How UX Research Started In Weapons Development During WW2 and Why It Matters To The Ukrainian Conflict
Most who utilize or practice UX research today are stunned to learn that modern UX research finds its beginnings in the killing fields of WW2 and weapons development. This is a significant historical fact that has a direct bearing on how UX research is conducted today. Even more surprising, it is also related to how the relatively small Ukrainian army has been able to wreak havoc on the Russian advance. It’s all about UX research in ways that are both surprising and deeply insightful.
It is hard not to feel a massive pit in one’s stomach watching from afar as Russia lays waste to Ukrainian cities and civilians through the utilization of armored warfare made workable over 100 years ago. On the other hand, it is also surprising how effective the Ukrainian defenses have been. What we see unfolding in Ukraine is a case study of how western nations (most directly England and the US) developed and utilized to great advantage a new science known as human factors engineering to develop weapons systems during WW2. This new science focused on optimization of the military user experience (primarily killing effectiveness) by creating the best user interface between the modern soldier and their weapon system. So what does this have to do with UX research as practiced today? Well, actually a great deal.
Today, most of those involved in UX research focusing on all manner of consumer-facing products do not realize that the genesis of UX research found its birth in the optimization of military weapons systems during WW2. Prior to that time, there was no real focus on how technology and the human operator interfaced to produce the best possible and highly effective outcome. There was the work of Fredrick Taylor related to production optimization, but no real field of expertise existed that focused on the user/technology interface. Machines of all types were essentially simple enough that they could be mastered through training and repetitive use. There was no need for an actual science of user/technology optimization.
However, with the rapid advance of technology just prior to WW2, that way of thinking rapidly became a major problem. For the first time in history, mankind could develop killing technology that was beyond human control. It is a fact that early in WW2, American and British engineers developed for the first time weapons systems, mostly aircraft and targeting systems, that simply could not be managed by human operators. These new systems were too fast, too maneuverable, and too complex to learn for military conscripts, even those with graduate degrees from Cambridge. It was one of the seminal insights of the modern age that a team of engineers and psychologists realized for the first time that technology had to be designed to make the best use of human limitations, strengths, skills, and intelligence.
The problem was no longer engineering-based killing power, but killing power based on the best integration of the user and technology. Those working on such problems realized almost immediately that such optimization required much more science than engineering instinct, and thus was born the entire field of structured and scientifically validated user testing. This led immediately to the first scientific analysis of human information processing, decision-making, strength, reaction time, body size variation, memory, visual perception under stress, sound detection, vibration impact, and even the mechanisms behind human seasickness. With this data and much more in hand, allied weapons systems could be “human-engineered” starting with human limitations and performance. This is the actual genesis of “human-centered” product development. Prior to this period, engineers developed systems based on their intuition and assumed that effective use of the system on the battlefield could be achieved by training. This was known as “technology-centered” development…still with us today and well known to all who practice professional UX research.
Today, what we think of as UX research was derived entirely from the need for a science-based approach to understanding how to combine human intelligence with advanced technology to produce objectively better interfaces…and yes, this includes iPhones as well as battlefield kill ratios.
This is the point at which military technology became “human-centered”. It is this trajectory that brings us back to why the Ukrainian military has been so effective against the overwhelming traditional scale of the Russian armored killing machine. When US and British weapons development teams realized the importance of designing weapons based on the human/machine interaction, our killing machines began a march toward optimization that adversaries could never match. Russia is a prime example.
It is not well understood by those who practice the distant field of UX research, but all of the critical UX research methods employed today have their history in military weapons development from WW2 and the Cold War. This includes paper prototypes, simulation development, journey mapping, graphic control layout simplification, mockup creation, usability testing, and persona development. Such methods all started in weapons development in the US and Britain by a small group of psychologists, anthropologists, and designers.
The history of UX research is interesting, but it is not my main story. There was one core principle developed by early human factors engineers that defined the differences we see playing out in Ukraine today. That principle is known as “Function Allocation”…a simple enough idea really. It goes like this.
