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What the military taught me about User Experience, Design, and Myself


Full transparency - this post isn't really about my time in the military, but rather what I learned while designing a product for the military community and my personal journey as a designer. Here’s a little background on how I got started:

I started my career as a designer very much on the visual side. I was lucky enough to get a job right out of school at a rapidly growing startup in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry with two ex-Nike/Converse entrepreneurs at the helm. I learned how to design fast and I was pushed to become a much better creative than I was upon graduating (or so I foolishly thought). The main thing that I am grateful for is that it exposed me to many different avenues of visual design, from branding and packaging to video and photo direction and everything in between. I was designing trade show displays to sit next to brands like Oakley and Clif Bar at the New England Ski and Snowboard Show with the expectation that we had to look just as polished. My boss was officially our Creative Director, but I was the only one creating things with my bare hands - and a 27” Thunderbolt monitor. I thought I was hot shit until the inspiration came to a screeching halt. The job stopped being fun and rewarding for a handful of different reasons, and it was time to move on.

Queue RallyPoint.

A few months into my job search, I got an email from a member of the marketing team at RallyPoint. He liked my work and wanted to know if I would be interested in meeting up to chat with him about a new design position they were looking to fill. My first reaction:

“RallyPoint? What the heck is this? The professional network for the military? I don’t know the first thing about the military. Also, this site looks like it was designed in PowerPoint in 1996…”

Being insatiably curious, however, I replied to his email and we coordinated a time to meet up after work for beers. (Always a sign of potential good company culture if the hiring manager will meet you on your schedule. And especially for beers!) Upon speaking with him, I began to realize the untapped potential here. Not just in the role, where I would essentially have carte blanche as the only one with a design background, but also in the product itself. RallyPoint was fundamentally changing the way the U.S. military community communicates and networks, not to mention it presented another new channel of design in my personal development: digital products. It was really exciting. Ethically, it felt good. I ended up taking the job and design was rewarding once again.

I spent the first couple of months helping the marketing team tackle branding and building out a unified identity across the platform and communications. They were hurting for a true rebrand, but as is common with small startups, bandwidth is limited and you divide your time between whatever is the highest priority item/feature and putting out fires everywhere else. I ended up spending most of my time in product meetings taking orders from upper management on: 1) what to design, and 2) how to design it. But hey, I was a greenhorn in this industry, so I just assumed this was how it went. He was a high-ranking officer in the US Army, he certainly knew the audience better than the rest of us civilians did...

A few months in, one of the most pivotal moments in my design career (unbeknownst to me at the time) happened. We hired a product manager and my understanding and appreciation for design was completely revolutionized. Suddenly, there was real accountability and measures of success being tied to the things we were building. It was not just okay, but encouraged to ask why. Instead of just asking why we would design something a certain way, we were asking:

“Why design it in the first place?”

“What do the users need and how do we know they need that?”

“What are we trying to accomplish as a product and a business?"

"Does this align with our mission and our goals?”

I was floored. I thought orders always came from the top down. This democratic form of product strategy was a whole new world for me. I realized that up to this point, my understanding of success in design had been based on very subjective measures. With branding, packaging, and marketing communications, I tended to focus on what I/we wanted the product or brand to convey. I was telling the consumer, "This is what we think we are. This is what we want to look like." I'd design with the hopes that our aesthetic would evoke the emotions in them that we wanted it to. I always put companies like Nike and Apple up on this pedestal of design perfection, and if I always aimed to look like them, the design had to be right….right?

Wrong. And then it hit me like a barreling 8 oz. glove delivered by Mike Tyson. Sure, Nike and Apple do great design in a lot of different areas, but what I was missing was that successful design is not limited to white space, typography, or even how many design awards you win. DESIGN ISN’T JUST ABOUT VISUAL.

Mind. Blown.

Visual always plays its own important part, but successful design is about solving for your users’ needs. (I know, I’m not saying anything revolutionary here that most designers don’t already know and embrace.) You start with your users or customers and find out how your product can fill an underserved need in their life (or create one if you buy into the Hooked methodology). Then you set quantifiable goals for whatever that thing is. Then you build that. Measure. Learn more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Successful design is never done!

It was like I was blind my entire design career and now I could finally see.

I was lucky enough to have my product manager take me under his wing and begin to introduce me to product strategy, user research, user experience design, product management, lean and agile methodologies - you name it, I wanted to soak it up like a sponge and then wring it back out all over our product. I started to focus on how we could work together as a real product team rather than separately in silos as we had been up to that point. We would conduct user research, review analytics, and brainstorm on the whiteboards. We prototyped, user tested, and split tested. We set clear, tangible milestones for our projects, and the value of design shined through brighter than I had ever seen it before.

We were solving problems that legitimately existed in the world! At least the world of our users.

RallyPoint's users were something of an anomaly. A community of people explicitly taught to keep their personal lives private, but yet they were interested in a social network to connect with others and share their experiences over the internet. This in itself proved to be an interesting problem to address, but the platform already had thousands of monthly active users and we knew the market was there. We observed their behavior, spoke with users, and tested out new features.

We learned that the member base was inherently competitive, so a point system created an incentive to keep users engaged. We observed that an Q&A forum wasn’t the way they naturally wanted to communicate, so we adjusted our posting functionality and allowed private messaging. We found that there are compliance laws for companies' veteran workforce and resources for this were much more valuable than any ad space. Most importantly, we learned that once users understood the value of RallyPoint, they were completely hooked. And so came our incessant quest to improve upon the foundation we had laid.

All of this came to give me an entirely new perspective on design. It wasn’t clear to me immediately, but what really drew me into product design was the user feedback loop. I’m generally a social person and highly curious - this provided outlets for both. Just like my childhood years when I’d take clocks and printers apart to see how the mechanics worked on the inside, I learned to start my design process with one important objective: understanding why. I wanted to understand what it was that people needed, what was missing, and the best way to try so solve for that. Despite being conditioned in art studios and classrooms my entire life to defend my every design decision, I now look forward to all feedback - negative or positive. When I find out a design was unsuccessful, or “wrong,” it just inspires me to dig back in and figure out how to make it right.

Without the experience of building a product for the military community, it would likely have taken me a lot longer to realize what design really is. Design is not the way something looks or even works. Design is a way of thinking. It’s a way of solving problems. If you can apply that mentality to whatever it is you’re working on - even if that thing is as simple as a makeshift potato chip bag clip or as boring as a budgeting spreadsheet - it will open up a whole new understanding of what it means to “design.”


Alex Smith