Cognitive Overload in Air Force System Design

The Air Force increasingly adopts new technologies intended to improve an Airman’s Situational Awareness (SA). Ironically, these new technologies often degrade the Airman’s SA. The problem is that the impact on human cognition of adding these new technologies is often overlooked.

How is this possible?

Each new technology has its own visual language and interaction model. On their own, this is not a problem. But combining multiple technologies or displays creates a system with a varied set of disparate UI’s and displays. Much more than an information overload issue, an inconsistent set of displays incurs a high cognitive switching cost. This switching cost increases the cognitive demand of using various dissimilar UI’s.

The more variability in the displays, the higher the switching cost. In a low-stress environment, this cognitive switching cost doesn’t seem to impact user performance. When the stress level increases, the cognitive demands on the users escalates rapidly and amplifies confusion resulting in missed information and poor decisions.

Even if separate vendors do conduct Human-Centered Design methods, those processes are conducted independently on each individual device, not as a combined, integrated system. This does little to reduce the number of competing displays in a system.

By overlooking the cognitive impact of adding disparate UIs, the Airman loses SA rather than gains it.

Miller’s Law (7 +/-2 paradigm)

Dr. George Miller of Harvard’s Psychology department proved that humans can only keep track of about 5-7 items in working memory at any one time. Any system that demands user attention just to re-orient to a display language consumes one or more of those memory cells. In a fast-paced, high stress situation, the user needs all working memory to maintain focus on the task. Anything that interrupts that memory degrades user performance. More interruptions exponentially increase the degradation.

A conspicuous culprit is the lack of integration between systems and people.

The Air Force relies heavily on training, but the reliance on training is sometimes a symptom of poor design. In our experience there are two common types of training: tactical training – how to conduct missions; and functional training – how to operate the equipment. The Air Force routinely conducts tactical training to effectively reinforce mission tactics, but operational training is usually limited to one-time classes. Unfortunately, functional training is largely ineffective for several key reasons:

        1. Typically out of context
        2. Reliant on rote memorization
        3. Often focused on how to use the features more than performing tasks
        4. Conducted in unrealistic conditions, free of real-world distractions

This last point is the most crucial. Typical equipment training focuses on a single component without the common distractions of the other half-dozen components of the task domain. It’s the equivalent of teaching someone to juggle with just one ball and then expecting them to juggle 6 balls at the same time after the training.

A foundational aspect of the problem is that the military establishes requirements rather than task capabilities. The metric for satisfying a requirement is achievable simply by providing features rather than supporting tasks that achieve user objectives.

Moreover, interoperable is not the same as integrated. Even though a new system may operate with the other systems, it’s not the same as integrating with those systems. An integrated system would attempt to fit into the existing system footprint without necessarily adding more displays. For instance, an integrated solution might merely add a display widget to an existing dashboard rather than adding another dashboard display.

The Solution

The Air Force lacks a single, cohesive, overarching design strategy to align ingredient technologies and reduce the cognitive demand. Without a strategy, technology vendors are free to design their systems without an eye on interdependencies or integration.

CyberWorx is actively engaging representatives from various research groups already working on this problem to help develop a codified strategic guideline to reduce the design variability pervasive throughout the Air Force (and military, in general). This requires a system level perspective that looks at entire systems, rather than its individual constituent components. The goal is to promote a consistent look and feel and a task-oriented design approach rather than the typical feature-oriented approach common in the military.

We are advocating a two-part effort:

        1. Integrate the existing cognition and attention research and develop approaches to apply this research
        2. Refine and introduce this solution approach with program managers responsible for technology development within the Air Force

Much research has been done to identify and articulate this problem, but little has been done to apply this research in a consistent manner. This project proposes to leverage the research and explore potential solutions that alleviate the nuclei of this problem, poor or inconsistent UX design approaches.

Once that goal has been achieved, we then propose to enlist the aid of the actual Program Managers responsible for guiding system development efforts and identify ways to promote a more successful UX design-oriented approach to system designs.

The result could be a guidebook of sorts that PM’s and vendors could rely on to ensure that new technologies are integrated into the Air Force with appropriate emphasis on the cognitive impact these new systems have on the warfighter. We are not limiting ourselves to that solution but are open to investigating any and all reasonable solutions. Please join us as we embark on this promising journey by filling out the form below or contacting

For background info, read our blog posts on this topic:

The Situational Awareness Paradox

The Situational Awareness Paradox II

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