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07 24 2019

NCI Agency applies design thinking to improve tool for NATO analysts

NATO often looks to industry partners to see how they are moving faster, and producing better results.

Most recently, the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency piloted a user-centred approach from one of its industry partners to conduct an overhaul of a critical intelligence reporting tool.

And so far, it has been a great success.

Intel analysts working in NATO's peace-support operation in Kosovo use a software tool to collate their reports. Although the analysts in the Kosovo Force (KFOR) have successfully used the tool for many years, technology has evolved in a way that should allow them to conduct their daily tasks in a much more effective and efficient manner.

The Agency's Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) Service Line decided to use, and build on a design thinking methodology from an industry partner to involve the analysts in actually defining how the tool should look, feel and operate.

As a part of that design thinking methodology, the Agency hosted workshops in Kosovo with the analysts to really understand their 'pain points' and priorities. The workshops included time to observe their daily tasks, conduct interviews and group exercises.

"People's expectations change over time with what they want the software to be able to do," said NCI Agency Senior Scientist Will Leeming. "You get used to technology evolving, which is evident with Google, Facebook and other social media platforms. Thus, you expect the same level of advanced technology in the software that you use on a daily basis."

The effort has been funded by Allied Command Transformation (ACT) through its 'Accelerated Software Acquisition Project', known as ASAP. The project is designed to give NATO an opportunity to embrace industry best practices to accelerate the rate of change – ultimately delivering what the user needs in a faster timeframe. ACT wanted the Agency to use the project's funds to apply agile methodologies that would have a real impact on a NATO mission.

"We had an idea in our head of what we thought they needed," Leeming said of the analysts. "But by applying this method, we've managed to reprioritize and reshape those requirements, so now it much more closely represents what they actually need the software to do, rather than what we thought they needed. That's the difference."

NCI Agency applies design thinking to improve tool for NATO analysts

The Agency has successfully completed Stage 1 of the ASAP project: articulate and prioritize user needs, capture their pain points and define three aspirational end states. Stage 2 will focus on research and development to achieve these end states and, in conjunction with the end users, developing potential solutions based on today's available technologies. Finally, Stage 3 of ASAP will take relevant software code and migrate it through the Agency's DevTest Platform for software development. Thankfully, from the outset, the KFOR analysts bought into this approach. Their support will be critical throughout the project, as they will have the opportunity to provide feedback at all stages.

Following the wrap-up of ASAP in early 2020, a contract will be awarded to implement the users' needs and relevant technological solution. Overhauling the tool is considered an urgent requirement for NATO, so a business opportunity will be released in the coming months to select a contractor to make these changes.

De-risking the project by prescribing the user experience and technical solution will undoubtedly result in firm foundations to build upon.

"Ultimately the Agency doesn't have a mandate to develop software itself, so this is all testing – can we do it? What goes wrong? What works? What doesn't work?" Leeming said.

All of this will be to the benefit of not only the software developer, but most importantly, the end user of the product.