How the US Navy (Hopefully) Learned Innovation is Not a Thing

IBNS helm controls on USS Dewey (DDG-105). US Navy Photo

It’s easy to see some new technology and get hooked into thinking it’s the solution to all our problems. When I first saw the Philips Hue Smart Bulbs, I was enthralled and wanted to replace all my lights with Hues. But they didn’t work with my lifestyle. It’s not fun to fumble for your phone in the dark to turn on your cool lights when you’re drunk.

Having followed the twin tragedies of the USS John S. McCain and the USS Fitzgerald in 2017, I was interested this past week to read one of the culprits (despite the many systemic flaws) was the adoption of touch-screen controls to replace the physical control throttles.

To briefly summarize:

  • The controls were confusing and significantly different from the controls in ships of the same class so sailors transferring from one ship to another had to relearn how to helm the ship
  • There was no direct feedback in the control services as with the physical controls (you could feel the ship responding) and it was easy to only control one or other of the main propellors (thrusters) without realizing it and turn the ship rather than move straight ahead
  • Sailors were poorly trained on the use of the system
  • The individuals manning the systems were overworked and tired

I’ve written in the past that innovation is an action, not a thing. Whoever designed these systems probably looked at touch-screen technology and saw “an innovation” worth including in the system. As the report points out, shipbuilders have a lot of leeway in how they design controls didn’t seem to have asked anyone who would actually use the controls whether this was a good idea. In a survey of the fleet following the incidents, sailors “overwhelmingly said they prefer mechanical controls to touchscreen systems.”

Here are my takeaways:

  • New technology is useful only when it’s helping solve a clearly defined problem. Putting new technology in place because it’s new is a recipe for disaster. If there isn’t a clear need for something new or better, then you’re just as likely to buy into the wrong technology as the right technology. If you’re trying to “future-proof,” you could be preparing for the wrong future if you don’t have a clear idea of which possible future is probable.
  • Listen to your users. The shipbuilders apparently didn’t take the time to ask an experienced helmsperson if they thought the existing system was a problem and what they thought of their new solution. It apparently wouldn’t have been hard to find someone who would’ve set them straight. No matter how much thought and effort we as designers, analysts, and thinkers put into a solution, it’s always the users who will have the understanding and intuition about which solution will ultimately be the best.
  • Innovation is (still) not a thing. If the touch-screen system was part of a new approach to guiding a ship that was safer and more efficient, it would’ve been the outcome of an innovative approach of various activities undertaken to improve a process that needed improvements. Nothing I’ve read indicates the centuries-old tradition of helming warships was in need of an innovative redesign. Instead, the guiding principle was providing the latest and greatest technology to have the image of the most modern fleet in the world and to call that “innovation.” It isn’t and I hope the US Navy realizes that.

The most important takeaway for me is the universality of human-centered design principles. They can be applied to anything, no matter how big or small. In fact, the more essential a system is to survival, the MORE important it is to test assumptions through user research and integrate feedback into our designs. The costs of not doing so are more than money and can include lives lost because no one was willing to ask the question and hear the answer.


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