By Bob Reinert (for Soldiers magazine)October 14, 2011
SOLDIERS should always have their say.
At least, that's the unwavering opinion of two groups of people at Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts--the Operational Forces Interface Group and the Consumer Research Team--who spend considerable time collecting Soldier feedback on everything developed there.
The organizations send representatives to the field to ask Soldiers about their experiences with Natick products. Max Biela, OFIG team leader since 2003, looks for them immediately after deployments or major training exercises whenever possible.
"Ideally, you want to catch them as soon as they get back, because any problems they had with equipment (are) fresh," Biela said. "If you delay too long, they may not remember they had an issue with it until the next time they put it on. The fresher we can get the data with the issues, the more the Soldier will write about those items."
What makes Soldier input invaluable? "If anybody's going to break, rip, tear or destroy something, it'll be the Soldier doing his normal day-to-day activities," Biela said. "And if it happens, then it's not durable."
Biela wants Soldiers to know that the project engineers and scientists who develop what they use in the field read the questionnaires they fill out closely.
"All the data has to be hand-carried back," Biela said. "A blank survey is just that, a blank survey. Once that Soldier puts his information on there, that's the most valuable piece of paper that we could own, because that's the data that we're looking for.
"I can say that the engineers and the scientists that I work with are dedicated to their jobs, but in order to do their jobs, they need the Soldiers' feedback on how that equipment is working. That data actually goes back to the people who are designing their equipment and used to improve their equipment. Soldiers aren't necessarily stuck with their gear. If there's a problem, and it's raised, it can be fixed and fixed quickly."
Since its origins in 1984 as a two-person, customer-feedback organization, OFIG, now with a staff of 15, has branched out to do command exhibits, technical exhibits and run the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Command "greening" programs to teach civilian employees more about the Army. Its mission of gathering Soldiers' feedback continues to be a core function.
"You can't get anything improved unless you know what the problems are," Biela said. "You can do all the technical testing in a controlled environment you want. That doesn't mean it's going to work for the Soldier in the field. That's what we need to find out."
"I think our role is really to make sure that their opinions are captured," said Adam DiChiara, a research psychologist with CRT. "Product developers here have a lot of great ideas, but as an organization, we rely on Soldier feedback to know whether something actually works in the field."
When Soldiers speak their minds about equipment, they tend to be direct. The OFIG and CRT staffs prefer that. "I don't think we have any problem with getting an honest answer," DiChiara said. "Nobody's going to just tell us what we want to hear. That's a good thing.
"When they give us their feedback, it's usually pretty blunt and it's sometimes pretty detailed, because having used a piece of equipment for 30 days, they can tell you what they don't like about it and how they think it should be."
Of course, Soldiers seldom speak with a unified voice. "Different guys might have different ideas," DiChiara said. "No one's going to agree on everything. And that's our job, to sort of understand those dynamics and translate that back to the people developing it."
In conducting field surveys, OFIG and CRT stay impartial.
"The guys (who) go out, they owe no allegiance to any piece of equipment that they issue," said Biela of his equipment specialists. "We will not give our opinion, even if asked by the Soldiers."
"Our priority is collecting data that accurately reflects the Soldiers' experience with the prototypes, regardless of whether they like them or not," said Zach Given, another CRT research psychologist. "It's really important to us to remain impartial when interacting with the Soldiers. They voice their opinion, and we translate their voice into numbers and report on them."
Those reports can shoot down what seemed like great ideas in the Natick laboratories. "Our job is not to go out to the field with preconceived notions about what will perform well or be most liked," DiChiara said. "I think our job is to be objective and unbiased about it and actually find out, well, what do Soldiers think?"
Given said that having the same Soldier express positive and negative views about a single item "is what makes our team relevant as…a team of psychologists." Given added that the team tries to "represent the total opinion of the Soldier."
DiChiara said that other groups at Natick look at the functional performance of technologies, or how products developed there affect Soldiers physically. "The Consumer Research Team is more concerned with what Soldiers like and dislike, and why," DiChiara said.
