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UX Is The Point: The Digital Transformation – Part 7

Bottom Line Up Front: Human-centered design is the whole point of the Digital Transformation. Technical changes like Agile and DevSecOps are enablers to facilitate User Experience.

Where We Left Off

Acquisitions boss Ellen Lord’s article was just talking about rewriting the policies that govern how the Pentagon buys stuff.

In addition to the Pentagon’s abysmal track record with technology development, she realized things needed to change and be more like Silicon Valley.

What’s So doggone “Magical” About Silicon Valley?

In her own words (with my highlights):

At its core, the policy is built upon commercial best practices — such as human-centered-design; development, security, and operations (DevSecOps), and Lean Startup — to enable innovation and rapid delivery of new capability under conditions of uncertainty. Programs are pushed to embrace faster time-boxed delivery cycles, while emphasizing and ensuring quality and cybersecurity.

Human. Centered. Design. First item on her list.

Silicon Valley’s Secret Sauce: UX

The secret sauce that Silicon Valley has is User Experience (UX). That is “commercial best practices.”

Yes, they are the best computer programmers on the planet, and they write the best code and the best algorithms and they hire the best developers money can buy. But what really makes something successful in the commercial market is that the public loves it. Really, that is the only final and true metric that matters.

The greatest developers in the world can write the greatest Facebook killer or the latest taco-ordering app on the planet, but if regular folks hate it, that company full of geniuses is going to go bankrupt and they’ll all lose their jobs. So what do they do? User research. Lots of it. Over and over, continuously. Every aspect of the product has to be tested again and again and again forever, to make sure everybody loves it and, if they don’t, to fix it so that everybody does love it.

If not, they go broke. They have to do it this way.

And The Pentagon Doesn’t Do It like That?

Nope. Not even a little bit.

The way the Pentagon creates software is something like this:

  1. The Brass realizes there is a need for some software.
  2. They bring together a panel of very senior Subject Matter Experts (they call them SMEs).
  3. The SMEs spend three or four years writing down exactly how the software should work in excruciating detail.
  4. The Pentagon gets bids from Defense contractors.
  5. The Defense contractors spend an average of eight years building it exactly like they were told.
  6. At the end of those twelve years (and only at the end), the soldiers finally get their hands on it.
  7. The soldiers can’t figure out how to use it and they hate it.
  8. Everyone is unhappy, but it’s not like the soldiers have a choice.
  9. The End.

If there is something wrong with the software, or if there is need for some upgrade or revision, the entire process has to start all over again.

In the commercial world, the end-user would have been involved from the very, very beginning, and they would have been brought along to test and refine the entire time. In the Defense world, that does not happen.

The Point Of The “Digital Transformation” Is To Change All This

The point of the Digital Transformation is to enable the “commercial best practices” that heavily involve the end-user from beginning to end.

We’ve covered some of the key documents and steps that Ellen Lord and her reformers took to fix Defense acquisitions, but we haven’t highlighted how the end-user figures into all of this. Let’s do so now.

Remember the report from the Defense Science Board we talked about the other day? The Executive Summary states:

Traditional “Waterfall” software development practices (i.e., determining a functional specification, writing the software, and testing the software to the functional specification) have evolved in the commercial world into an iterative process, called “Agile”or “continuous iterative development,” where a team develops software in smaller blocks that can be incrementally evaluated by a user community. 

Remember how we talked about Ellen Lord getting laws passed to kick the entire reform effort off? Section 801 of the legislation has this Statement of Purpose:

The primary objective of Department of Defense acquisition is to acquire quality products that satisfy user needs with measurable improvements to mission capability and operational support, in a timely manner, and at a fair and reasonable price.

Remember the follow-up report from the Defense Innovation Board that we then talked about? Its #1 Fundamental Theme states:

To maintain advantage, DoD needs to procure, deploy, and update software that works for its users at the speed of mission need, executing more quickly than our adversaries.

Remember how we then talked about how Policy 5000.87 rewrote the rulebook on how the Pentagon buys software? The opening “Policy” section, paragraph f says:

Programs will require government and contractor software teams to use modern iterative software development methodologies (e.g., agile or lean), modern tools and techniques (e.g., development, security, and operations (DevSecOps)), and human-centered design processes to iteratively deliver software to meet the users’ priority needs.

Heck, the very first top-level 5000 policy governing all the others, 5000.01, states in its opening paragraph:

The acquisition system will be designed to acquire products and services that satisfy user needs with measurable and timely improvements to mission capability, material readiness, and operational support, at a fair and reasonable price.

I have only included a few key quotes from those documents, but if you search through them for the word “user,” you will find it everywhere. “SMEs” and their four years of “requirements” now take a back seat; what the end-users need is what matters now.

Don’t Miss The Forest for The Trees

If your organization is “transforming” by arranging your calendar in Sprints and Increments, by implementing DevSecOps, by doing Digital Engineering, but you are forgetting to put the end-user first and foremost, you are doing it wrong.

If your Agile framework has “User Experience” over on the side as a shared service someplace, but your organization doesn’t really have a strategy to let users shape the product vision, you are doing it wrong.

If your team is all engineers and SMEs, but you have no User Experience people, go hire some right now!

Agile is great, and Cloud is great, and Digital Engineering is great, but never ever forget that the point of all of those things is to do what Silicon Valley does: keep their fingers on the pulse of the end-user to continuously guide and refine what they are building.

One More Time:

UX is the point.