Improving the military UX

Noah Firth on giving service members and their families a more friendly user experience, and how his team recruits and measures success.

By Jenn Webb
November 12, 2019
Foo Camp 19 interview

In this interview from O’Reilly Foo Camp 2019, Noah Firth, director at the Air Force Digital Service, talks about the challenges of making the US military more user-friendly, the unique recruiting parameters for team members, and the success metrics that guide his team.

Highlights from this interview include:

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Firth’s team’s main focus is on how technology can be used to improve the lives of US military service members and their families. He describes the significance of a large project they’re wrapping up, “Military service members have to move every two to four years, and the system that was enabling those moves was generally hostile toward the user experience. We’re working to use modern technologies to implement a new-and-improved system to schedule the moves to allow service members’ spouses and family members to be active participants in figuring out how they’re going to uproot their lives and move across the country or around the world.” (00:02)

Recruiting is a challenge for any organization, but it’s particularly quirky for teams working with government organizations, Firth explains. He looks for folks who are not only at the top of their fields, but for those able to maneuver around the frustrations of slow-moving bureaucracy. “We have what we call core competencies—questions we ask and things we look for to determine whether or not someone’s going to be a good fit in our organization. … Some of those things that we call ’emotional quotient’ are as important if not more so than some of the technical quotient things we’re looking for. … We have to go through an enormous amount of validation of a person’s prior experiences, but then also a validation of them as a human. It gives us the ability to do the whole person concept, to make sure that, as we have a small team and we have to maintain a small team, we can work to make that small team work well together.” (00:57)

One might think it wouldn’t be difficult, Firth notes, but one of the main success metrics he uses is whether or not they can convince others that technology can make their lives better. Also in Firth’s case, the military leadership he deals with turns over every two to four years; all around, he’s on a “constant education campaign.” Firth outlines how he measures overall success: “Have we made the user’s life better? Have we used technology to do so in a way that appreciates (1) the capability of the technology, but also (2), the capability of the people who are implementing that technology and will have to do so long term? Then (3), have we walked away leaving behind us a legacy of creating that understanding of what technology could be used for?” (03:18)

Post topics: Innovation & Disruption
Post tags: Deep Dive, Foo Camp '19