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Commentary: For usability’s sake

We know the universal question of what systems win battles and what makes us boil. Is it usable?

My blood pressure is high.

I know it is because I’ve been monitoring it for some time.

But this is not a health editorial for those who pull their sleeve up daily for a pressure cuff — with memories of saltier meals — will testify.

We march through many stressful changes in the services. Some of us are managers and designers in the comprehensive technology that encircled us. And we know the universal question of what systems win battles and what makes us boil. Is it usable?

I push the Start button on my BP monitor and calmly hope for 120/80: it’s simple, intuitive, and makes sense.

That one-button design is something that smart people factored in for me, and now it enhances lives. Perfection in simplicity, it’s said, comes from managing the details.

But it still seems that I woke up one day surrounded by the complex pushed down on me.

So when I finger through the intricate — the messes of poor design so many spend defeat and time on — it makes me cry for usability.

I was shopping at my market when a disabled woman sitting in an electric cart turned to me, frustrated, and said: “Could you hold this [door]?”

She wanted to reach into a fresh vegetable cooler to get an item.

“I don’t know why they put these on,” she said. “More handles makes no sense,” referring to the pandemic.

I held the flimsy plexiglass door open, recalling exposed vegetable sections during my last shopping trip. I offered more help, but the woman thanked me, said she was OK, and wheeled on.

She was right. Cooler doors are installed throughout that market now. I need to grab handles everywhere — using a disinfectant wipe. Opened, they cram shopping carts and shoppers together. I tried to think from the market’s financial perspective, how they save energy. There’s no way they make the experience quicker or safer.

On my BP monitor, I’d probably rate that usefulness 130/85.

I was due a computer-based training course. The services have them as part of our readiness. Emails warn those with an approaching due date, and it’s a good start.

But I navigated through menus to find it from two similar-looking but different online learning sites. First, I stumbled through the correct security login certificates. Then I froze three web browsers. Finally, I picked from like-named course titles incorrectly and considered if popup messages involved my needs.

They did not. After navigating nearly 40 minutes, I accomplished the 10-minute CBT. Others maybe gave up. We have schedules. Some started in a good mood, and by the end of that training, were tight-fisted. How much knowledge did it assume from customers in a chain of critical actions to completion?

That user-experience felt like a BP 140/90.

I’ve tried to take deep breaths when I encounter designed systems not inclusive to users but serve managers or are dust-covered and haphazard. I am certain that you have examples.

Often, I consider if the “close enough for government work” idiom is the reason. Or the “they’ll figure it out” brush off. Then I bite my tongue, but now it comes to this.

As managers, I feel we can do more in familiarizing ourselves with customer’s experiences. Some call it proactive usability testing. We continue seeking improvements, fixing things before they break, and always make stuff more useable. Others call it empathy. 

I saw a social media post by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass in December concerning the “U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff’s Action Orders to Accelerate Change Across the Air Force” and the “call to Airmen to move forward aggressively in the push toward change.”

Chief Bass shared a meme of a complicated military website menu to make a point. It was similar to my online training story. I am thankful for her empowering post. I realize that a people-first approach cannot develop fully without systems and designs that value usability.

Usability fits into the four CSAF Action Orders of Airmen, Bureaucracy, Competition, and Design. It begins with studying and appreciating users. It applies through hard work on improvements, with simplicity and ease of use. When we do not support that continuous effort, it is exasperating to others.

There are books on usability that can help with innovations. Why not study them? Our efforts may not be as simple as a single button like my BP monitor, but it can undoubtedly uncomplicate the complicated as we accelerate change and lower this tension.

(U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith is the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center’s public affairs manager and studied Professional and Technical Communications with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute.)

By Eartheditor

Hello. I am a prior U.S. Navy sailor and photojournalist serving on active duty with the National Guard – combined, for more than 22 years. This blog features my more memorable stories and photos from that news pile as well as creative writing. All images and stories are by me unless otherwise credited. I hope to backlog more as well as write new stories. Thank you so much.
- Mike R. Smith

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