US Army universal camouflage pattern

“Design is the new battleground” is the tagline for VentureBeat’s upcoming mobile tech conference, MobileBeat.

That phrase is meant to capture the importance of design to mobile devices, apps, websites, and more.

But for the U.S. Army, design has met the battleground in a much more literal way. As The Daily reported on June 24, the Army has thrown in the towel on its new camouflage program.

The Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern, or UCP, debuted in 2004 at a cost of $5 billion, and it was meant to be a universal design that would help ensure soldiers would have useful camouflage in a wide variety of environments. It’s a sort of grayish pattern with a pixelated, blocky look to it. Imagine an 8-bit version of more traditional camo, and you’re pretty close. If Mario ever went to war in an urban dystopia, this is what he’d wear.

It had solid motivations. Soldiers deployed to Iraq found that they lacked a consistent set of camouflaged gear. They might be wearing desert camo fatigues but a dark green vest on top of that. The contrasting colors messed up the gear’s capability to do its job of making the soldiers hard to see. Clearly, the Army needed to standardize on something and then make a whole lot of clothing based on the same design.

The problem is that UCP didn’t work. At all.

“Essentially, the Army designed a universal uniform that universally failed in every environment,” The Daily quotes an Army specialist who served two tours of duty in Iraq as saying. “The only time I have ever seen it work well was in a gravel pit.”

So how did a design that worked so poorly ever get approved? Top-down cluelessness, for starters. The office in charge of equipping soldiers pushed the camo design team to select a winning pattern before tests were fully done. That office also ordered the team to make a pixelated version of that pattern, apparently because a similar pattern had worked well for the Marine Corps.

The result: Camouflage that only works well in a gravel pit, and a waste of $5 billion.

It’s easy to draw parallels with mobile design, where the stakes are much lower but the temptation to make mistakes in the name of expediency are just as high. Here are the lessons I draw from the Army’s camouflage debacle:

1. There’s no such thing as universal design.

Don’t be a copycat. Never mind patent and trademark law — it’s entirely possible that your competitor has a completely different set of customers, with different needs. Apple’s iPad has dominated the tablet market for several years, and Android tablets only started to make a dent in Apple’s market share with the debut of Amazon’s Kindle, which is smaller, more media-focused, and above all, cheaper.

2. Let the designers do their jobs.

Steve Jobs was a design genius with an almost unerring sense of what designs would work. Your CEO probably isn’t. Give your design team enough scope to do their jobs right.

3. Don’t skimp on testing.

The Army could have saved itself a lot of grief if it didn’t shortcut the field testing for its new designs. You, too, can do extensive user testing to see what works, how quickly customers can find their way around your product, and whether or not that “brilliant” design actually works in the real world.

We probably won’t spend much time talking about Army fatigues at MobileBeat 2012, but we will have a lot more to say about mobile design. With speakers including Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, Google Mobile chief Jason Spero, fuseproject founder and designer Yves Behar, and Path CEO Dave Morin, it’s going to be a great event.

Photo credit: U.S. Army/Flickr

MobileBeat 2012Design is determining the winners in everything mobile. The most successful players are focusing on one thing: How to make products, services, and devices as compelling and delightful as possible — visually and experientially. MobileBeat 2012, July 10-11 in San Francisco , is assembling the most elite minds to debate how UI/UX is transforming every aspect of the mobile economy, and where the opportunities lie. Register here.