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Commentary: For usability’s sake

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.)

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News

CMSAF joins 300+ Airmen in EPME virtual-training discussion

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass joined a teleconference with more than 300 Airmen enrolled virtually in NCO academy and Airman leadership school with instructors at the Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center in East Tennessee.

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News

FAQs for virtual in-resident remote NCO Academy and Airman leadership school

FRIENDSVILLE, Tenn. – With so many things impacted by COVID-19, the U.S. Air Force response included a suspended NCO academy and Airman leadership school for Airmen. Both courses are requirements for promotion to NCO and senior NCO, as well as provide essential knowledge for aspiring leaders.

Here’s the good news: they are available remotely now through virtual in-resident remote enlisted professional military education.

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National Guard training and education center outlines strategic plan

The Air National Guard’s training and education center in East Tennessee this month released a five-year Strategic Plan designed to outline its priorities and lines of effort from 2020 through 2024.

The I.G. Brown Training and Education Center will work on its main priorities: Take Care of Team TEC; Increase Readiness; Develop Exceptional Leaders.

Also, the Strategic Plan calls for the engagement of its staff and faculty to reach their full potential. Each priority identifies a team, and a deliverable date, as well as lines of effort, key terms, and focus areas for progressing into the future. The plan’s guiding values are respect, trust, and engagement.

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commentary

Commentary: Is respect changing?

Editor’s note: Commentary by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith. This is the sixth article in an ongoing series in which the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center staff and faculty share their perspectives and spark discussion about the organization’s lines of effort.

There are people in this world that I’ve never met that would stand unfulfilled in an extended handshake to me as well as there are strangers that I would risk my life protecting. In my face-to-face dealings with leaders, coworkers, people, and groups, gaining and giving my respect lies somewhere subjectively between those poles.

I believe that understanding respect is an introspective journey to how and why we value others, organizations, and ourselves. As they say in the office and on the battlefield, leaders cannot demand our respect; they must earn it through repeated actions that support our ideals.

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EPME faculty discuss fiscal year accomplishments

Airmen serving as faculty at the U.S. Air Force’s largest enlisted professional military education center considered their year of accomplishments this week just as the first NCO Academy and Airman Leadership School classes started for 2020.

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Education center considers future with new mission, vision

By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. — Less than a month after taking charge of the U.S. Air National Guard’s primary learning center here, its Commander, Col. Kenneth Lozano, challenged faculty and staff to retailor their mission and vision statements.

“We want to take TEC to new heights, and developing a shared mission and vision is an important step in that,” Colonel Lozano said.

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commentary

Commentary: Why we should sing a loud service song

The playing of The U.S. Air Force song is one of the few moments we have to sing out with gusto for the service. In basic training, we sang loud in cadence, not only to keep in step but with a feeling of teamwork that the Airman next to us bellowed out “Mama, Mama, Can’t You See” or “Everywhere We Go.” A squeaky or off-key voice was of little attention. The mindset was to build confidence, so the louder we sounded off in rhythm, the better the formation looked.

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Leadership students see the finish line

United States Air Force Noncommissioned Officer Academy students in Class 19-6 were checking off the remaining blocks in their final days before graduation next Tuesday.

Nominees for the Chief Master Sergeant Paul H. Lankford Enlisted PME Center’s commandant award took a group photo with Chief Master Sgt. Steven Durrance, commandant, outside his office, today, June 21.

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National Guard generals call all ranks to involvement in force’s strategy

The Air National Guard’s Strategic Planning System has been developing priorities for about 13 years (2006), and while “strategy” is in its name, its perspective on matters of utmost significance relies on a shared dialog and input from the highest general to the most junior Airman, its leaders recently said.