The Situational Awareness Paradox II

The Situational Awareness Paradox
And How Good UX Leads to Better Decisions with the Right Information (Part II)

By: Larry Marine and Dr. Dan Padgett

The Department of the Air Force is constantly looking to improve its situational awareness (SA). At CyberWorx, we’ve helped solve a wide range of problems. While each problem is unique, nearly all share a common theme of SA and data access. While data is a critical component to SA, simply displaying more information isn’t the answer. The data needs to be processed, normalized, and displayed in a way that improves human use.

In the last article, we explained the common problems we see in trying to “fix” legacy systems. (Read it here.) While these systems need to be improved, the opportunity exists to upgrade the entire system instead of building more technology into an outdated system.

Opportunities for Improvement

Just as a human-centered design perspective helps identify recurring issues, it also suggests four approaches for designing a system to correct them.

Task-Oriented Design. We conduct user research for every project to understand what tasks and goals an Airman is responsible for. Focusing on tasks allows us to design solutions that provide functionality in the right way, at the right time.

Unlike feature-oriented design, where all features are available all of the time, task-oriented design doesn’t require knowing where each feature is located or when it’s appropriate to use it. Our goal is to design a system that will make someone just as successful on day one of their job as someone who’s been at it for several years.

Task Management and Prioritization. Focusing on the task instead of the features allows the user to better manage and focus on each task, reducing the cognitive load and “switching cost” that comes with multitasking. Minimizing switching does not mean presenting all of the information at once. A well-designed system should assist users in prioritizing and managing their tasks so they switch tasks seamlessly and only when necessary.

Mitigate Information Overload. Gathering, normalizing, correlating, and understanding data are all mentally demanding. Humans can only process so much data before they become cognitively overloaded. A system designed for users mitigates information overload by automating routine tasks – gathering, normalizing, and correlating as much information as possible – then presenting it to the user in an easy-to-understand format.

For instance, operators monitoring different sensors are primarily interested in trends and exceptions. Rather than overwhelming the operator with all of the available sensor data, the system can be designed to present only significant trends and exceptions. That doesn’t include omitting important information from the user. It’s organizing data into meaningful chunks related to that step of the task.

Augmented Intelligence. The Department of the Air Force places a priority on keeping personnel in the decision-making loop. A fully automated system conflicts with that priority and isn’t feasible. Despite the advances in AI, machines still can’t mimic or replace human cognition. A better approach uses technology to support human thinking. The result is an intelligent application that uses computer strengths to complement human strengths.

Seizing opportunities for system-wide improvement will make personnel more efficient and decrease the workload on individuals while increasing their overall mission effectiveness. As the need for situational awareness grows and the amount of available data increases, delivering actionable information is more crucial than ever. We must define system requirements that put human needs as the focal point of those requirements. Hence the name Human-Centered Design.

A mockup of what a future pilot might see for a heads up display including a configurable layout and cognitive feedback.
Image by BAE Systems: A UK aeronautics company

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