Futures Research at AF CyberWorx Defines the Problem for Creative Solutions

Futures Research at AF CyberWorx Defines the Problem for Creative Solutions

Futures Research at AF CyberWorx


CyberWorx Futures Graphic

At the Heart of Our Process

CyberWorx helps people solve complex problems. More than that, though, we make sure that when we are solving operational problems, they are the right problems given all the circumstances.

Our human-centered, futures-focused approach reorients problems in a way that puts the people directly affected by the problem at the heart of our process. To do this, we employ several research methodologies, depending on the nature of the presenting problem. We use the knowledge we gain from the user community to solve the problem.

We all use inquiry as a method of navigating the world. We wonder why the grass is green and discover chlorophyll; we wonder how our talent management decisions might affect retention and discover possible trends. Questions are a fundamental component of what it currently means to be human. But not all questions are the same, and not all inquiry is equally effective. Research shapes our inquiry and enables more robust discovery.


CyberWorx Distinctives

The Air Force has a number of research organizations, from AFRL to the Skunks, each with a different perspective on the way they conduct research. When we describe ourselves as a research and problem-solving unit, we are including our organization in this group. Yet, if we were all the same, there would be little use in having multiple organizations. How is CyberWorx different?

We Find the True Problem

Within research methods, AF CyberWorx focuses on generative and exploratory research. What does that mean? When we are helping an Air Force organization, we are helping them explore the problem space to become more knowledgeable about the root cause of their problem. We often use user experience research methodologies; however, for certain problems we also employ research methods from futures studies. 

We Focus on the Future

Futures studies comes from a long tradition of using our understanding of the nature of the future to inform the present. However, the goal of a futures practice is not to predict the future. Instead, the goal is to use future research and methods that give next steps to account for the nonlinearity of the future.


When to Use Futures Research

When would you employ futures methodologies? As the name implies, a futures practice is most valuable when an organization needs to understand how to move forward—or gain a greater appreciation of what forward even means.

When coming to AF CyberWorx with a problem in mind, you should consider two main dimensions: time and outcomes. If you are constrained by time, that will constrain the amount of research you can accomplish. If you need more understanding of a problem that includes past and present, or help with a product or process, you will want to consider other research methods, such as user experience research. For outcomes, if you need help crafting strategy, this is well-suited for futures research.


Futures Word Cloud CyberWorx Graphic

The Five Steps of Futures Research

Five major steps frame our futures practice here at AF CyberWorx: horizon scanning, problem definition, scenario making, analysis, and strategic output. It is important to know that while some of these can be conducted individually, they produce the best results when practiced together. These are not purely linear but can lead into prior steps or circle back to the beginning depending on the nature of what is learned at each step. 

1. Horizon Scanning

Horizon scanning might be the most familiar. It is the process of looking at various sources of information (research papers, news, patents, etc.) and compiling them in a meaningful way. Different futures practices compile these scanning hits differently, but at AF CyberWorx, we often use a thematic approach.

A trend reported on the news can be valuable. However, what is more valuable are the themes and/or values that are fueling the trend. You might read a news article about gradually improving quantum computing technology. While it would be tempting to put that improvement on a graph and use linear predictions to see how that trend looks in the future, this doesn’t reflect reality.

Instead, if you realized that the rise of quantum technology has everything to do with combining our increasing understanding of nature with the technology that best gives us efficiency (computing), you can then see further possibilities of how an understanding of nature might affect computing (or any other technology). 

Historical research brings in data from twice as far back as you are looking forward. For example, if you’re looking 10 years ahead, you should look back 20 years for historical data. After horizon scanning and historical research , you are nearly ready to add some firm definitions around your problem.

2. Problem Definition

To best define your problem, first speak to the people who experience it. We conduct interviews at AF CyberWorx, though we are agnostic to the exact process. For example, some problems may require more observation than interviewing. Compiling the results at this stage will result in a clear understanding of what the problem is, or at least a general domain of the problem. Now you can do something with this understanding. 

3. Scenario Making

Scenarios are one of the core features of a futures practice. It is the art of taking all the data explained prior to this stage and crafting a story of the future from it. It is a sort of alchemy of turning data into creative stories, which will then create insight.

In many practices, a team of writers often connected to the team of researchers will write the scenarios. These scenarios will then be presented to stakeholders of an organization for them to engage with strategic implications.

Where there is merit in doing so, AF CyberWorx employs a workshop method of creating scenarios. We assemble a group of subject-matter experts from government, industry, and academia and leverage the diversity of their perspectives to write the scenarios. Typically, we subdivide the group into smaller groups to generate multiple, disparate scenarios. 

4. Analysis

Rather than present the scenarios as is, we do thematic analysis of the scenarios. Why thematic analysis?

