Northrop Grumman

Sep 19th 2019

UX: Transforming Defense


What is User Experience

User Experience (UX) is a holistic user-centered development process used to create more robust and capable complex systems by focusing on user needs. It is rooted in Human Factors Engineering and Ergonomics, but has shifted to include fields like Information Architecture, Human Factors, and Human-Computer Interaction, to name a few.

The Journey to UX

User experience has proven itself in a commercial environment to speed processes, increase capability and make tasks easier to accomplish, but it has only recently been seen in government processes. The initial launch of in October of 2013 brought user experience in this domain to the public’s attention. Two hours after its launch, the site crashed. Thousands of Americans experienced the frustration of using a website that didn’t yet have the capabilities they needed. A task force of commercial tech industry veterans was assembled to fix the critical issues with the site. It was up and running by December. Their success led to the creation of the U.S. Digital Service, a consultant to federal agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the success of their digital services.

To cultivate change, they created the Digital Service Playbook. The first three plays correlate directly with UX principles:

“1. Understand what people need.

2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish

3. Make it simple and intuitive”

This playbook is being implemented across the entire government because the U.S Digital Service’s goals are backed by the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Perhaps one of the most important government departments to implement these changes is the U.S. Department of Defense. The Defense Digital Service was created in 2015 as an agency team of the larger U.S. Digital Service to transform this critical department without jeopardizing national security. Sounds simple right? However, the result has been overwhelming success. Projects like Hack the Pentagon have increased cyber security and partnerships with branches of the armed forces have increased the usability of software tools and systems for military personnel. And really, when you’re making life and death decisions, wouldn’t you want the best information and the best tools?

Where We’re Headed

The effort to streamline software development and implement process change has led to changes in the way government departments interact with their contractors and vendors. In the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2019 fiscal year, the same requirements implemented by the U.S. Digital Service for government agencies have also became requirements for defense contractors. Many contractors operate in both commercial and government sectors and have seen the same benefits from those processes even on their government contracts. As Chief Technologist for Human-Machine Teaming at Northrop Grumman, Neta Ezer said, “User Experience is a key technology capability area for Northrop Grumman, helping the company to keep pace with the growing desire by the Government to have technology that improves the effectiveness and efficiency of the user to complete the mission.”

One such program is the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS), a contract held by Northrop Grumman. User-centered design practices have been a part of the IBCS effort since the contract’s original award in 2008. UX practitioners working on the program regularly meet with end users to determine their needs and address them with system capabilities. User testing allows the team to validate their designs. Fostering relationships with users has empowered them to bring issues or needs to the attention of development teams so they can be addressed before the system is fielded. The result is a more robust system that users already know and trust.

The success of UX on programs like IBCS has led to the creation of internal programs that cultivate user-centered design and development practices at Northrop Grumman to ensure the operational success of their products.

“Northrop [Grumman] has incorporated User Experience as a standard practice as part of our ‘Engineering Playbook’, offering a UX Academy for internal training and development, ” says Sandy Forney, Director of the Engineering Center of Excellence at Northrop Grumman.

Progress is just beginning. The future holds big changes for the defense industry.