CUA of the Month – November, 2015

Michael Hricko
“I was in the Navy, I was a user of cumbersome, technical, complicated systems, in a dynamic, fast paced, and at times life-threatening environment. Did we get the job done? Yes, we had no other choice, what we were provided is what we had; and to accomplish our missions we had to put our heads down and carry out the process, the button smashing, the controls, the layouts, the mental gymnastics, the hours upon hours of training, studying and refreshing to be successful.”
 
Michael Hricko

Human Engineering Lead

Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific

UX for National Defense

by Jim Garrett

Michael Hricko, our CUA of the Month for November, is a Navy civilian who works as a Certified Usability Analyst for Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Center, in their User-Centered Design & Engineering Branch. He is currently assigned as the Human Engineering (HE) lead on a program at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) called Acoustic Intelligence Modernization or AMOD.

While active-military, Michael flew Navy S-3B Vikings, an antisubmarine aircraft, and retired from the Reserve ranks, working for Commander, U.S. Third Fleet.

Can you talk about this program?

Up to a point…simply stated, it is a software development program being designed to improve the collection, analysis, and dissemination of acoustic information for the Acoustic Intelligence (ACINT) branch of ONI.

The Navy collects this information from all available sources: subs, ships, aircraft and stationary sensors. It then gets delivered to the highly-specialized experts at ONI, who are steeped in military experience and now work as civilian analysts. These analysts examine thousands of hours of audio and visual submarine acoustic information and identify critical intelligence.

It’s obvious you can’t hire these folks off the street; it’s a highly specialized super-skill and takes years of on-the-job training to develop. They not only can identify the type of sub, nation of origin, and operating characteristics, but they’ll tell you what type of electric shaver the sub commander is using! (just kidding) An important aspect of their work is identifying new anomalies and operating trends to ensure the warfighters on the front lines have the most recent information to better identify and track submarines. So a tool that will streamline the general identification, categorization, dissemination and all-around management of this data will allow these experts to focus their valuable time on pure analysis. Theoretically, the end result is better quality, better product, and better sharing across the customer base.

What do you mean by acoustic?

Acoustic in this sense, is basically the propagation of sound in water; anything moving and operating under, on, and even above the water transfers sound in the form of mechanical waves through the water which can be picked up by sensitive receivers.

Where did you enter into this?

The program contract called for delivery of the program in 2 phases – Initial and Final. I was the first HE professional hired when this program was in the waning stages of the Final development phase; the Initial program had been out for almost 2 years. I think you can read the tea leaves on this one! Yep, the initial delivery wasn’t too user-friendly. There were no solid HE requirements in the government contract and no program HE Plan, execution, and lead on the contractor side. So, soon after becoming a Certified Usability Analyst through HFI, I was hired to develop a “Style Guide” for the AMOD program and “do what I can to make the UIs less cumbersome for the user” (a different term was used for cumbersome!).

Though I was hired by a proponent of HE, there were many people who needed to be convinced of the benefits of it, especially at this late stage in the program. In the next two months, I had enough information to strategize and execute a plan. I held interviews, and conversations with the users, management, contractors, acquisition folks, and the café staff (the café was just for fresh coffee!). I consumed use cases and mock-ups of most of the 38 projects that comprise the program, submitting well-received improvement recommendations. I formalized ACINT’s User Team to maximize their limited time and optimize their improvements to the system. I designed UIs and presented to the users, management and the contractor to provide an example of how it can be. I captured improvements promoted by the User Team and applied efficiency metrics so stakeholders can connect the dots with ROI.

Little by little, the work I was performing won the stakeholders over to the benefits of incorporating HE into the program; I was receiving requests from functional leads, programmers, users, and management telling me I need to be involved in all of these different areas. I was thrilled, but what really excited me was when I was asked to provide HE requirements for the follow-on contract. Bullseye! They get it, which means more importantly, the user will get it – a system that not only delivers sophisticated technical capabilities but also optimizes usability. After all, we are building the program for the user – it’s easier than building the user for the program!

I like to think that everyone was won over, because of me – they needed me and my work, but in reality it is only because they hadn’t planned effectively from the start. Had they, I’d be another member of the team, diligently doing my job. It blows my mind that multi-million dollar programs are established to build a system and they designate a lead and a plan for every critical part of the system (Software, Hardware, System, Project), except the most critical, the most variable, and the most vocal – the Human!

How does this connect to you?

This work and this program connects with me, because I have a great passion for intuitive and simple designs, making things easy, especially for the warfighters who should be heads up, and moving forward, not fumbling over mind numbing data inputs and keystrokes. I was in the Navy, I was a user of cumbersome, technical, complicated systems, in a dynamic, fast paced, and at times life-threatening environment. Did we get the job done? Yes, we had no other choice, what we were provided is what we had; and to accomplish our missions we had to put our heads down and carry out the process, the button smashing, the controls, the layouts, the mental gymnastics, the hours upon hours of training, studying and refreshing to be successful.

I realize this is a little dramatic, but the point is, it could have been much easier, if only someone was assigned to focus on the user’s perspective throughout the development of many of these systems. Especially in the military where there isn’t one product to compare against another – no competition once the product is made – all the more critical to integrate HE. So just like the Human Factors discipline, I got my start in the military!

I am quite humbled, and blessed to be able to work with this motivated, enormously talented team – government, contractor, and user to develop a quality, sophisticated technical program that optimizes usability and assists the user in delivering a superb product. I would love to get them all out for a run and “call jodies!” (look that one up!)

Does this coordinate with other agencies, the FBI, etc.?

They provide information to other Defense Agencies, National Security Agencies, the Intelligence Community, and our allies, but I don't know the extent of their involvement with the Department of Justice. The intelligence does get briefed as needed to the CNO and SecNav.

Was the CUA significant for you in championing all of this?

Yes, it was. The courses gave me the big picture on an HE program and also provided best practices and the science behind well-designed interfaces and websites. Combined with my background in the Navy, teaching, and process improvement, and of course hammering the CUA instructors with lot of questions, I was able to identify the steps I needed to take with the user. It gave me a really good background on how to integrate UX into any phase of a program.

Additionally I now have a network of professionals that I met in class, especially the instructors at HFI that I can reach out to for consultation and support – and I have taken full advantage of that, just ask them! But I must say, the greatest benefit provided me was confidence in this field.

 What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to others?

  1. Have passion in your work but don’t be over bearing and never give up, continue to drop seeds of the benefits of HE – if this doesn’t work try the Jedi mind trick.
  2. You have to be with everyone – what I mean by this is that you have to empathize with everyone and understand their root motivations so you can team effectively, and always be first to provide compliments for good work and participation.
  3. Always strive for win-win in all situations.
  4. Keep in mind, most people want to perform well and do good work – government or contractor, programmer, designer, management, acquisition. Everyone is together for the common goal of that product – “One team, one fight.”  Keeping this in mind can get you through many hurdles.
  5. Settle for small victories – change takes time.
  6. Lastly, it’s not the HE way or the highway – there is a good diagram I found online titled UX Chakra Model – it depicts a balanced state between Business Needs, Technical Implementation, User Needs, and Strategy and Design. An HE professional is part of a balanced team and must take into account the constraints and dependencies on that team.
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