December 14, 2006 by jimstogdill
Are you kidding? I can’t use this
Once upon a time I was an Engineering Officer of the Watch on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. That job required that I be able to quickly read and understand three panels worth of gauges, meters, and indicators while simultaneously making sense of a whole array of audible and visual alarms, verbal status updates, and noises filtering in from the engine room. It took over a year of training just to get to the point where this started to be feasible, and about three more months standing watch on the ship before it really started to gel. It was just too damned complex.
I was reminded of this the other day when I reviewed a copy of a “User’s Manual” for a military targeting system we are doing some work on. It was 475 pages.
In a Navy submarine, most of the requisite training was to learn how the propulsion plant actually worked. It was sort of taken for granted that once you knew how things worked under the covers, the “user interface” to the plant, such as it was, would make sense (not necessarily a great assumption).
In software such as this targeting system, the underlying systems and processes are often kind of obvious. You don’t need to understand enthalpy, thermal neutron flux, and the impact of water temperature and pressure on neutron moderation to understand targeting. You nearly ONLY need to understand how to use the software.
So, back to the 475 page manual. Really? In this day and age? Will anyone read this?
Why is it that an organization that wouldn’t dream of building a jet fighter without spending millions of dollars and countless hours designing around the pilot’s human factors, won’t consider the training costs, reduced warfighting efficiency, and general irritation of having to have a 475 page user manual to describe what should be a relatively simple software interface? Especially when that same organization practically invented the concept of human factors design? Why not build software that is entirely (or at least mostly) usable with no manual at all?
User experience design matters. In a military context it can save lives. Yet I haven’t worked on a project in this space that had any kind of emphasis at all on UX. I would start a UX practice tomorrow if I could figure out how to get my customers to use it.