the frustrations that our users had previously.

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CREATING

 

Following the observation phase, we mapped out a conceptual idea of how the new process should look. We focused on our primary sponsor users, officers like Lt Col Mia, who desperately needed a streamlined way of fulfilling their mission tasks.

 
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Slow, inefficient, and chaotic.

Officers would have to proactively view the individual websites for each team they oversaw in order to access the important information they needed for their missions. Overall, it was an entirely clunky and disorganized process. On average, the collation process could take an entire day. Furthermore, the fact that they could only access their teams' websites via the not-so-portable laptops they had made it more difficult to access data when they needed to be mobile.

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Streamlined, controlled, and agile.

The new product would alleviate the process for officers as they collate data to inform their mission developments. By funneling all the sources into one channel for officers to access easily given their technical capacities, this product reduces error and frustration, while also saving a lot of time. Our goal was to have the officers cut down their collation process from an average of 5 hours to less than 1 hour.

 
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Opportunity: How do you create a single platform that creates one channel for the primary user to access data from a variety of sources, as opposed to the previous process of searching for information via multiple channels?

Solution: Allow users to access all of the data from relevant teams through one dashboard, which is fully customizable. This gives the user more autonomy and reduces the choice overload from the previous process.

 
 

Opportunity: How do you allow users to keep track of their tasks and progress as well as integrate it with their existing technology for fulfilling missions?

Solution: Include a hub for users to see a bird's eye glance at their current tasks and fulfillment status, as well as their base rosters. Also allow users to push collated data to the existing infrastructure that they leverage to move on with the completed tasks.

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Opportunity: How do you allow officers to maintain a clear channel of communication with their respective teams so that the process can be truly agile?

Solution: Integrate a direct messaging feature into the product so that officers can directly coordinate with team leads and obtain the correct information in a timely manner.

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PROTOTYPE

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the new US Air Force Data Portal.

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INSIGHT

 

After interacting with the Invision prototype and understanding its potential, the Air Force officers were excited to see how one of their most mundane tasks could be turned into something easy and efficient. They were also excited to know that they could integrate this product with their newly funded iPads, as they were still exploring the dynamic ways that they could apply their tablets in their day-to-day work. Like most Department of Defense projects of this scope, the actual implementation of the product would have to undergo multiple approvals down the chain of command in Air Force leadership, a process which took longer than my tenure as a contracted designer on the project. So while I personally did not get to see this product beyond its prototype phase, I do have aspirations for next steps and considerations:

  1. Systems Design: This involves working closely with developers to determine how to scale the product in a secure manner and ensure that it meshes with the existing architecture that the Air Force has implemented for its enlisted members and officers. How severe are the constraints for traffic and data handling, and how can we modify the product so that the thousands of field grade officers utilizing the product on bases won't experience lagging? Given that most of the existing infrastructure for our clients ran on heavily restricted SharePoint servers, what particular bottlenecks can we pinpoint and mitigate?
  2. Usability Testing: Once the product is developed, usability testing would need to be implemented to evaluate the performance of the product and make sure that it aligns with the expected outcomes. By utilizing a Likert scale to observe how several officers feel about the product and its various components, we can analyze what needs to be improved upon or completely changed.
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Takeaways

1. When working in DoD spaces, the challenge is to work within the existing technological confinements. There were times when it felt frustrating, but there were also little victories (like when we learned that tablets could be utilized as the device of choice!). 

2. Overhauling an established process in any organization, but especially in the federal space, takes TIME. In hindsight, had I known the full extent of this timeline, I might have proposed a solution that was not as big of a leap. However, I am glad that I was able to propose a "moonshot" and plant a seed.

3. Security is of utmost importance and must be prioritized. Even while working on my prototypes via Sketch and Invision, I had to be careful and ensure that any work I did on those third party applications was encrypted, private, and safe. This was also a factor that I had to consider while designing the product itself.