The U.S. Air Force (USAF) is committed to modernizing its portfolio of software products to ensure mission success and improve the quality of life for all airmen. In collaboration with Business Enterprise Systems Product INnovation (BESPIN), we’ve established the Design Studio, a design center of excellence whose mission is to deliver better airmen user experiences at scale.
To digitally transform its organization, the USAF needs to quickly deliver software that, in turn, delivers great user experiences. However, designing and building software products in the USAF rarely works out that way. At present, the experience for internal Air Force product teams looks like:
- Understanding the problem. Requirements are often shaped by stakeholders who don’t possess a deep understanding of everything associated with the problem, including business drivers and actual user needs. If any discovery is conducted at this stage, conducting user research can take months, especially for less experienced teams. As a result, teams start developing solutions with incomplete or uncertain information.
- Procuring vendor support. The procurement process to contract with a vendor is — by default — complex and time-intensive. Teams and vendors have to align to funding cycles, which can take anywhere from a few months to a year.
- Building the software solution. This step requires coordination across the core team, users, and stakeholders. Depending on the tech stack and complexity of the application, development can take anywhere from several months to multiple years. USAF teams are also new to the process of taking a human-centered design approach to software development, which is now required by laws and executive orders such as 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act and Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.
- Passing security and compliance checks. Most teams wait until the end of the software development cycle to ensure their software meets security and compliance requirements. In addition, they lack access to pre-authorized, reusable software components that meet such requirements out of the box. Therefore, the time required to obtain an “authority to operate” can take up to several additional months.
- Deploying to production. Due to the drawn-out experience of getting to this point, most teams aim for a “big bang” release, where everything is released at once. Some applications also need to align to certain deployment windows, which can be as small as once or twice per year. Releasing infrequently impairs the ability of teams to respond to changing user or business needs.
Given all the challenges associated with delivering modern digital experiences in today’s current operating environment, not to mention limited budgets, airmen aren’t getting the solutions they need and deserve to ensure the USAF succeeds with its mission in the 21st century.
In recognition of this problem, the USAF sought out a better solution for delivering human-centered software to airmen rapidly, cost-effectively, and at scale.
In collaboration with the USAF’s Business Enterprise Systems Product INnovation (BESPIN), Skylight has established the BESPIN Design Studio, a center for design excellence within the USAF that airmen product teams can leverage to build software with speed and quality. To this end, the Design Studio offers several critical features:
- A team of cross-functional experts that provide comprehensive product, design, and engineering support at every stage of the software development life cycle
- Enablement-focused support, such as coaching, training, and pairing, aimed at giving airmen the skills they to build human-centered products independently
- A flexible, multi-stage engagement approach that’s designed to ensure day-to-day activities are directly connected to high-level transformational outcomes, enabling the Design Studio to understand the goals of airmen product teams and design a unique approach for their specific needs
- A rapid acquisition pathway through BESPIN’s Design Studio IDIQ contract vehicle, which allows projects to go from initial scoping to contract execution in three to four weeks; once the contract is executed, the Design Studio can take a user or business problem from idea to production in under 12 weeks
- A reusable, pre-authorized experience design infrastructure, which includes the Service Design Accelerator framework, modern design systems, and user experience monitoring tools, that enable Air Force product teams to accelerate the delivery of human-centered software solutions
To date, the Design Studio has:
- Redesigned the Air Force Fitness Management System II (AFFMS II), a fitness management tool used by every uniformed airmen, leveraging a user-centered and iterative process that resulted in an improved user interface where airmen could seamlessly view and download fitness reports
- Transformed how the Weather Systems Program Office (WxPO) designed and delivered products across a portfolio of 14 product teams, demonstrating new ways of working, providing hands-on support to product teams, and creating practice resources for user-centered design and product management
- Improved the user experience of the Reliability and Maintenance Information System (REMIS), a legacy application that manages maintenance on all aircraft and equipment
- Advised Digital University on how to apply a design system and a user experience monitoring infrastructure, which provides advanced analytics and insights into the performance of their digital applications
- Automated workflows for the USAF’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to get them caught up on processing a backlog of 100k criminal records through service mapping, user research, and interface improvements
- Worked with the COVID-19 Task Force to process reasonable accommodations requests by automating workflows and creating one point of access for submission requests, thereby enabling efficient administrative review and reporting
- Developed an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) calculator application for airmen who need to do calculations on the flight line using iPads that didn’t have pre-installed calculators
Since launching in 2021, the Design Studio’s inter-agency model has found product-market fit and delivered on several high-profile wins for the Air Force. By creating a center for design excellence, we have created a rising tide that lifts all ships, driving digital transformation and improving the quality of design within the USAF as a whole.
- Reduces application time-to-production from years to months through a robust design infrastructure and modern ways of working
- Cuts product development costs by up to 80% in some cases through pre-built, pre-approved design components and templates
- Built eight software products, and advised several high-profile initiatives, over the course of 2.5 years to help drive broader digital transformation throughout the Air Force