Leveraging Machine Speed C2 in the Joint Air Tasking Cycle

Human-centred design for air tasking orders

The air tasking order (ATO) cycle articulates tasking for joint air, space and cyberspace operations for a 24-hour period, involving the planning, allocation and coordination of assets to achieve mission objectives effectively.

The ATO cycle has challenges and inefficiencies that may be enhanced by leveraging AI and machine learning.

Military doctrine provides a solid foundation for understanding the ATO cycle’s principles, objectives and terminology. Nevertheless, it lacks the granularity to shed light on how individual units and personnel engage in the process.

By combining a psychologist’s understanding of human behaviour, cognition, and motivations, with UX principles, we developed a user centred approach to uncover opportunities to enhance the ATO cycle.

Bridging the gap between doctrine and real life

The ATO cycle poses several challenges that impact military personnel across different ranks and roles. During the initial stages of the project, it became evident that information management was a recurring issue.  

To gain a comprehensive understanding of the challenges, a workshop with five stakeholders from various ranks and roles within the ATO cycle was arranged.

The workshop began with a thorough examination of existing military doctrine, which provided essential insights into the high-level principles and objectives of the ATO cycle.

To bridge the gap between doctrine and real-life experiences, participants co-created a User Journey Map that mapped the needs, pain points, and opportunities for improvement against the higher-level doctrinal process.

Through collaborative discussions, the participants highlighted pain points, workarounds and bottlenecks that were not evident from the doctrine alone.

These insights shed light on the real-life experiences of the personnel involved and highlighted the need for a novel approach to managing information and decision-making.

For example, each group involved in the ATO cycle generated a substantial amount of data and outputs, resulting in a complex web of information that needed coordination and validation. To overcome this challenge, the workshop described an essential workaround: “The ATO Football” a senior role responsible for managing the workflow and consolidating information before presenting it to the commanding officer. 

Connecting with end users by employing empathy maps for deeper understanding

To gain a deeper understanding of the end users involved in the ATO cycle, Empathy Maps were created for each key role identified during the stakeholder workshop. These maps delved into the thoughts, feelings, actions, and pain points of individual end user types, enriching our understanding of their unique perspectives.

For instance, the commander’s empathy map revealed the pressure to make swift decisions based on limited information. At the same time, the role responsible for information coordination experienced challenges in maintaining transparency across teams, often feeling overwhelmed with the influx of data. It became evident that this role faced significant pressure to ensure accurate, timely data compilation and analysis, as their outputs directly influenced the commander’s decision-making process.

Understanding the emotional experiences of these personnel shed light on the importance of empowering them with effective tools and resources to fulfil their duties more efficiently.

High fidelity designs for ATO efficiency

Focusing on the crucial role of information coordination, a high-fidelity prototype to support the workflow of this role was designed in Figma. The proposed UI design emphasised shared data sources and automation to streamline information management and reduce manual efforts. The prototype demonstrated how access to data from multiple sources and seamless communication and collaboration among different groups involved in the ATO cycle could be achieved.

Automation features facilitated data validation, reducing the burden on personnel and minimising the potential for errors in the decision-making process. 

Well-informed options could then be presented to commanders.

Insights from usability testing

As part of our commitment to delivering a robust and user-friendly solution, usability testing was conducted with a select group of end users from the ATO cycle. The objective was to gather feedback on the prototype’s functionality, user interface, and overall user experience.

Participants were given scenarios reflecting real-world ATO cycle scenarios to perform within the prototype. Their interactions and feedback provided valuable insights into the prototype’s strengths and areas for improvement, paying particular attention to ease of use, data accessibility, and explainability of the automation features.

The usability testing revealed positive responses from the end users, who appreciated the streamlined information management process and the reduction in manual tasks. Additionally, participants expressed high confidence in the automated outputs.

By presenting validated options to the commanding officer, they were now equipped to make faster, better-informed decisions within the ATO cycle.

“You have understood more of our needs in a  few weeks than any of our other suppliers have  done in years!”