Do warfighters care about good design? The answer is, yes, they do. How do we know? Well, even though the US Government spends millions developing equipment, many soldiers spend their own money buying equipment. Yup, you heard that correctly. You see, Uncle Sam has a history of delegating RFPs to procurement folks sitting in windowless offices who have never set foot in the field. The results are similar to you designing something for the next mission to space. Have you ever been to space? So, soldiers get stuck with stuff that’s too heavy, clumsy to use, and doesn’t last.

Is it a big surprise that brands such as Salomon, Crye, and Garmin are attractive to warfighters? No, of course not, these brands are designing for people who work or play outdoors. They may not be specific to downrange requirements, but they’re a lot closer than that fluorescent-lit procurement office.

Warfighters have a very challenging work environment, and they care about equipment that considers their needs:

The first reason good product design is valued by the warfighter is performance. They push their equipment to the extreme, and they count on it to survive the mission. Will the sound or light emitted by a device give away my position? Can I use this device while wearing my helmet, eye protection, and gloves?

The next reason is durability. Warfighters typically work in very challenging environmental conditions, and the rugged capabilities of their equipment are critical. Will the device work in blowing sand or submerged in water? Will the device keep working after it’s dropped, stepped on, and shaken?

The final reason good product design is valued by the warfighter is scale and weight. Warfighters have a kit that comprises all soldier-borne equipment. As you might imagine, all this stuff is heavy, and there’s no room for crap. How heavy is this thing? Where can I put it on my kit? How big is it, and how will I pack it with my other equipment?

An example of commercial products being selected over MIL issued equipment is combat boots. When the Global War on Terror swung into full action, contract-driven boot manufacturers were producing the same stuff from forty years earlier. Uncomfortable boots that provided little support, poor performance, and would not last even one tour downrange. When Special-Operations warfighters started procuring their own athletic brands, used by backpackers and climbers, decision-makers started seeing the benefit of these COTS brands. Eventually, this led to opening the procurement process to these manufacturers.

Another example is GPS technology, back when it started to make its way down to the infantry. The standard-issue equipment (PLGR) was large, heavy, and required special batteries. Many warfighters saw the lightweight and easy to use commercial products, such as Garmin, and decided to use these. There was one problem, however, as these products lacked the critical SASM module, which scrabbles coordinates sent from satellites – thus, they weren’t secure and not approved for use. Since then, SASM-enabled GPS has been embedded into many tactical radios, eliminating the need for additional equipment. Also, Android EUD App-based systems, the commercial 12-channel GPS within your smartphone, can now be utilized for non-targeting navigation.

The good news is that times are changing. There are a handful of product design firms with the expertise, and access, to develop equipment with the input of, and for, warfighters. Further, Uncle Sam is listening and engaging the folks in the know to design the next generation of soldier borne equipment.

We would include ourselves among this select group and consider our ability to field test during the product design phase as the key to adoption. The success of this path is already seen with products such as the Kutta Technologies UGCS-400 Controller [] or the Rigaku 1064NM Analyzer [] being eagerly adopted by drone operators and first responders. The lesson here is all users matter, especially those on the front lines.