I’ve got you thinking a bit with that title, don’t I?  It’s not really a fair question, given that I do have some insider information here.  I spent 5 years as a submarine officer in the Navy.  And during those five years, I can tell you that I did not spend much time thinking about software.  When you show up to your boat after almost 2 years of training, a junior officer (JO) like myself is about as wet behind the ears (and generally worthless) as it gets.  But at that young and impressionable age in that environment, you learn lessons fast, or you don’t last.  So I will share one here.

A little background information is in order.  It starts with the one person in the US Navy more important than all the ships, equipment and weapons systems . . . a chief petty officer.  A chief petty officer is a senior enlisted sailor, normally with 12-20 years in a specific area of expertise (or “rate”) like radio & communication or sonar systems.  The Navy doesn’t hand out the rank easily.  It is earned.   In many respects, if you have met one chief, you have met every chief.  Besides keeping each ship in the Navy afloat and operational, there is a chief somewhere stopping a wee JO like I was from making a catastrophic mistake – literally – every minute of every day of every week.  And so it has been since John Paul Jones sailed the USS Bonhomme Richard into harms way nearly two and a half centuries ago.  If you are somewhat “getting the hint” impaired, the lesson I am about to relate came from a chief.  Because those lessons you can take to the bank.

Engine Rooms and LEDs

My boat was the USS Batfish, a fast attack submarine sailing out of Charleston, South Carolina (a great sailor’s town for 3 centuries).

USS_Batfish;0868101 Roughly half of the 300-foot length of the boat is the reactor plant and engine room. The engine room is dominated by 2 turbine generators, which generate electricity for the ship’s systems, and 2 main engines, which turn the screw.  All four are driven by very hot, very high pressure steam running through pipes big enough to swallow my 70 lb yellow lab.  Needless to say, my lasting impressions of the engine room are a lot of NOISE, like yelling to be heard noise at 10 feet, and HEAT, like 105-115 degrees Fahrenheit between those main engines.  It is also a place with incredibly little margin for error, where lives and the ship itself depend on split-second decisions from highly trained sailors.

For those of you who don’t remember (or more likely were too young to remember), the late 80s and early 90s was a time of technical innovation like today.  One of those innovations that said “modern” in every way was the light emitting diode (LED) digital display.  Every high tech thriller movie had computers and digital displays (Here’s one that might take you back – Matthew Broderick in “WarGames”).  I remember a ride in a family friend’s new Corvette back in the late 1980s, and the entire dashboard was digital – no old analog dials for the speedometer or battery charge.  Cool.  Modern.  Cutting edge.

The Lesson

I told you all that to tell you this.  One day aboard the Batfish, I was having my qualification card initialed in the engine room by our grizzled machinist mate chief.  I was being quizzed on the turbine generator (TG) control panels, which contained 14 analog dials and gauges displaying critical information to diagnose that piece of equipment:  steam pressure, lube oil pressure, RPMs, etc.  In order to qualify on the system, I had to be able to recite immediately from memory what the average reading was for each gauge, what problems would cause them to peg high or low on the meter, and so forth.

In the middle of that Q&A, I was thinking about that cool Corvette dashboard and for some unknown reason blurted out, “Hey Chief, why aren’t the TG control panels digital instead of these old analog gauges?…”

Chiefs have an uncanny ability to make you feel small and unimportant and downright stupid at times without moving a muscle.  It seemed like much longer, but within seconds Chief’s face was saying a combination of “where do these idiots hatch?” and “why do I even bother?” in a more explicit manner than I can write here.  I was feeling like a Dr. Seuss animated character, shrinking quickly from full size to miniature right in front of him – soon to go “pop” and disappear into anti-matter.  But half of a chief’s job is to pass along tradition and learnings generation to generation.  It is an irreplaceable piece of the institutional strength of the United States Navy that can’t be bought, and every chief takes the responsibility seriously.

“Do you have any idea why we don’t change the way we do things often in the submarine force?  Because things are the way they are based on lessons paid in blood and lives on the fleet boats of World War II, on the Thresher (which sank on its first test dive out of the shipyards with the loss of all hands in 1963), and for 30 years since.  Do you know that anyone with experience can look at those gauges from 25 feet away and immediately know if something is wrong with that vital piece of gear.  Your brain has to process digital readings one at a time, but your brain remembers the normal positions of analog gauges inherently.  There are 14 and only 14 readings, no more and no less, because more would add extraneous information and fewer would leave out a critical parameter.  Those displays were developed because the chiefs in the Pacific 50 years ago needed to read them in a split second in an engine room full of smoke.  That’s why they are not digital.”  Despite his obvious exasperation with me, he had never even raised his voice.  He didn’t have to.

User Interfaces also Matter in Online Scheduling Software

I won’t pretend that our online scheduling system here at Shiftboard has life-and-death design requirements.  But more than likely, if you are looking for more efficient ways to schedule your workers, then scheduling is a mission critical business process for you.  It certainly is in healthcare and nurse scheduling, hospitality scheduling, law enforcement, and event management scheduling among many other market segments we serve.  So hopefully it makes you feel better that our product managers spend an immense amount of time working on clean, intuitive, highly functional user interfaces for our software.

And yes, we incorporate some of the US Navy’s user interface lessons:

•    Our application’s screens minimize clutter and non-critical information, both of which add to an average user’s confusion.
•    Custom-designed icons are used to complement or replace text, because the eye can distinguish differences quickly with pictures.
•    We use simple, meaningful graphs and bar charts to display reporting data and make it the information immediately apparent.

All of those design lessons and more get rolled into this objective: any worker who can use an email system can use our software without receiving training.  Sure we have training guides, video training, and so forth.  But for the vast majority of our customer base, our ease-of-use focus saves them immense amount of money and time avoiding training costs.  More importantly, our easy-to-use system receives quick buy-in from their user communities.

What are you driving?

Ever since that day twenty years ago, I have despised digital displays, especially on automobile dashboards.  They came to represent form over function for me, trendy over steady and competent.  I am just guessing that you might look more closely at the dash of the next couple of cars you climb into.  Want to know a little secret GM won’t tell you?  All the US automakers scrapped digital displays in the 1990s and went back to analog dials.  I drive a 2003 Ford with an all-analog display that is far more usable than the same vehicle’s digital readouts a decade prior.  To my knowledge, the German and Japanese automakers never made the mistake in first place.  Maybe a few other engineers had a heart-to-heart with a chief.

–Rob E.