Power of the user

Why taking users on the deployment journey is critical for the effective use of 4iR technology in mission-critical environments.

The emergence of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4iR) looks set to transform the nature of work, boost productivity, and enable organisations to deliver greater value at less cost. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and automation are at the heart of these changes, giving us the ability to reimagine the way we use technology to achieve success.

How well people can discharge the potential of 4iR to achieve time, cost and performance improvements is highly dependent on how well the technology has been designed for their use and how much input potential users have had in its test and development prior to adoption. 4iR technology can enable success if the deployment process engages users from the outset, or it can obstruct it if the user experience is deprioritised as market forces such as time and cost take over. When this happens the results are tools and approaches that hinder the deployment of successful capability, and a negative impact on team morale.

In commercial organisations the impact of this error is often seen as inconsequential. And whilst the reality is that poor user engagement frequently derails adoption, most organisations take the view that this can be offset and addressed incrementally. In defence, security and critical infrastructure (CI) environments the impact becomes considerably more acute. No longer is the impact restricted to productivity, efficiency and team morale. It is now safety of life and protection of wellbeing. If a commercial employee is forced to use a technology that isn’t fit for purpose they could find themselves unable to do their job properly, hindering personal and company performance. In mission-critical environments the consequences are exponentially more severe. 

Adopting user-first principles throughout design, testing, and procurement phases is by no means alien for defence, security and CI organisations, but is not yet ingrained as a default approach. Novel equipment and services are usually assessed against strictly defined capability requirements and user engagement in that process is limited. But as 4iR technology becomes a more influential part of force capability generation there is an increased need to engage users in the adoption process for several important reasons:

  1. 4iR technology is largely commercial in its conception. It was never designed for these types of highly-regulated, mission-critical environments. The amount of work required to transfer 4iR from commercial concept to a mission-ready capability and ensure an immediate fit for purpose is therefore considerable. And given that 4iR represents a monumental shift rather than incremental innovation, the role of testing, experimentation and training needs to increase dramatically to provide the required levels of assurance and resilience in hostile settings. Trying to achieve this without paying due attention to how users interact with the technology to deliver the specific outcomes their roles demand is a huge risk.
  2. The user base in defence, security and CI differs significantly from that in a commercial environment. Firstly, the personas involved can be significantly diverse across the two settings. Personal characteristics, demographics, background, education, and culture are often very different between defence/security/CI and corporate users, as are the outcomes they need to achieve from 4iR deployment in the field. If the users and associated requirements differ so significantly, any user-centred testing undertaken within the original commercial innovation process will have limited value for these mission-critical markets and must be refined to ensure solutions are fit-for-purpose.
  3. It’s not yet clear exactly what the end state of 4iR technology will be. As it continues to advance at a ferocious pace it is likely that the emerging equipment and services we want to deploy two years from now will differ from what we see today. To cope with the pace of change there needs to be an equally rapid pace of deployment. Defence, security and CI may therefore need to consider the possibility that a continuous process of testing, experimentation and training will be required to match the speed of innovation and adversary adoption. The ability to take users with them through an ongoing process of evaluation is likely to reduce the timeline for deployment.

The level of user engagement will be new to many organisations in these markets but it’s not new for all industries. Consumer-facing organisations already achieve competitive advantage by making user experience a central part of their design, test and development process. Although a very different environment, defence, security and CI organisations can learn valuable lessons from companies that have already found huge success through the prioritisation of the following user-centred principles:

  1. Understand the user inherently – without a detailed work up of who will be using the technology in the field it is impossible to integrate 4iR technology to fit their specific requirements. Organisations should work with target users to map their requirements and their demands to ensure the person operating the technology is not a weak link in the deployment chain.
  2. Understand the context inherently – understand the situations in which users will need to deploy 4iR technologies. Use scenario mapping to appreciate the variables in those situations and understand the factors influencing people’s ability to deploy the technology successfully. Look at: micro and macro factors; technical and environmental factors; and individual and team dynamics.
  3. Involve users throughout the design and testing process – it is not enough to consult once and then take the programme forward without further user engagement. Bring users in at all stages prior to deployment. Let them support the design, test and training process equally and don’t be afraid to let them take charge. They will be the ones using the technology so they need to do more than answer questions. As they use the technology they will be able to advise on changes that will improve the value of new capabilities.
  4. Involve users through the technology lifecycle – user-centred design should be a journey not a destination. Successful deployment is not when user engagement ends. Feedback loops, ongoing training and enhancement, and regular testing programmes should all involve users as a way to enable a process of continuous improvement and the ongoing identification of weaknesses.

Organisations in all markets often overlook the importance of considering user experience when designing and introducing new tools and techniques. More fundamentally, they also often neglect to incorporate sufficient input from the very people within the organisation who will have to use them the most. We must not create a future where mission-critical organisations make the same mistakes. The people we rely on in defence, security and CI must not be prevented from exploiting the benefits of 4iR because they haven’t adopted the proven user-centred approaches already embraced by consumer-facing industries as a way to achieve competitive advantage. There is a better way, one that that is more user-aware and that recognises why good user experiences are not just a useful option for added value, but a crucial enabler to realising the potential of a huge range of different emerging technologies.