The Situational Awareness Paradox
And How Good UX Leads to Better Decisions with the Right Information
By: Larry Marine and Dr. Dan Padgett
The Department of the Air Force has a situational awareness (SA) problem. And no, the answer is not “we need more data.” Data, while a critical component to SA, is only a part of the problem. At CyberWorx, we often encounter solutions aimed only at acquiring and displaying more data, and we’re asked to design a visualization. The data is never the real problem.
From a human-centered design perspective, the systems we see are relics of the 1990s—and we’re not saying that because they lack the style of the latest visual design trends. Rather, the systems we see are technology-first approaches that saturate human cognitive capabilities. Adding more technology or data to the user’s task hinders his ability to complete the mission.
For example, a typical legacy system relies on the user to gather data through email, phone, and other disconnected sources. As the user gathers and processes this information, they log it–typically in an Excel spreadsheet custom built for the organization by a wizard who is no longer there to fix or update it. Once they’ve logged that information, the user can finally turn their attention to the task itself.
Often, something more urgent pops up before they can do that task. The user gets distracted and hopes they haven’t lost their train of thought when they return to the original task. Every time the user has to change tasks, technologies, or software, they incur a “switching cost.”  These costs add up, resulting in cognitive overload with potentially disastrous consequences.
Problems with Current Systems
Our discovery research on many projects reveals five recurring problems with legacy designs and proposed solutions:
• Pervasive Reliance on Humans. The systems we see rely on the user’s skill and knowledge (including how to use the system), both of which are highly variable. As a result, the success of the mission varies and cannot exceed the skills of individual users.
• Discrete, Non-Integrated Technology. Current systems are often a patchwork of technologies that are not integrated. This work of gathering, assimilating, and responding to information falls entirely on the user. While this “hands-on” approach to information sounds like it would increase SA, it actually puts the user at a perpetual risk for cognitive overload which can impact mission success.
• Processes Dictated by Technology. Many AF processes were developed as a response to the limitations of previous system capabilities. For instance, a conference call line might have been established due to communication difficulties, then process and protocol behaviors were established to support the conference call solution. These processes become sacrosanct, protecting the use of current technology—even when the technology is outdated, and it’s time to reevaluate and optimize (or remove) that process to promote new technology innovations. Keeping processes the same when updating technology doesn’t really change anything and limits the effectiveness of new technology. We refer to this phenomenon as automating current frustrations.
• “We Just Need More Training.” On its face, training sounds like a great way to overcome the above problems–more familiarity with the system should make it easier to use. However, we believe training should focus on the task, not using the system. If users need more training to use a system, it has poor design that takes attention from task completion.
• Automate, Automate, Automate. Automation can improve productivity by reducing the time to receive and view information. However, too much automation decreases efficiency. Without increasing overall comprehension, there’s only so much automation can do before the speed of information presentation overloads the user. (Have you ever tried to sip from a firehose?)
We can’t continue solving problems the same way we did in the 90s. We have the opportunity and ability to improve the entire system – not just add more technology – using human-centered design. The CyberWorx perspective with human-centered design not only calls attention to the recurring problems we see, it also suggests opportunities for improvement. We’ll discuss those opportunities in part II of this article. (Read it here)