When we develop a new technology utilized by humans, the driving concept behind function allocation is to determine which functions of the system are better handled by technology and which are better handled by human intelligence and expertise. This seems like a simple idea, but engineers hate this concept because it means that engineering decision-making does not DRIVE the final solution. Rather, the solution must also be informed by those who understand the human operator at a core functional level. It is also interesting to point out that AI as a field of technological development works against the idea of function allocation, thinking incorrectly that AUTOMATION is the way to truly optimize technology. This could not be more wrong. Here is why.
Since the early 1940s, US weapons contractors have for the most part developed modern weapons systems based on this idea of function allocation, or taken at a higher level, human-centered design. This approach led the Pentagon and its contractors to develop weapons systems that are based on function allocation. What is the impact of this approach? The answer simply is US weapons systems have far superior user experience performance in terms of killing power compared to enemy hardware and software. It is a cruel but undeniable fact that UX research has produced the most effective killing machine in human history, the US Department of Defense and related technology.
The function allocation approach has dramatically improved the killing effectiveness of our most important offensive and defensive systems. It has done so at all levels of the military, from the strategically critical offensive air systems level all the way down to the individual infantry soldier level. First a look at how FW was utilized to create massively effective modern offensive aircraft systems.
In today’s modern military fighter aircraft, the pilot actually no longer flies the aircraft but instead manages a vast array of interconnected battlefield systems running through the pilot’s decision space and the decision space of other operators in the system, including command and control centers. The modern US fighter aircraft is designed to provide stealth-level radar signature exposure. In order for such technology to actually function, those who design such aircraft must base the shape of these aircraft on concepts that result in an aircraft that is actually highly unstable aerodynamically. This is a classic function allocation trade-off: Lowering the radar signature of a fighter aircraft means that a pilot can no longer actually fly such an aircraft by traditional inputs. So the pilot manages the systems that fly the aircraft, and radar detection is dramatically reduced. The human role has changed from direct manipulation of aircraft control surfaces to management of systems that actually fly the aircraft.
For such aircraft to fly and deliver a wide array of ordnance, it is necessary to have computers maintain the stability of the aircraft based on inputs from the pilot, combined with an extensive system of software and sensors. But there is more. A modern fighter aircraft is a massive high-performance flying communications platform that includes continuous data from AWACS aircraft, satellite feeds, other friendly aircraft, enemy aircraft in the attack space, defensive missile systems, ground intelligence feeds, refueling aircraft, land-based cruise missile options, and more…much more. These new systems exhibit function allocation on steroids, based on billions of dollars of research conducted by our military to determine just how to allocate human intelligence into offensive fighter aircraft platforms.
The result is a human/machine system that can rapidly destroy entire groups of enemy aircraft in one go, destroy enemy missile batteries, and enemy radar systems, enemy ground ordnance (tanks…etc.), and also evade enemy anti-aircraft ordnance and refuel in dense cloud cover. This is all possible because of the balance between human intelligence, truly mind-bending technology, and communications infrastructure. This US technology, if turned against the current decades-old Russian tanks and related artillery infrastructure currently pummeling cities in Ukraine, would essentially neuter the Russian land game in one afternoon…Gone.
This capability is well known to all parties and is of course the exact reason why Ukraine wants these systems and Russia threatens the use of tactical nuclear weapons if the US makes them available. If you doubt this, we have already shown this option in the first gulf war, when our air systems took out Saddam’s entire inventory of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and fuel supply trucks in two days. Hundreds of such military hardware were destroyed in a few passes…That was over 30 years ago. Let’s keep in mind that we have seen none of our most advanced human-centered weapons in the Ukraine conflict. On a more granular level, however, US-designed human-centered weapons are everywhere Russia turns in this conflict. Such weapons are delivered to the battlefield without the strategic advantage of aircover support described above.
This example shows that humans are extraordinary at some tasks and technology is better at others. The proper integration of the user and technology is better than the sum of the parts and there are many, many parts in the design of complex systems like those described above. But the US military did not stop at big systems.
