Let’s talk about the user experience of a Rock River Arms AR-15 match rifle that I use in competition. Why? Because this match grade target rifle is at the center of complex context that involves objects, human biology, psychology, time, process, and other actors.
Even though the rifle is not a software driven information space, it provides an ideal example of use in context without the distraction of the discussion of software design.
So let’s head to the range…
The target is 100 yards away. The black circle at the center of the bullseye is just over six inches in diameter, and from this distance it is just a speck. Oh, and about the black. That is just the 9, 10, and X rings – the highest scoring parts of the target.
Designed for precision shooting, this particular AR-15 weighs nearly 17 pounds. That is 10 pounds heavier than most ARs.
The ammunition I use is highly specialized for accuracy. Each round is loaded with exactly the same gun powder precisely measured to exacting standards. The bullet that tops the round is precision engineered for true flight.
My ears are protected by a double layer of ear plugs and earmuffs. Each is designed to block 26 decibels, and if it were not for a pair speakers in the earmuffs tied to mics on the surface, I would not hear a thing.
A pair of wrap around glasses protect my eyes. The lenses are polarized and tinted. They are made from a polymer designed to withstand tremendous impacts. Yes, they are nearly bullet proof.
The sights on my rifle are match grade. The front sight is a post five one hundredths of an inch wide. The post is nestled between to leaves that curve outward from the post. The rear sight is a tiny aperture just four one hundredths of an inch in diameter. Each click of elevation moves my point of aim about one quarter of an inch at 100 yards.
As I settle into prone position, I slip the thick leather sling over my jacket. It sits snugly just above my left bicep just tight enough to avoid cutting off my circulation. I wrap my left hand around the sling so that it rests on my rifle’s fore end.
On my left hand is a Creedmoor fingerless shooting glove. Its yellow leather is worn from years of competition. The thick lining isolates me from the rifle by dampening the movement that would be caused by the pulse in my palm.
Though the rifle is heavy, my muscles do very little work to keep it steady. To support the weight I have positioned my left elbow directly rifle, and the sling takes most of the weight.
Through the sights that speck of a black dot 100 yards away comes into view. The sights provide no magnification, rather the target, the post, and the aperture align to allow me to block out everything else and focus on hitting that distant black dot.
The black portion of the target and the post form an “i” with the dot sitting directly on top of the post. Without conscious thought, I center the target and the post in the center of the rear sight.
In order to put all of my muscles into a neutral position I close my eyes, allow my body to relax, and open my eyes. If my sights are off target to the left, right, up, or down then I adjust my position rather than force my muscles to hold an unnatural position. I repeat this exercise until I reach a natural point of aim.
I have ten minutes to fire ten rounds. Through practice and constant repetition I have developed a rhythm that allows me to complete the course of fire in eight minutes (leaving two in case a mechanical problem crops up).
First I must control my breath. I have positioned my right knee to keep my diaphragm off the mat so that my breathing does not cause my position to shift. I inhale slowly – deep enough to draw a sufficient breath but not deep enough to push beyond my tidal volume into my reserve capacity. It is a natural rhythm that does not disrupt my position.
After my breath finds its rhythm, I then focus on my heart rate. Over the years I have learned to lower my heart rate by relaxing my muscles and focusing on natural breathing. Once I hear and feel the gentle lub-dub that corresponds to a heart rate below sixty beats per second, I am ready to focus on the shot.
The Course of Fire
With my rifle resting on the mat, and the brim of my baseball hat resting on the rifle, I rest while waiting for the range commands.
I hear the range officer call out a familiar sequence of commands:
“The preparation period has ended.”
“This stage will be ten shots for record in a time limit of ten minutes.”
“With one round load.”
“Is the line ready?”
“Ready on the right. Ready on the left. Ready on the firing line.”
I load on command, but I do not fire the moment I hear the command to commence. Instead I begin the disciplined cadence of precision shooting. I acquire the target. I align my sights. My first breath is taken in and let only half way out. I hold it for a moment remaining keenly aware of my oxygen supply and the effect it is having on my muscles. I cannot hold a half-breath for more than a few seconds before I notice a slight quiver in my eye.
Because holding one’s breath is not a normal state, I start the course of fire by repeating the hold until I can synchronize it with my heart rate. I hold for no more than three beats. If I am unhappy with my sight alignment in the pause between the third and fourth beat, I release my breath and start again.
When the sites do align and my breathing, heart beat, and minute muscle movements align, I take the shot. As soon as the second beat ends, I take up the slack on the two-stage match trigger. It takes about two pounds of pressure to move and hold the trigger. After the third beat ends, I gently squeeze the trigger. The only muscles I move are those required to push my index finger back inside the trigger guard. My left hand is simply cradling the front of the rifle. The rest of my body is in a state of complete relaxation.
After applying three more pounds of force the trigger does its job and releases the hammer. The hammer strikes the titanium firing pin inside the chrome bolt carrier. The firing pin dents the primer on the back of the cartridge and the powder ignites.
I keep my finger back on the trigger and pretend that the bullet takes three more heart beats to reach the target. Then, and only then do I exhale and release the trigger. Time for the next shot.
My hand moves of of the grip and reaches down to the box were my next round sits waiting. I grasp the metal strip, insert the round into the chamber, drop the strip, and reach over the rifle to release the bolt. The rifle is now ready, but I am not.
The motion of reloading, even though it is done slowly and with minimal movement, raises my heart rate. Once I return to the familiar pattern of beats and breaths, I start the process of lining up the next shot.
Throughout the course of fire I take three breaks in that cadence to rest and refocus. I rest between shots three and four, six and seven, and shots eight and nine. I do this without fail, even when I do not feel like I need to rest.
Rhythm and cadence are critical to precision and consistency.
So where is the user experience?
Can we actually isolate the experience of using the rifle from any of the other elements? At one point my focus is on the sling, then the fore end, then the stock. During the course of fire my focus shifts from the sights to the trigger to the steps I need to take to reload.
Within the context of a precision rifle match, the rifle itself simply becomes a collection of affordances that shift in and out of my consciousness as I switch from task to task. Some I will only notice if I have a malfunction. Some affordances will leave the realm of conscious thought and become an extension of a cognitive process like centering the post in the rear aperture.
To design the ideal match rifle one clearly needs to understand firearms design, metallurgy, ballistics, and ergonomics. But to produce the finest match rifles, the designer also needs to understand the biology and psychology of the shooter within the context of precision competition. The designer also needs to understand the ebb and flow of the match, and the cleaning and maintenance of the rifle between matches.
But that is not all. The designer must also understand the culture of competitive shooters. They will look at all of the technical details of the rifle, but the brand experience is just as critical. Does the brand fit the culture? Does it reflect the values and expectations of the competitors? If it does not, there is a far lower chance that it will be adopted. Competition shooters only buy products from companies that clearly understand them.
It is not just the task that drives the design, but the task within the context of use, within the culture of the competitive shooting sports.