OFIG and CRT often work together in the field. "OFIG, they speak the language," DiChiara said. "They know who to talk to. We have a strong relationship with OFIG, and our two groups fill different roles."
OFIG also has developed networks with units and commanders throughout the Army over the years. "A lot of units know us, and quite a few units have contacted us to volunteer," Biela said. "They get to have a say in the newest equipment. They realize that their Soldiers have the opportunity to make a difference in the equipment or rations by providing their input to prototype and developmental equipment/rations or by participating in a down select of multiple commercial-off-the-shelf items.
"Most of the people in the office are ex-military. So we know training schedules. We know who to go to in a unit. You've got to be able to understand military terminology. You've got to know how to talk to Soldiers. It's a different language."
Staff from both groups will do whatever is necessary in the field to get the job done. Justine Federici, another research psychologist with CRT, even helped measure Soldiers when doing work on the proposed Female Soldier Combat Uniform. The FSCUs were issued to 100 National Guard, 100 Reserve and 400 active-duty female Soldiers who participated in the user assessment.
"We all do stuff like that, where we'll cross train…with other people (who) provide support," Federici said. "I'm really interested to see what the women say with the (FSCU), because I was part of the issue team."
On a trip earlier this year to Joint Force Headquarters, Massachusetts National Guard, Dan Harshman, an OFIG equipment specialist, asked Guardsmen to complete detailed 7-page questionnaires about the FSCU they were issued last year to field-test.
"This is actually the toughest part," Harshman said. "Everybody wants new stuff, but nobody wants to pay the toll for us."
On this particular day, however, the Guardsmen dutifully filled out the questionnaires and voiced a few opinions.
"Men's bodies and women's bodies are different," said Lt. Col. Catherine Corkery, logistics officer and director for human resources, Massachusetts Army National Guard. "I like the pants, because they're a better fit for women. I would probably like them an inch or two longer."
The FSCU coat was a different matter for Corkery. The sleeve cuffs irritated her wrists initially. "But now that I've washed it a few times, it just softened up and it fits much better," Corkery said. "I find (the uniform) to be comfortable. I wish I had it when I was in Iraq because…when I lost…weight, I tried to go to the smaller-size men's pants. It just didn't work, because the butt was too big."
Corkery's opinion differed from that of Staff Sgt. Larain O'Connor, who didn't mind the FSCU coat but disliked the tapered trousers. "I'm not a big fan of it," said O'Connor of the uniform. "That's why I never really wore it after we tried them. It's not very comfortable.
"I like the old uniform, personally. It's just more comfortable, kind of like wearing pajamas."
Though she thought the uniform was comfortable overall, Staff Sgt. Rose Alectine agreed with O'Connor's view of the trousers. "If they fix the pants, it would be good," Alectine said. "It's great that they thought of us women."
"I'd say it's kind of split down the middle," said Harshman of the Guardsmen's feedback on the new uniform. "I guess this will tell us."
As Biela noted, product evaluations are cyclical in nature. When new technologies are applied, OFIG is back soliciting Soldier feedback on the same items they evaluated previously.
"Do all items get adopted?" Biela said. "No, sometimes they go out to Soldiers and none of the items (do). The item currently issued is probably better than some of the ones we've tested, but that's the purpose of testing with Soldiers…to see whether this is going to work."
While collecting data on one item, researchers often get Soldier feedback on other items. "When we're out there with the Soldiers doing a field evaluation, on the back of the survey pages, we always get comments about items that have nothing to do with the current field evaluation," said Larry Lesher, a CRT mathematical statistician, "but we always bring these comments and concerns back here to Natick and let whoever is responsible for that particular item know that this is what we found."
CRT and OFIG have only one goal in mind--helping get the right equipment to Soldiers. "The main priority is to make sure that everything is collected fairly and evenly," said Given, "with no bias in any direction for any of the products."
When new products are fielded, these groups often get little or no notice for their roles in the development. Biela doesn't worry about that.
"We don't need bragging rights to do our job," Biela said. "A lot of us are ex-Soldiers. We know there's a job to do, we know it's important, and we do it."