Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Sun Tzu regarded intelligence gathering as one of the most important aspects of war, advising that those involved should be endowed with appropriate equipment. And therein lies the primary purpose of this blog series: giving decision makers the information necessary to equip the Electronic Warfighter with the most useful tools possible. We will take the strategies employed by user interface (UI)/user experience (UX) experts and apply them to the Electronic Warfare (EW) industry to develop compelling, effective interfaces and improve overall mission readiness. But before delving into how those designs are formed, it is important to understand why they are necessary.

The situation

When it comes to dominating the battlespace, intelligence is paramount. However, there are many different tools and methodologies used to obtain valuable intelligence.

Even if we focus on just one aspect – the tools – there is an even greater variety of design options: what features a product should include, how much it should cost, where and how it should be deployed, etc. The number of approaches here can be limitless.

Defense and military circles commonly refer to this domain as Electronic Warfare or Information Warfare, which can include both electronic countermeasures (ECM) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). For this series, let us focus on the SIGINT aspect.

Timely, accurate and actionable intelligence

When it comes to SIGINT, most customers will agree with the following statements:

What do we want? Accurate and actionable intelligence!

When do we want it? 10 minutes ago!

meme - what do we want? accurate and actionable intelligence - when do we want it - 10 minutes ago

Customers want good intelligence, and they want it yesterday if possible.

What is actionable intelligence, and why does it matter? First, what exactly is intelligence? Loosely speaking, it is information that can answer, at a minimum:

  • What happened?
  • Who was involved?
  • To what unit or group do they belong?
  • When did it happen?

Better intelligence can also include information answering:

  • Where did it take place, including preparatory and post phases?
  • What did the operational timeline (planning, rehearsals, execution and evasion/hiding) look like?

Lastly, the perfect package of intelligence will elaborate on the following:

  • How did it happen, and, if it was a bad thing, how can it be prevented in the future?
  • Why did it happen? Is it likely to happen again?
  • How did those involved assess the event in terms of successes, failures, or necessary operational tweaks? (This is often called an after-action review, AAR, or a battle damage assessment, a BDA.)
  • What was the order of command?
  • Who and where were the collaborators and facilitators not directly involved with the event?

Any discrete item of information that answers one of these questions is called an essential element of information, or an EEI. Despite the nearly universal demand to address the last few questions, answering the first four criteria would provide enough information to comprise a piece of actionable intelligence, information from which a mission manager or task planner can make a decision. These decisions can at best cost millions of dollars, and at worst cause someone to lose their life. Therefore, it is crucial that reliable intelligence is both distributed and received in a timely manner, in a format that can be quickly understood.

The problem

Many organizations have designed tools for the electronic warfighter. However, few have focused on the human usability aspect of SIGINT collection, analysis and reporting, failing to recognize the importance of the human-computer interaction (HCI) component.

united states air force staff sergeant sitting at a computer

The human-computer interaction (HCI) can make or break a mission.

Why is this important? We know that risk can never be truly eliminated, and human factors are a tremendous source of risk. When humans are tasked with producing accurate and actionable intelligence delivered in a timely manner, the immediate risks associated include:

  • The risk that the intelligence is inaccurate
  • The risk that the intelligence is not delivered fast enough
  • The risk that there is not enough intelligence to be actionable

In the end, a human will be responsible for composing, packaging and delivering that key bit of information to another human, who must then read, analyze and make a decision from it. Across this entire chain of events, there is always a risk that a human factor, like an oversight or affliction caused by illness, may impact the reliability of the end product. Therefore, tools must be developed to help mitigate these risks by delivering a UX centered around HCI-driven analysis.

Emphasizing the HCI can reduce the environmental factors that affect a user’s productivity. It can also encourage user behaviors that reduce timelines for intelligence analysis and reporting. Given the stakes, you might think that HCI usability analysis and UI/UX would be the primary focus of design and implementation – unfortunately, this is not the case.

Why is this the case? First, many who engineer SIGINT products have severely limited access to their niche end users. Additionally, end users may articulate their own workflows and frustrations in unexpected ways. When these ideas and experiences fail to be integrated into a system’s architecture, the product is less user friendly and thus more ineffective. When SIGINT product lines further diverge into more specific applications like signals collection and geolocation, these “misses” can magnify this gap even further.

The solution

Future blog posts in this series will seek to fill that gap. We will show how HCI analysis can mitigate complicating factors within the SIGINT domain – using feedback from end users. Moreover, we will demonstrate how user data can fold into UI/UX design decisions. We hope this series will elucidate why and how HCI can and should be used to inform decisions in SIGINT software development, and how CRFS is using user feedback to tailor our products to meet the SIGINT community’s unique needs.

At CRFS, we engage with our end users. We include them on our teams, because we know SIGINT products can be made better. And you know they can too. We’d love to hear your ideas on how we can improve on existing capabilities and build the best products for the Electronic Warfighter. Keep following our blog, and contact us to share your suggestions and ideas.

About the author – Eric Famanas

Eric

Eric J. Famanas is a Senior Software Engineer specializing in UI/UX-informed web application development using HCI and behavioral analysis. Before joining CRFS, he served as a SIGINT specialist for the U.S. Armed Forces, where he led SIGINT mission teams and trained hundreds of personnel in SIGINT equipment deployment and tactics.