Tackling the Air Force computer problem one PC at a time

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One of the biggest themes for Air Force war stories over the past couple of years has involved trying to make the computers work. Go to social media, and tales of hour-long waits to open email or download a PDF file proliferate.

Now, the Department of the Air Force is scaling up its program to try and...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

One of the biggest themes for Air Force war stories over the past couple of years has involved trying to make the computers work. Go to social media, and tales of hour-long waits to open email or download a PDF file proliferate.

Now, the Department of the Air Force is scaling up its program to try and address the problem. So far, it’s making progress.

“So user perception, it’s our user satisfaction score, is up significantly from Thanksgiving a year ago. We’re seeing performance improvement on about three-quarters of the bases that we track,” Colt Whittall, the Air Force’s chief experience officer said during an event hosted by AFCEA’s northern Virginia chapter last week.

Whittall said his office currently uses a digital experience monitoring tool on about 1% of computers throughout the Air Force. He plans to increase the number to 5%, and expand where it is used. The office now monitors computers at 65 bases, and plans to expand that number to roughly 100, with a specific focus on bases outside the continental U.S.

The monitoring tool tracks how long it takes to start computers, log in on them, and then observe every application that is used on the device including web applications.

“It gives us the performance of all of its estimates, the transactional path, so it can tell us roughly how much time in latency is on the endpoint versus the network versus the server,” Whittall said.  “And it tells us what’s crashing, what services are crashing. We see the full picture of performance that is going on in the machine.”

In addition to monitoring the computers, Whittall’s office has been sending out weekly surveys since January 2020 to find out how happy operators are with user experience. Whittall told Federal News Network said those satisfaction numbers started out pretty low, averaging about 50%, but they are improving.

“From where we were a year ago, we’re up about 15, sometimes 20 points, it fluctuates a fair amount, week to week. We’re up and we think we know kind of why. There are some significant things that we’ve done to make progress,” Whittall said.

Aside from diagnosing specific problems and surveying users, getting new computers proved to be the most effective way to address complaints about computer performance.

From 2019 to 2020, Air Force purchases of new PCs more than doubled, but there was a delay in getting them out to the end users. The new computers were finally deployed in 2021.

“After COVID, we dramatically just hit the gas on doing tech refresh of computers. We saw a bump in fiscal ‘21, and then in ‘22, and that’s going to continue in ‘23 based on the latest numbers we’re seeing of PC purchases,” Whittall said.

Bandwidth was another simple solution that could be tweaked to make a huge difference. At ten of the bases the experience office was monitoring, it was able to increase the bandwidth to the base at no cost, and that helped speed up the computers.

Over the next month or so, Whittall’s office plans to release a software user experience charter. The new set of guidelines will set parameters on software purchases to insure better user experience. It will require new software to use web analytics and have tools for user feedback. It will also try and standardize the design system.

“That gives consistency in visual design and navigation and buttons and all that stuff so that user interfaces start to look a lot more alike and work kind of the same way,” Whittall said.

The second part of the charter speaks directly to acquisition. The office will create a template for language that needs to be in software acquisition contracts.

”When they are doing a software development, acquisition or other IT acquisition, if user experience is, is a priority, which it should be. They now have sample language,” Whittall said.

 

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