September 7, 2010
In 2007 MITRE Senior Human Factors Engineer Todd Reily sat in a U.S. military command center watching soldiers design innovative, flexible, user-centric systems that, to a certain degree, consisted of workarounds to the systems supplied to them at great cost by the U.S. military.
Why were the soldiers investing time and energy the military would have preferred them to invest in their missions to customize a system that had been designed to help them get their jobs done?
Because they wanted to get their jobs done.
No one knows how better to do a job than the person doing it. User-designed systems, explains Reily, now a MITRE-sponsored student in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program, tend to be "reliable, simple, and flexible." This is why Reily would like to place the user at the center of system design and why he appreciates the process for doing that that he’s learning at SDM.
Reily says the root cause of the customization problem at the command center crystallized for him in Professor Eric Von Hippel’s class on User Innovation: in designing the command center interface the military did not consider the user "part of the system." With the best intentions (and the best engineers), the military tried to give soldiers "a perfect tool" . . . with only one way to use it. That kind of thinking, Reily points out, also afflicts many industries. And it is this flaw in systems design thinking that he intends to fix using Von Hippel’s User Toolkits for Innovation.
"Instead of trying to give users a perfect tool," says Reily, "give them the means to build their own."
That doesn’t mean providing the user with an infinite array of choices. "You just can’t ask the user what he wants or you get an endless list of functions," says Reily. Instead, designing a system, such as a command center interface, requires observing the user, understanding his expectations and behaviors, and balancing simplicity and complexity. The way to do that is through "constrained flexibility."
"One way systems are designed," Reily explains, "is to give the user no choice, no flexibility. Another way is to give the user whatever he wants, which creates unmanageable complexity. You need to strike a balance. You can have these combinations, not others. In this way, you have a manageable set of options, simplifying complexity within a system.
"I always end up as a user/customer advocate," says Reilly. "If the user drives design, whether it’s systems or products, it forces engineers to be more innovative."
At SDM, Reily is learning to understand and integrate all the spaces in system design—"the business, the engineers, the designers, the customer"—to build products and systems "people really need and want."
Reily calls it "engineering with a human face." And in the Middle East, the U.S. military command center user interface Reily is helping to build (with SDM learnings, systems thinking and the flexible toolkit), a system that will enable soldiers to respond to a constantly changing operational mission is, he says, on the path to deployment.
Todd Reily during his US Air Force research in 2007
Photo by Don Means