Lessons from the Battlefield Applied to Civilian Gear

“He didn’t like that the buttons were sticking.”

“What specifically did he say?”

“He said ‘It sucks’ and threw it on the ground and crushed it with his boot.”

Special operators, especially navy seals, will not sugar coat feedback.  Lives are at stake so a brutally direct approach is normal.  It’s easy to listen closely to users when they risk their lives to protect us and the stakes are so high.  Designing for civilians, it’s easier to ignore the feedback of a single user as an anomaly.

In the end, the design fundamentals are the same whether designing a tactical radio or point-of-sale terminal.  At its most basic, design is: understand the problem, propose solutions, test, and iterate.  Designing gear for battlefield use has higher stakes and we’ve learned important lessons that carry over into the design of civilian gear.  All of these lessons learned in the field also inform our consumer product design.  A great example of this is two tablet cases; one designed for use on the battlefield (Juggernaut.Case) and one for mobile point-of-sale (iSMP4 Companion)  in bustling retail environments.   The MIL case was designed to meet a drop test of 2m onto plywood.  The commercial payment terminal case had an even higher drop requirement, 2m onto concrete.   We were able to employ the internal shock absorbing system proven in the battlefield on the retail floor (without resorting to rubber bumpers!).   By the way, feedback from retail associates using the mPOS tablet through Black Friday weekend was pretty direct too.

action use

tablet pay


Understanding the Problem

Understanding the problem sounds deceptively simple.  Hidden requirements, unintended consequences, and forgotten uses abound.  We have used the 4 A’s technique for years to uncover them.  In short the 4 A’s are: Actors, Actions, Atmosphere, and Artifacts.  Actors are all the users involved with a product, from manufacturing and installation, to training and use.  Actions are the things being done with the product – intended use and abuse.  Atmosphere is the environment in which a product will be used, desert heat & sand, jumping out of an airplane at high altitude (-50C, major pressure changes) etc.  Artifacts are the other things that the product must interface with or at least not interfere with, like say shouldering a weapon, or gloved use.                
Listing all of the 4 A’s, our team has a better idea of   the problem, and is less likely to forget the less common CONOPS (concept of operations – a MIL term for describing how something gets used).  This step is important whether designing a jump board for paratroopers or a mobile laboratory device.

Priorities in the Field

Military users are in a serious business, and they are no strangers to difficult trade-offs. In No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal, Mark Owen wrote:

“Usually we wore about sixty pounds of gear, including those ballistic plates to protect us from gunfire.  Charlie wasn’t wearing his plates either.  When we cleared all the way to the end of the alley, we paused to get our bearings.  “If I get shot tonight, no one better tell my mom I didn’t wear my plates,” I whispered to Charlie.  “Deal”, Charlie said.  “Same goes for me.”

Chris Kyle, famous as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history wrote about the trade-off of protection versus mobility in American Sniper

” One important point of this training, which applied everywhere, was learning how to conserve weight in the field.  You have to figure out whether it’s more important to be lighter and more mobile, or to have more ammunition and body armor.  

 I prefer lightness and speed.  I count ounces when we go out, not pounds.  The lighter you are, the more mobile you become.  The little bastards out there are faster than hell; you need every advantage you can get on them.”

Priorities in Design

Design would be simple if it were a process of identifying problems and solving each individually.  Instead, the real world involves pragmatic trade-offs.  The 4A’s help us understand the problem, but to design a great product we must make great decisions about trade-offs.  For example, in designing military gear, we talk about SWaP-C which is an acronym for Size, Weight, Power and Cost.  Those four things are major topics of trade studies.  As the name implies, a trade study is a process of deciding what trade-offs to make.  SWaP-C are often at odds with each other.  More power is at odds with low weight.  An exotic battery could improve weight and power but impact cost.  Good trade-off decisions are an essential design practice.  Most decisions improve with information, and the 4 A’s inform the trade studies.

Ergonomic user interface scenarios

As an example, many years ago we were designing a piece of equipment used by tactical ground controllers.  It was a device to help them pinpoint targets for pilots overhead.  The device was already larger than desired due to the technology inside.  There was a viewport on the back of the unit and the scientists in charge wanted to place it vertically.  Knowing that the users would be standing, kneeling, or prone, and also wearing a helmet and body armor, we convinced them to angle the viewport.

The 80% Solution Now Instead of the 100% Solution Later

War is fast and chaotic.  A partial solution now can be better than a perfect solution later.  We have seen problems arise when the stakeholders in a project are too far removed from the users.  Bureaucrats can take so long writing requirements that the technology is obsolete before fielding.  Take for example the use of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) solutions.  For years the military had built custom solutions for wearable computing.  Warfighters wanted moving maps and situational awareness.  Fielding custom computer hardware for this is very expensive and time consuming.  Eventually with the advent of inexpensive smart phones, the decision makers realized that the phones weren’t a perfect solution to their problems, but they were cheap, light, powerful,available now, and regularly updated with more powerful hardware and software.  There were obvious problems.  The devices weren’t waterproof and rugged for field use, but we were able to find solutions for that much cheaper than if we had built the hardware from scratch.

Get in the Field

While design tools like 4A’s, FEA, lab testing, and others are very helpful, nothing can replace field evaluation.  There are some ergonomic factors that can’t be figured on a computer very well.  

Just a few things that are difficult to do at our desks:

  • Tactile feel of buttons and knobs while wearing gloves
  • Ability to reach something mounted to body armor
  • Balance of weight feel on this handheld device
  • Is this screen readable in daylight
  • Does this product interfere with other important tasks (shouldering a weapon)
  • Will this thing work while I jump out of an airplane?

Field evaluations require physical prototypes.  We use any kind of prototype that gets us in the field and gets good feedback fast.  We’ve sent 3D printed parts out of airplanes at high altitude, making modifications and re-jumping multiple times in a week.  We’ve built small vehicles out of plywood to get a sense for the human scale.  Handmade foam models are regularly used for  ergonomic evaluation.

Don’t take criticism personally

Design is a process of sticking our necks out.  We propose a solution and then try to make it fail.  Failure is personally difficult to stomach.  I had an experience early in my career that helped me stop taking criticism personally (you can read about it here). It was painful and embarrassing at the time but in retrospect very useful.  It helps to keep in mind the end goal and in designing for the military, it helps to understand that we are designing for users who literally risk their lives while using our product.  So if those users are intense in their criticism, we don’t take it personally, we take it seriously.

Two is One and One is None

There’s a phrase we hear repeatedly, “two is one and one is none.”  It means that if a piece of equipment is mission critical, there needs to be a backup plan for when it breaks, gets blown-up or gets lost.  We also use it as motivation to think about critical points of failure, and types of failure.  When designing battlefield equipment, there is no such thing as indestructible.  We minimize failures and see they don’t make the product NMC (non-mission capable).  We felt vindicated when one of our smartphone protective cases came back to us for repair with an explanation.  The mount was badly mangled, the case was broken.  The user was in a helicopter crash.  Luckily no one died.  They told us that even though the protective case broke, it did it’s job.  The smartphone was still working and they were able to call in help.  There’s no practical way to build every product to survive every eventuality on the battlefield.  Remember users want to run light.  But we need to get home to fight another day.

Military gear usually serves a more critical mission than commercial gear.  We don’t just apply military grade solutions to commercial gear.  But when designing civilian gear, we apply the same intense but pragmatic process of understanding the problem, trying solutions, getting feedback, making improvements.