The idea of improving kill performance through function allocation has also been applied to the individual soldier in ways that we see firsthand in the war unfolding in Ukraine. If one were to go back to the question of function allocation and how to best utilize the individual soldier in a ground war involving tanks and artillery, we discover truly interesting insights. We see the answer to this vexing problem in the news feeds from CNN showing vast numbers of destroyed Russian tanks…yet Ukraine has essentially no air defense systems and no countervailing artillery. What accounts for the vast number of tank kills and related battlefield chaos on the part of Russia? Again, function allocation is responsible.
It turns out that humans are vastly superior to even the best-mechanized hardware when it comes to navigating a complex battlefield environment, especially one that involves actual urban warfare. What we mean by this is, that when faced with close field urban warfare, a well-trained soldier and related colleagues can negotiate a battlefield space far better than any technology. How is this possible?
It turns out that homo sapiens have millions of years of evolutionary experience navigating all manner of terrain and obstacles, all in the specific interest of survival. It is a fact that the human gait is the most biomechanically complex and flexible means of locomotion on planet Earth. Everything else, including the flight of the avians, pales by comparison. We are masters of terrain navigation and movement. So what did the US military do with this insight? The answer is surprising and clearly validated in the current Ukrainian push against the Russian armored hardware.
The answer to this function allocation question was to combine our staggering ability to navigate the modern battlefield on foot with technology that could neuter modern tank columns and survive for another day. The solution resulted in what is widely known in military weapons development as the lightweight, shoulder-fired, self-tracking missile, better known in the Ukrainian conflict as the Javelin anti-tank ordinance. The lethal combination of human intelligence, extraordinary terrain navigation, and the Javelin disposable hand-held rockets is terrifying to Russian tank crews in the extreme. One soldier with a Javelin can now do the previously unthinkable…reduce a Russian heavy tank to smoldering rubble in the blink of an eye. It does so by utilizing some of the most advanced weapons hardware and software delivered to the battlefield on the most flexible and clever platform possible: The human operating system. In this regard, modern warfare again sees the foot soldier as a massive asset, not a liability. Here is why.
In terms of UX design, the Javelin is the quintessential easy-to-use weapon. Once within range, it is essentially a weapon that only requires one to point, lock, shoot and hide. The system design removes entirely the need for complex training or a high degree of skill in terms of aiming, arming, and releasing the weapon toward its intended target. It is without peer in the modern close combat military theater and is at the core of truly brilliant UX design because it combines human intelligence with advanced technology in a symbiotic solution that vastly expands a single soldier’s kill ratio on the modern battlefield. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, as CNN footage reveals on a minute-by-minute basis.
There are no modern consumer-facing products today, other than possibly some aspects of the iPhone, that begin to match the ease of use of the Javelin given the complexity of the operating environment. There is a reason why our military systems have such staggering levels of actual UX optimization and usability performance. The answer is both conceptual and structural in nature. Our military planners have, since WW2, placed a high premium on the utilization of human factors science in the development of US weapons systems. Russia has attempted to follow our lead, but has, for the most part, failed to achieve anything like the usability optimization of our weapons systems. It is worth noting that not all DOD systems are paragons of usability…some are not.
There is a second factor. By far the largest number of properly educated and trained human factors scientists working today in industry are found in the US military contractor ecosystem. The vast majority of individuals with advanced degrees in human factors science are practicing today in US defense systems development (i.e., not working for Apple, Google, Facebook/Meta, Microsoft…etc). In fact, the field of consumer-facing UX research as practiced today is small compared to the UX research conducted by the US weapons development contractors under the guidance and regulations of the Pentagon.
All of this is another way of saying that our current fascination with UX research in consumer-facing companies owes its entire history to modern weapons development, where UX optimization is truly life and death. Just ask any Russian tank crew facing an 18-year-old Ukrainian new recruit with a Javelin.
On the other hand, should the Ukrainian conflict escalate to the use of tactical nuclear ordnance the concept of function allocation becomes in large measure moot in the context of battlefield survivability? It turns out that even in the procedures defined around a nuclear exchange there are prodigious levels of human factors science. Let’s hope we never need to write about such options.
Charles L. Mauro CHFP President / Founder (1975-Present)
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