It’s time for the DoD to adopt user centered design

The fear of allowing users to influence design and development has stymied too many organizations.
By Clark Pain
Design

It’s time that user-centered design practices are embraced across the board from Silicon valley to the Department of Defense. Nobody knows users’ needs better than users themselves.


User-centered design (UCD) has been a popular practice across many industries for decades and has spawned some of the most popular applications and user interfaces in the market today. Applications like AirBnB, Uber, and Robinhood have risen to popularity partly due to their ease of use and simplicity of operation. Young market disruptors, however, are not the only ones who have embraced UCD. Apple has famously built much of its competitive advantage through its use of user-centered design principles, and those principles have supported its rise to being one of the most valuable companies on earth.


If user-centered design drives applications that have fantastic track records, why do over 40% of companies not talk to their users during development and instead, develop their applications based on their own assumptions and requirements?




The answer is not that they believe they know more about user needs than the users themselves, but rather, that they are afraid to relinquish control of product development.


We tend to hold closely those things that we care about most, so you can’t blame an organization for wanting to control every aspect of an application’s development, as they want to ensure its success. However, doing so isolates a development team from their users, and they have no way of validating the assumed value of any of the features in development.


In the government space, acquisition entities are hellbent on being good stewards of taxpayer dollars, so they fixate on every feature being built exactly as specified. Without fail, this means users are separated from development programs and, more often than not, they produce tools that don’t meet users’ needs, ultimately wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.


In the private sector, when it becomes clear that a product is not on track to produce user value, investors or business leaders usually shut off the tap and the project is canceled.




Failing to delegate developmental authority to the user level all but guarantees that the product will be leaving value on the table.


Giving a development team the autonomy to develop what they believe will create the most value for their users may seem like a risky move, but an organization that practices UCD doesn’t need to trust their development teams; they only need to trust their users. Dev teams practicing UCD are simply catalysts; they discover user needs and then build a product that brings a solution into existence. Making user-centered design a core tenet of an organization’s development process effectively neutralizes any potential biases brought to the program by leaders or development teams, and ensures that the end product is truly valuable for the intended users.


Luckily, almost 60% of companies in the private sector do incorporate user input during development, and programs like Kobayashi Maru and Kessel Run are currently bringing user-centered design practices into the government space.


Companies excelling at design outperform competitors by more than double at times, which should be incentive enough for everyone to start bringing more user input into their design practices. Likewise in the government space, programs like Kessel Run and Kobayashi Maru have led the charge on bringing user-centered design to the warfighter.




User adoption and satisfaction rates are impressively high and development timelines decrease from years to months.


The fear of allowing users to influence design and development has stymied too many organizations, and it’s time that user-centered design practices are embraced across the board from Silicon valley to the Department of Defense. Nobody knows users’ needs better than users themselves, so let’s take an old adage and give it a twist: The USER is always right.

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