U.S. Air Force

Experience Design: Reinventing a Service Business Model

  • Capabilities Used
  • Strategy
  • Research
  • Experience Design

The U.S. Air Force is one of the most technically sophisticated fighting organizations in the world. To maintain this elite status, it needs to recruit, train, and retain exceptionally talented people in a variety of fields. To meet this goal, the Air Force needs to provide a high quality of life for its Airmen and families, as well as an experience that helps them remain ready and resilient despite high job stress. That’s the job of Air Force Services (AFS), an organization with responsibilities that range from recreation to dining to family services.

The vision included concepts for an integrated suite of digital and physical assets that would help Airmen regenerate, get life tasks done, and stay fit.


But AFS’ business model is based on the Air Force of the 1950s and by the 2010s it was facing a three-pronged challenge. First, as the country shifted away from a war footing, its appropriated funding shrunk—a huge challenge for a high-cost business model built on brick-and-mortar facilities and direct service provisioning. Second, the lifestyles of Airmen had shifted: with far more living off-base than before. And third, AFS needed to make its offering more relevant to a new generation of service members, who are more used to MeetUp.com and Farmville than bowling alleys and officer’s clubs. How could AFS adapt its service delivery model to these new conditions while still fulfilling its role to support the Air Force’s Mission?

An Inclusive, Ethnographic Research-Based Process

Altitude was brought in to lead a highly inclusive process to envision an AFS of the future. Together with an internal team of the best and brightest innovators, we attacked the problem from a variety of angles. We focused on creating a new level of empathy towards Airmen and families and building awareness of innovative practices from the military, as well as private and public sectors. The team’s research included deep-dive interviews with Airmen and their families, an exhaustive review of existing customer research, and visits to innovative organizations such as universities and forward leaning corporate campuses.

The ethnographic research efforts culminated in a meticulously planned 4-day workshop at which a 25-person Air Force team—from top brass to enlisted Airmen to spouses—came together with a range of subject matter experts (including an urban planner, a positive psychology expert, and a millennial generation researcher) to deeply explore the lives of four Airmen “personas” and brainstorm hundreds of ideas for how to serve them better.

From Providing to Enabling

The Altitude and AFS team then digested, synthesized, and refined the outputs of this workshop into the presentation of a cohesive vision of a future AFS. The core principle behind this vision was a switch “From Providing to Enabling.” Instead of trying to identify every Airmen need and building an in-house service to meet it, AFS would bring communities of highly motivated and capable Airmen together using digital tools, while giving them access to multi-purpose facilities and resources. The vision included concepts for an integrated suite of digital and physical assets that would help Airmen regenerate, get life tasks done, and stay fit. The business model promised a much more highly efficient operating model and a far more relevant offering to Airmen and families, while meeting AFS’ mission to provide a ready, resilient, and retained fighting force.

Today, AFS has made great strides in this direction. For example, new multi-purpose community centers are being trialed on base and a new MyAirForceLife app has been rolled out. More changes are sure to come as AFS successfully adapts to its new realities and steers towards a compelling vision of the future.Altitude