The Role of User Experience in GEOINT

Keeping up with today’s technological and adversarial advancements is one of the geospatial intelligence community’s biggest obstacles. Panelists discussed how user experience can help.


From the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s YPG Hub at the GEOINT 2022 Symposium in Aurora, Colorado, panelists discussed the role that the digital experience plays in the geospatial intelligence tradecraft.

Moderating “The Role of User Experience in GEOINT,” Ricardo Rios, Director of Customer Success at Planet Federal, opened with a question on the future challenges to GEOINT data integration with UX/UI design.

Michelle Brennan, Image and Video Pod Lead at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, took the floor to discuss the difficulty of displaying temporal information intuitively. “More data means more information and more complexity,” she said. Brennan encouraged listeners to create and merge cross-disciplinary teams to bring together expertise and develop ways to tell dynamic stories with GEOINT.

Panelist Jo Fraley, Lead Solution Engineer at Esri, urged for the standardization of data prior to its enrichment. Data standards boost collaboration, shorten project timelines, and enable the continuation of and elaboration on analytic products by future analysts, especially when managing large datasets.

Fraley wasn’t the only proponent of standardization on the panel. “Standards might be one of the most important parts of what we’re trying to do on large-scale,” Nick Townsend, Growth and Innovation Director at GDIT, highlighted. He cited process standards, hardware and software standards, and data standards as the three keys to successful collaboration.

“I can’t retrain every single model every single time, especially with GEOINT,” Townsend said, nodding to the size, scale, and scope of the ever-expanding pit of geospatial data. In the realm of national security, lag can be the difference between mission success and failure; in the commercial sector, standards save money and time while building a competitive advantage.

Larry Marine, Senior UX Analyst, Researcher, and Designer at Air Force CyberWorx, emphasized strong and constant research: “UX doesn’t happen in two-week sprints…research has to happen long before you ever start developing.” As a project advances, change is inevitable, and Marine promoted collaborative research with developers to increase the overall chance of creating successful UI/UX.

Brennan spoke of keeping UX designers’ eyes on end results. “Keep that end-state in focus, keep the focus on what we’re aiming to achieve,” she said, and agile development will not compromise the user experience.

Townsend echoed her sentiments: “Look at the overall portfolio of what you’re trying to accomplish…define the organization’s goals while you’re developing; agile is a great mechanism to help organize.”

Rios asked panelists how they manage feedback while not changing a deliverable too much or too often. Townsend revealed that GDIT often experiments with fully passive user feedback within the UI. “As users might have challenges, maybe they have a button they can push with a question mark [to communicate] their issue,” he said. UX designers can also automate the collection of metrics to compare how many clicks it takes an individual to execute a task with how many it was designed for.

Also on the topic of feedback and ensuring end-user understanding, panelists explained that it’s vital to maintain simplicity. “We should use words that make sense,” Fraley noted. “Pose it as questions that you need answered in the terms that everybody understands.” Simple UIs are more user-friendly and expand the diameter of production pipelines, allowing individuals that may not be GIS or GEOINT experts to contribute and utilize the latest and greatest geospatial platforms.

Users can still be dissatisfied with UI that meets all project requirements. “It’s cheaper and faster to start from scratch sometimes than to fix something that’s really broken,” Marine explained.

“Users will find a way to work with it, but that’s not how we should be advancing capabilities,” Michelle added. “We should be making it work for them and for the mission that they’re needing.”

Fraley wrapped the session by reiterating a theme common to this week’s GEOINT Symposium: Keeping up with today’s technological and adversarial advancements is one of the geospatial intelligence community’s biggest obstacles. “If you build an application that’s going to have so much, it’s going to be obsolete by the time it gets developed.”

“GEOINT UX/UI is very hard. It’s not like other UIs…you have a massive amount of data right in front of you and these constant tradeoffs,” Townsend ended. He called on partnerships to mitigate GEOINT challenges.

“It’s map data, vector data, raster data, it’s overlays, it’s AI/ML results…you could have billions of possible dots on this screen…understand that it’s a very challenging field that we need a lot of help and support in.”

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