Science in Mind

Air Force borrows ideas from smartphones

Laura Major of Draper Laboratory demonstrated a more intuitive app aimed at making it easier for troops to use battlefield technology.
Laura Major of Draper Laboratory demonstrated a more intuitive app aimed at making it easier for troops to use battlefield technology.

Everyone has wrestled with technology that turns out to be more trouble than it is worth. That piece of software or device that requires arcane commands, too many clicks, or an encyclopedic memory of menu options and keyboard shortcuts. For most of us, it is a hassle we put up with or an impetus to buy a different gadget.

On the battlefield, technology that is not intuitive to use can be much more than a nuisance, meaning troops just do not use devices that could keep them safer. A technology may be incredibly sophisticated, but if using it is onerous in a stressful and constantly evolving situation, it may be useless.

Three years ago, the Air Force realized it was dealing with a user-unfriendly technology, borne out of good intentions. A new computer system, a laptop hitched to a person’s chest, had been introduced to aid operators calling in air support for ground troops.


The system was supposed to increase the accuracy and reliability of communication with pilots and reduce the possibility of mistakes: No longer would operators need to depend solely on radios and read out strings of letters and numbers to describe the GPS coordinates of a target. But troops were often leaving the computer behind.

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Laura Major, group leader of human-system collaboration at Draper Laboratory, began studying why operators were not using the computer and found that their reluctance stemmed from a situation familiar to most people who have dealt with clumsy technology.

“What we found is it was really designed more for a computer scientist or engineer,” Major said. “There were 60 different software applications and it required a lot of memorization.”

The researchers turned for inspiration to an interface millions of people were already using with ease to navigate their surroundings and communicate with others: smartphones. They designed a battlefield app that would allow troops to use maps and touch screens to identify targets and send them to pilots.

To minimize “head down” time when operators were staring at the screen trying to find the option they wanted, the researchers designed a wheel-shaped menu, with functions distributed around the wheel. This made finding the right option easier, in the same way that people intuitively remember where the numbers are on a telephone keypad.


Major said that the system is a prototype and being tested in the field, but that the feedback so far has been positive. Military personnel who have seen the app demonstrated have asked if they can take it back right now.

In the consumer world, user-friendliness usually emerges as a natural result of competition. If a product is difficult to figure out, a competitor with a better solution will simply sell more products. But in areas such as defense and aerospace, the traditional emphasis has been on reliability and functionality over ease of use. Major hopes to integrate human-system thinking more deeply into the technology used at the frontiers of exploration or in war.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.