We have just used a workshop method to generate scenarios, and now to harness the power of these crowdsourced stories, we need to explore the similarities. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you broke out the main group into four groups, and each group comes up with a vastly different scenario. We could say one is a doomsday scenario for your organization, another might be a utopian vision, etc. Which has more value to you: four visions of the future that tell you different possibilities, or a set of recommendations based on the overlap of the scenarios? Thematic analysis finds those thematic overlaps. 

5. Strategic Output

The themes then become the basis for various strategic recommendations: plans of action, vision statements, and the like. No matter the format of the output, it specifies what actions the stakeholder(s) need to take next.

It is the difference between a check-engine light and talking to your friend who happens to be a mechanic. The check-engine light will tell you that something’s wrong; your mechanic friend can isolate the problem. In the same vein, our strategic outputs can provide more granularity than simply stating something is wrong with the organization, but they will also outline concrete steps to move toward a future desired state.


Want to learn more about how AF CyberWorx solves problems? Check out our Previous Projects! Keep up with us by following AF CyberWorx on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

AIR FORCE CYBERWORX LEADS THE AIR FORCE IN VIRTUAL HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN

AIR FORCE CYBERWORX LEADS THE AIR FORCE IN VIRTUAL HUMAN-CENTERED DESIGN

AF CyberWorx Paves The Way For Others In The Air Force To Innovate Virtually

Just as Air Force CyberWorx became the experts in leading in-person, human-centered design events, the team is now stepping up to become the experts in leading virtual sessions.

Since the team, normally housed at the Air Force Academy, has begun teleworking, they have tested and vetted multiple virtual platforms and in less than two months have facilitated three UX Sprint events, with more in the queue.

AF CyberWorx’s human-centered design events are focused on – you guessed it – humans. The “human” in “human-centered design” refers primarily to the end user of whatever problem the team is tackling. Projects always start with the question, “How can we solve this problem in such a way to actually meet the needs of this pilot or operator, etc.?”

But AF CyberWorx also places a premium on bringing humans to a physical space to solve said problems. There’s just something about standing around a whiteboard, placing and rearranging sticky notes, and then mulling over questions while eating lunch. And AF CyberWorx has arguably the most advanced human-centered design process in the Air Force.

But when COVID-19 hit, they had to suspend in-person events. Big gulp. However, AF CyberWorx has ironically never been busier. They are, after all, a problem solving organization; if they can help others change for the better, they ought to be able to do so themselves. And teleworking is no excuse to stop designing for end users.

Larry Marine, one of the lead User Experience (UX) Designers at AFCyberWorx, shared some of the pros of virtual events: more people can participate, and the virtual events that are spaced out over a number of days allows for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous interactions.

“We assign people ‘homework’ between sessions,” said Marine, “and then they have time to think about it on their own time, and to add to the online whiteboards whenever creativity hits. People can go in and tinker here or tinker there.”

Online tools have never been more positioned to allow for online facilitation but make no mistake: online design sessions require the same level of preparation as in-person events, and more,  to account for the virtual environment. AF CyberWorx facilitators work closely ahead of time with a “person behind the curtain” who takes care of the behind-the-scenes technology work needed to give participants a smooth experience while using the various tools.

“As the moderator, your whole focus is on the screen, not the technology,” said Marine. “You can’t always get visual clues, so you have to listen for audio clues for how people are participating.”

While the team looks forward to being able to host people in-person again, Marine said he doesn’t expect virtual events to stop happening as soon as restrictions are lifted. However, it’s possible that they may look at projects which incorporate both in-person sessions and virtual collaboration. “I think it could work and I hope we have the opportunity to try.”

The UX team has not only started leading virtual sessions but has decided to help others do so as well by pulling together their research and experience to share with others the best methods and practices for helping others collaborate online.

The effort started because as he was researching best practices for leading virtual design sessions, Marine noticed that there really wasn’t much out there.

“I decided to put together a guide because no one had done a sprint like this before, and no one had vetted the technology before,” said Marine. “I thought that if we needed this, surely other people will too, so why not create something and share it?”

The team has posted their How-To guide on AFCyberWorx’s website here, and are looking into a place to post it where others in the Air Force can add to the document and share their own experiences.

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About Air Force CyberWorx

Air Force CyberWorx is an Air Force organization that brings together cross-functional teams of the best and brightest subject matter experts from the military, civil service, industry, and academia to solve operational users’ most challenging problems. Air Force CyberWorx uses the Human Centered Design Methodology to increase multi-domain warfighter effectiveness by accelerating disruption and transformation. To learn more about Air Force CyberWorx and its upcoming projects, visit https://afcyberworx.org/.

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