PODCAST: Transforming the U.S. Air Force into a Design-Centric Organization
User experience isn’t just important, it’s crucial — and even life-saving. Colt Whittall, the first Chief Experience Officer for the U.S. Air Force, & Maximus senior leaders discuss the importance of UX and CX in defense.
The United States Air Force is known for its high-tech equipment and advanced capabilities in the field. In recent years, the service has made a concerted effort to modernize its enterprise systems to support multiple functions. As it embarked on its digital transformation journey, the Air Force realized the importance of a good customer and user experience (CX/UX) in accomplishing its mission because it added to productivity. In 2019 the Air Force elevated this principle in its modernization program when it became the only service to hire a chief experience officer, Colt Whittall. Whittall has been pushing the user experience concept as part of a “digital Air Force” that enhances the way airmen interact with the tools they use every day.
On a recent episode of “The Government Huddle Podcast,” he joined Brian Chidester for a discussion around improving the Pentagon’s view of user experience, its fundamental role in mission success, and some recent wins and key priorities.
Whittall has been a strong advocate for what he calls "experience modernization" within the Air Force. This concept centers on the idea that the Air Force must evolve its systems and processes to meet the needs of the modern airman, who is often operating in complex and dynamic environments.
“Experience modernization is not just about acquiring new technology; it is about creating a culture of innovation and agility that allows the Air Force to stay ahead of its adversaries,” Whittall explained.
He went on to describe how many defense agencies still rely on older software development methodologies, which is why a key Air Force initiative has been to promote the use of agile development. Agile emphasizes collaboration, flexibility, and rapid iteration so that development teams can respond quickly to changing requirements. The result is software delivery that meets the needs of users more effectively.
Whittall also discussed how the government has been more willing to use human-centered design principles. Using the example of maintenance systems, he noted that traditional maintenance is a highly manual and paper-based process that often leads to delays in getting aircraft and systems back in the service. Whittall introduced new digital tools and processes that allow maintenance crews to shorten downtime and better meet the demands of the mission.
“My job is to delight the customer, but we need a different bar, one that is about efficiency, about a warfighter, one that is oriented towards the mission that we have for our software and its application. We need to help our airmen be productive, efficient and effective.”
Whittall concluded with a point about how training challenges must be addressed in order for airmen to use technology and improve productivity. He suggests using Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology to create immersive learning experiences that are more engaging than traditional classroom-based training. Airmen could use VR to practice complex maneuvers in a simulated environment, or AR to overlay information on real-world scenarios, allowing them to make better decisions in the field.
"We need to stop thinking about training as a one-time event that happens at the beginning of a career. Instead, we need to embrace a continuous learning mindset that provides ongoing education and development opportunities throughout an airman's career."
Maximus Experts Highlight How CX/UX Delivers Greater Productivity
Appearing later in the podcast episode was Maximus’s Air Force Market Leader Nate Aiken and MaryAnn Monroe, Senior Director of Total Experience Solutions and Services. They discussed their approaches to common challenges and how CX/UX help address these obstacles to drive mission success.
“Missions have become so reliant on data ingest for mission execution,” began Aiken. “Today’s applications have to be intuitive because the airman doesn’t have time for them not to be effective. Agile development plays a critical role in creating applications that are easy to learn and effective so airmen can focus on the mission.”
Picking up where Whittall left off about human-centered design (HCD), Monroe discussed how HCD puts users at the center of product design processes. By declaring and demonstrating their needs and behaviors, users inform designers so that systems, applications, and tools are intuitive to use.
“It’s fundamental in a human-centered design world that you really understand your user persona and what their journey is. Measurement is at the heart of this too. Measurement looks different depending on what you’re delivering.”
Monroe also stressed that while the work of aligning systems with journey mapping might be done by programmers, an agency will get the best results when it takes a team approach. She recommended bringing together programmers, IT management staff, CX/UX designers, government program owners and intended users to participate.
Monroe cited one defense agency that relies on Maximus for designing web applications and mobile apps. The Maximus team “brings service members into the process, into the lab to interview them and to help understand and identify what problems the organization is trying to solve.”
Aiken echoed Whittall’s emphasis on modernization and because it introduces technologies the Air Force uses to gain more insight and ask questions of their data.
“We have seen a shift from government being laggards in technology adoption to a proactive posture where they are gaining insight through data to understand the commercially available technologies that can really drive our mission forward.”
Overall, the work being done in supporting experience modernization in the Air Force is helping to ensure that the service remains at the forefront of military technology and capability. By promoting agile development, HCD, and the use of emerging technologies, the Air Force is helping to create a culture of innovation and agility that will be critical to the overall DoD success as more modernization programs get deployed.