Tipping the Scales in Military Research
Nov 15, 2010

Finding out what a potential customer wants and needs is an essential issue for all product development companies. But when it comes to designing for the military, getting troops what they need to survive is a must. The stakes are very real on the front lines, and failure is measured in lives lost rather than calls dropped.

Unfortunately, defense products often miss the mark because requirements and specifications are created by those in procurement, not the troops on the front line. So how do we get a clear understanding of what the troops need and how their tools can be improved? The simple answer would be to speak with the soldiers. However, this is easier said than done.

While consumers are easily found through recruiting firms, social networks and advertising, military personnel are, by culture, guarded with the information they share and whom they share it with. Soldiers follow a strict code of conduct within their chain of command. Subordinates are not typically asked for opinions and input. Instead they are expected to conform, obey and accept what they have, a concept which goes completely against the need for researchers and designers to get honest input and perspectives. An officer simply won’t open up his wealth of knowledge to an unknown product researcher.

One way to get past this problem is to enlist the help of military research partners. Combat seasoned veterans are able to form a stronger bond with current military personnel. This trusting relationship will allow the soldiers to act naturally so we can learn the true pains, problems, successes and struggles they face every day.

However once the hurdle of finding and building trust with soldiers is overcome, the issue of recording the information is posed. Strict restrictions often mean audio or video recording of an interview is off-limits. With no opportunity to hit the rewind button, we must rely on our military partner who is familiar with the jargon and common acronyms to effectively relay the message.

It’s also an important reason why product designers need to interact with several sources in order to get an accurate look into what the soldiers really need. While some opinions will be similar, it’s understandable that a special forces operator might have ­different wants than an infantry soldier.

The entire interview process can take some time and require creativity to pull out information from the soldiers. But strong partnerships can break these barriers. Military partners can provide unmatched access and serve as eyes and ears for researchers and designers, gathering feedback and delivering it in a language a designer understands. Then as potential product opportunities arise, companies can begin working on filling that need.

So what are the products that soldiers need? Traditionally it was assumed that military products had to be built like a tank, big, heavy and durable. But the reality is that many soldiers are already lugging around nearly their own body weight worth of equipment in the hot, sunny desert. It’s no wonder that an iPhone is more attractive than a large radio. So, to make products smaller, lighter and less expensive, plastics are increasingly being accepted as an industry substitute to metal.

Mobile devices, especially Android products, are increasingly popular among troops because of their ability to support multiple applications. One small device can handle everything from disaster relief optimization to supplier integration and wartime navigation. Power applications are being continually developed to make a ­soldier’s everyday life easier.

A product designer’s goal is to get the troops the latest in technology as quickly as possible. But of course this is challenging because the natural development cycle can last years. The job of defense product development consultants is to crush the cycle from idea to fruition into mere months. In the past, military projects were mostly handled in house because of the risks and restrictions of outsourcing. But as private firms develop more experience in defense design and security requirements, they can aid manufacturers in getting the latest innovations into the hands of our soldiers as quickly as possible.

Of course the world of military product development is always changing but as long as researchers are able to tap into the minds of those on the front lines, important and relevant products will be developed to meet our soldiers’ specific needs.

Jim Curtin is the director of defense programs for Product Development Technologies (PDT).
© FrontLine Defence 2010