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A Reflection on User Experience From DOD’s First CXO

Colt Whittall highlights some of the initiatives that helped set the stage for transformed digital experience at the Air Force.

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A client-systems technician from the 509th Communications Squadron communications support center installs a new battery into a computer. The communications support center is specifically designed to facilitate all the base's communication needs. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Nick Wilson

The Defense Department’s new customer experience portfolio management office launched last month is the latest effort the agency is taking to tackle the user experience.

“I think of it from beyond just having more modern IT equipment. I think it from a functionality perspective, from a scalability perspective, from a sustainability perspective,” said DOD Principal Deputy CIO Leslie Beavers at the Defense IT Summit this month about the new office.

The office’s launch comes at a time when agencies are collectively prioritizing federal directives to improve the customer experience. For DOD, it was also a direct response to a recommendation from a February 2023 report from the Defense Business Board that advises agency leadership on business management issues and how to bring in more best practices from industry.

DOD’s focus on the user experience is a growing priority that began on a smaller scale in 2019 when the Air Force hired Colt Whittall, its first chief experience officer the agency ever saw.

Early CX Work at the Air Force

Whittall played a major role in tackling some of the department’s initial technology challenges and implementing the department’s first digital tools with user experience principles in mind, he told GovCIO Media & Research in an interview.

Some of the initial focuses for this new position were to improve user experience of IT, improve user experience and performance of software, and improve user experience of the “mega user journey,” which he said are the user journeys that affect everyone.

Whittall described how he measured airmen’s user experience in real time and found intuitive ways to enhance their experience and collect data on how much that experience improved. For instance, Whittall piloted a robotic automation process for service members that were changing their stations, moving their families and records from one base to another.    

“There were other elements of the strategy. There’s an acquisition component to it. There’s a tools component, a skills component, there’s a kind of short-term improvement component to it. And then there’s a long-term programmatic component to it,” Whittall said. “But really, the core is about measuring experience and driving improvement through use of that data.”

Whittall’s tenure also saw the implementation of many web tools designed to help airmen have a better digital experience. The office built a web analytics platform for the Air Force’s top software applications that functioned within the DOD’s firewalls, it conducted surveys on which software applications airmen found to be the most accessible and useful, and it tracked the performance of applications most used by airmen.  

Whittall said that the biggest challenge in improving the user experience was funding. During Whittall’s time, the Air Force created a digital experience monitoring product, but paying for it was no easy task.    

Licenses needed to be bought and then installed on the Air Force’s private cloud and go through accreditation. Whittall likened the pitching and selling of the service to getting a project funded through Silicon Valley, but in this case, the funding came through COVID-19 supplemental funds.

In other cases, like when he had to find a suitable platform to conduct surveys, he was able to use the Air Force Survey Office for minimal cost.

According to Whittall, his office helped ultimately change the perception and performance of software applications and the internet in the eyes of airmen, but that is only a start to a long road ahead.

“In 2020, user satisfaction was about five points or so underwater. In other words, we had about five percentage points more dissatisfied users than satisfied. In 2023, we completely flipped it. We were about two times more satisfied than disappointed,” Whittall said.

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