Opinion

Expanding software design in the DoD — the benefits and challenges

Software modernization remains a key focus area in government. Keeping up with expectations set by the private sector is a daunting task for many agencies, and the Department of Defense is no different. User expectations will continue to grow at an accelerated rate. There is no question — there are technological certainties in the government, but how will project teams keep pace with changing user demands? Development must occur. Modernization must occur. But, if users are not effectively engaged, then the time, effort and dollars put into these efforts will flounder at the adoption layer.

Design is often perceived as something you do to make things look better; therefore, many project teams struggle to integrate design and understand its value. This struggle is even more prevalent in government. The federal acquisition process does not usually account for user requirements, and the bureaucratic systems that make up business operations make meaningful user-based design onerous.

Consider the fact that there are over 10 roles in the design field, ranging from interaction designer and user experience (UX) designer to visual designer and UX researcher. Each role has value alone, but combined, they have a compounding effect. Unfortunately, many government agencies do not have robust equivalent career paths to their private sector counterparts, and federal agencies are forced to hire this talent under other fields. The DOD could harness past lessons from other organizations and increase its overall effectiveness and produce better products in less time. These benefits directly translate to return on investment in three ways: faster approvals, improved experiences and reduced cost.

To better understand the value of design, one must understand what motivates designers. This is worth understanding because culture and team cohesion are critical components of successful modernization efforts. Designers are educated to think about creating usable products driven by user needs. They put users at the center of the problem and, in many cases, focus on “jobs to be done” or start with the end in mind — techniques geared explicitly to getting into users’ minds. These points are centerpieces of effective user-centered design, which focuses on empathizing with users to formulate better solutions.

Designers also take the environments where users perform these tasks into account. This is how design and engineering interact. Immersion into the users’ environment, infrastructure, problems, knowledge and constraints is critical. The primary tenet is to produce products that are more efficient and usable. These objectives are sometimes at odds with project teams, and in many cases, may stray from what’s feasible given timeframes, budget, lack of institutional knowledge, technical constraints and available resources. However, to capture as much return as possible, DoD would need to mature its design process and learn how to integrate the discipline into its existing and future project work streams.

Consider this finding from a 2019 report titled “The New Design Frontier” from InVision: “92 percent of companies with the most mature design functions can draw a straight line between their design teams’ work and their company’s revenue.”

Design maturity is a leading indicator related to improving application usability, compliance and user satisfaction. The U.S. government is in the early phase of incorporating design standards on projects. In 2018, the government signed into law the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), which aims to improve the overall digital experience for government-facing websites. In the same year, the Department of Defense established the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) to spearhead national security AI initiatives. The goal of the JAIC is to accelerate the deployment of AI innovations across the enterprise. An important part of its strategy is the incorporation of modern software principles on both operational initiatives and AI-specific projects.

Effective design manifests in frameworks like human-centered design and resources like a design system, which can be measured by user satisfaction, reduced training and product adoption.

On one recent JAIC initiative, a team of design experts was tasked with evaluating how product ideas are reviewed and scored, enabling the organization to assess how innovations are approved or denied. Human-centered design best practices were incorporated into the scoring mechanism and the product lifecycle. The approach is focused on designing products by incorporating user needs at every step in the process. This way of thinking shifts how priorities are established and puts more emphasis on driving technical solutions by understanding human needs rather than technology leading. By analyzing and understanding the user needs upfront — before development and technical execution — project teams are able to minimize costs and reduce project durations.

On another JAIC project, Census, a project team was tasked with determining the return on investment for reusing software components such as buttons and page templates. The team understood that some components are reusable while others are not. They estimated that leveraging a previous design system components resulted in reduced design costs by 32% and development costs by 22% by minimizing approval cycles and reusing existing design components from another unrelated software project.

The need for usable products is increasing, and organizations that emphasize and place a premium on design will quickly surpass others when it comes to satisfaction ratings and compliance. What’s needed at the DoD and across government to achieve the true value of design is a standardized design approach, education on the benefits and integration of design on project teams, and enforcement of design standards at the highest level.

Matthew Rose is chief design officer at the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and a U.S. Army reservist, 75th Innovation Command. Jason Moccia is CEO of OneSpring LLC.

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