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U.S. Air Force

Modernizing the management of personal protective equipment


Providing better-fitting gear to aircrew, particularly female pilots, is one of the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF’s) top priorities. Their Human Systems Division (HSD) engaged us to build a platform for modernizing how they manage personal protective equipment (PPE).

Gear technician helping a female pilot put on her helmet.

The challenge

Key personnel who work for organizations in the defense, security, safety, and healthcare fields often experience critical issues with ill-fitting gear that compromise their job performance, their personal safety, and the safety of others. These organizations generally don’t have sufficient data and systems in place to meet the complex protective equipment needs of their diverse workforce.

For the U.S. Air Force’s Human Systems Division, solving this problem is a top priority that goes all the way up to the Secretary, and even Congress.

Female pilots in particular lack consistent access to — or, at least, awareness of — properly-fitting tactical gear and equipment options, exposing them to serious injury or mission failure.

In certain situations, having ill-fitting gear, such as harnesses and survival vests, can result in a loss of life. If an aircrew member ejects from the aircraft with equipment that doesn’t fit, they can be severely injured or lose their life.

Captain Lauren Ellis, U.S. Air Force

The solution

To address this challenge, HSD engaged us to build a digital platform called GearFit. The current product vision for GearFit encompasses several important capabilities, such as user-driven feedback, issues reporting & analytics, case management, catalog management & ordering, and training videos. The target population of users includes all aircrew who use PPE (for example, pilot, flight engineer, navigator) and the operational groups responsible for making sure they’re supplied with suitable gear. These operational groups include aircrew flight equipment technicians who service aircrew and help resolve their equipment issues (for example, fixing oxygen masks), requirements managers who translate feedback on gear issues into actionable requirements (for example, identifying gear defects), and supply-chain professionals who make acquisition and logistical decisions based on these requirements (for example, ordering permanent modifications to gear).

Given the complexity associated with this ambitious endeavor, we’ve focused our efforts on breaking down the overall problem into more manageable sub-problems so that we can quickly deliver appropriate solutions. Over time, these solutions will form a “suite of products” unified by a common design system, technology stack, and technical architecture.

We started off the project by conducting a series of service design activities, including service blueprinting. This gave us and HSD a more holistic understanding of the problem space and targeted opportunities for improvement.

Together, we decided to prioritize the first phase of our work on improving how gear-fitment issues are surfaced by aircrew, particularly female pilots. Historically, HSD hasn’t had an effective means for collecting such information in a reliable, organized, and accessible way. As we dug into this particular problem area, we found out several reasons why:

  • In general, there wasn’t a well-defined process for collecting feedback on gear issues from aircrew and communicating what was being done to address them.
  • Issues were being raised through disparate communication channels, such as email, social media groups, and direct conversations. This left information that could be valuable for the purposes of analysis and coordinated action scattered all over the place.
  • Safety issues that are life-threatening are usually prioritized, while daily comfort issues associated with uniforms and gear are often overlooked. However, daily comfort issues have the potential for long-term consequences.
  • Aircrew are equipped with dozens of different types of gear with names that aren’t plain language and are hard to remember (for example, Helmet 55/P, Anti-G Garment Cutaway). This made communicating issues extremely difficult, often requiring aircrew to sift through catalogs of items to find the right identifiers.
  • Some issues with gear are highly personal in nature and embarrassing to share with others.
  • There’s still the prevalence of a “tough-it-out” culture within the military that can make service members, including aircrew, reluctant to seek help.
  • If you think your life is busy and hectic, try walking in the shoes of a female pilot. There’s virtually no slack in their schedules, especially during training sessions or mission runs.

To address this problem area, we created and launched a minimum viable product (MVP) for gathering gear-fitment feedback from aircrew, targeted initially at female pilots. We designed the application to be fast, simple, and psychologically safe for aircrew to use. To help accomplish that, we created an experience where aircrew don’t have to think about what type of gear they’re looking to provide feedback on. This involved integrating with a third-party asset management system to pull in data about which gear is assigned to them. We also provided an option for users to submit feedback anonymously to avoid potential feelings of embarrassment. As part of the rollout, we launched a marketing and communications campaign to help overcome cultural and behavioral barriers to using the application — for example, “sitting in your pee isn’t a rite of passage.” As a result of these efforts, a growing population of aircrew have started to use the application. And, for the first time, HSD is able to collect and access quality data on gear issues from a central location, enabling them to better coordinate and communicate response actions.

With this foundation in place, the next phase of our work will largely focus on solving the problem of how to optimize translating feedback from aircrew into actionable requirements. GearFit’s Phase 2 MVP will focus on: channelizing feedback data to the proper program office or requirement manager, assisting with case management, and leveraging feedback data to provide trends and analysis to leadership. In addition, the team will focus on continually improving the feedback application and expanding user adoption, including additional aircrew and other types of personnel such as maintainers and medical professionals.

The results

  • Delivered an alpha version of the gear-fitment-feedback application within three months
  • Launched a beta version in production to a user base of 700+ female pilots in March 2020
  • Drove initial aircrew adoption of the application, despite cultural and behavorial obstacles, through a marketing and communications campaign
  • Demoed work to, and received praise from, former Secretary of the Air Force, Barbara Barrett, and her Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein
  • Continually improving the feedback application and expanding user adoption
  • Began second phase of work, focused on optimizing translation of feedback from aircrew into actionable requirements

Let’s deliver together.

However bold the idea or complex the problem, we work with you
to deliver results in weeks, not years.