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.


  1. Dan - December 15, 2006 @ 10:59 am

    I’ve often heard the example of human factors investment on aircraft cockpits and I really wonder if its actually effective. I’m not a pilot but when I do get a close look at the instrument panels it resembles exactly what you described in your nuclear submarine. Just panels with a jumbled bunch of gauges, toggle switches, and buttons.

  2. Jim Stogdill - December 15, 2006 @ 11:15 am


    It looks like that to you because the cockpit UX is designed for someone who will receive significant training in it’s use. The design emphasizes low-effort usage by a highly trained operator over obviousness.

    You find the same thing in systems like airline reservation systems. For people that use them all day every day they are fast and efficient. To the rest of us they are completely opaque and useless unless Orbitz builds a UI on it that emphasizes obvious over efficient.

    Not every interface that recieves UX attention in its design will be good, but most that don’t are bad.

  3. John - December 15, 2006 @ 1:31 pm

    So there’s definitely a tradeoff between quick-and-easy usability and long-term productivity and efficiency. I completely agree that a 475 page user manual is overkill, but in the absence of in-person training, might it be necessary to achieve the level of efficiency they’re striving for?

  4. Jim Stogdill - December 15, 2006 @ 1:58 pm


    Perhaps. Though I think better design is to have the basic functions of the application easily understood and then have the more advanced functions become understandable as the user’s experience grows. A user manual can certainly support that process though I think online help is a more effective way to distribute that content.

    By the way, one of the reasons I find the idea of the 475 page user manual (and the idea that significant training would be required) is that when I attend excercises it never seems like the people in the chairs actually received the training (nor do they know where to find the manual).

    Lots of training is offered throughout the force on these systems but often the people running them during a contingency aren’t necessarily the ones that receive the training. So the “casual user” usability has to be addressed for at least most-used functions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *