Research & testing: the importance of context. The Soviet bomb dog story.

Research & testing: the importance of context. The Soviet bomb dog story.

Thursday 12th of May 2016
Written by: David Humphreys

In the 1930s the Soviet Union was facing a problem within its military. It had loads of people and natural resources but it was behind the curve in technology and mechanisation. Tanks were to be the weapon of the future and the Soviets didn't have enough of them to counter the perceived threats on their borders. Innovation was called for and the Soviets hit on the idea of training dogs to run under enemy tanks, and trigger a bomb attached to their body. Leaving the dubious morality of this aside, it seems like a good idea to a military still trying to catch up to its more industrialised neighbours, the German 3rd Reich and Imperial Japan that was gobbling up parts of Eastern Asia.

When it came to implementation, however, things didn't quite work out. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the dogs were deployed and several problems emerged. The dogs had been trained to run under stationary tanks and would not run under moving ones. Some would run about barking until the tank stopped and then run underneath it, but many more simply ran back towards their handlers or the Soviet lines, detonating their explosives and causing unwanted casualties. Worst of all, the dogs had been trained to run under Soviet tanks that used diesel, but the Germans used gasoline so bomb dogs were observed to run under the more familiar smelling tanks when given the opportunity. The program was less than successful.

Test in context

The Soviet bomb dog story teaches us an important lesson about testing and design. It is likely that all testing of the product (anti-tank dogs) was leading towards a successful outcome. However, following deployment two important points of failure can be noted above:

  • The dogs were trained to run under stationary vehicles and vehicles are often not stationary in a combat situation; and
  • The dogs were trained to recognise a diesel vehicle as their target because that is what was available.

Now there are plenty of historical caveats here. Due to diplomatic machinations, the Soviet Union was likely to be more expecting to fight Imperial Japan than Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the Japanese also used diesel for their tanks. But given the dogs were deployed against the Germans I don't think it was likely considered that the smell of the engine might be a factor except under the most astute of handlers who were probably ignored by their officers. Regardless, despite rigorous testing, the program failed.

A lot of usability testing is conducted in a lab environment. This is deliberate and in many circumstances is the right thing to do. It allows you to control the environment, make the participant comfortable and encourages stakeholder observation of the sessions. But sometimes context is very important, such as testing a mobile device designed to be used outdoors or the topic is highly personal. We once tested an app that was designed to help women stop smoking during pregnancy. This required discretion and tact and the woman’s home was considered the best place for it. Even when one of these women wanted to come into our lab, we used our comfortable observation room to test in rather than the somewhat confronting test room.

Service design is a place where we see a lot of emphasis on context. Take the example of redesigning a bank branch experience. Service design insists that everyone be there. During design and testing, the teller or customer service person is part of the customer’s experience. Customers have all sorts of mundane, complex or unusual transactions that often require interaction up and down the chain (even requiring calls to head office). Managers and supervisors are part of the teller’s experience as much as the customers and one of the core goals of service design is to look at the entire process to get flow on benefits.  The idea is to get as much of the entire context in place and test in a variety of forms. This can be from maps on a table using game pieces to represent the team members and customers, to full sized mock ups of a branch experience with role plays.

Usability tip

Email enquiry forms

Users are not averse to using online email enquiry forms but there are a few tricks that will help maximise usage, and avoid them hesitating and calling you instead.  Firstly, limit the number of input fields and only have required fields. We once tested an email enquiry form for a Government department that required users to put in their drivers licence and address details. This stopped users in their tracks from using the form as it required too much personal information upfront for a simple enquiry. Use the principles of progressive disclosure – if you don’t need the information on the form to address their enquiry, then don’t ask for it.  Secondly, always provide an expected turnaround time – this will help users determine if they can wait for a response, or they need a more urgent enquiry (in which case – phone).

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