Intuitive solutions are no coincidence

     Public safety incidents, by their very nature, can change from routine to critical in an instant. As most law enforcement officers will attest, they must be able to think and act quickly in order to protect citizens and fellow officers alike. Simply put, time equals lives.

     In mission-critical environments, training and instinct are of the utmost importance, as are the tools and technologies that allow officers to effectively manage any situation they encounter.

     A recent survey conducted by Motorola and The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) revealed a strong demand for advanced technology solutions that improve officer situational awareness and streamline emergency response.

     New sophisticated technology, however, comes with added challenges. Vendors must ensure that the operation of advanced tools is intuitive to the end-user. An emergency is no time for responders to fumble with a device that is difficult to operate, awkward to carry or requires them to change their behavior in order to use the equipment optimally.

     Officers confronting an armed suspect do not have time to worry about which radio knob changes the broadcast channel and which changes the volume. A poorly positioned knob can mean the difference between an officer staying in touch with emergency backup or being isolated.

     Thoughtful, purpose-built mission-critical design is the first step in making sure first responders are equipped with products and solutions that meet their unique requirements.

Designing for 'hours of boredom, moments of terror'

     Scientists have long studied aspects of human behavior. Highly relevant to the public safety community is the study of how people think and function in the extreme states driven by their environments, from the mundane to high stress situations.

     The average person's daily life can be characterized as having a narrow spectrum of calm interspersed with occasional and minor stressful moments, such as when the alarm clock rings in the morning or during the daily commute. In scientific terms, people's normal, everyday conditions and reactions are called "equilibrium."

     An emergency responder, on the other hand, must constantly be prepared and ready to respond at elevated states of stress. One officer characterized law enforcement work as a roller coaster of extremes: "Our typical day is 'hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror.' "

     The human condition caused by extreme stressful situations, termed "non-equilibrium" by scientists, impacts the ability to function normally. For example, a sudden stop or near-miss when someone is driving in traffic can result in an increase in heart rate and a short-term lack of focus.

     Now imagine what happens to a typical officer's ability to think clearly when confronted with an emergent or life-threatening situation.

     Physiologically, in such extremely stressful situations individuals can lose high-level brain activity, meaning that other parts of the brain will attempt to compensate by filtering out the least relevant information to the situation. Unfortunately, this may lead to the inability of the officer to process relevant, but more complex information, such as that from the cruiser's dashboard display.

     The ability to function is also affected in the non-equilibrium condition. Reaction time can be delayed when difficult-to-use technology is thrown into a high-stress environment.

     For that reason, all the tools that officers use — new and old — must be designed to be intuitive, or second nature in their operation.

Mission-critical capabilities mean easy operation

     When given a new product, users typically fall into two camps. The first is made up of those who welcome the new features and quickly adapt to the technology. The other camp includes those who focus on the perceived complexity, discouraging costs and inconvenience.

     For both groups, when the technology distracts from the mission, there can be serious consequences.

     It's not just by chance that a product or solution is intuitive, it's by design. Key ergonomic and functionality requirements must be considered early in the design stage, incorporating not only user requirements, but a complete understanding of how the user will use the technology. Even the simplest omissions can create a frustrating or distracting experience.

     Ergonomics, usage, ruggedness, interoperability, reliability, coverage and instant real-time communications suited to the environment are just a few of the factors that must be taken into account.

     Products should be designed and tested for non-equilibrium stress situations. Typically, products are tested for how they perform and operate during a normal working day. While much of an officer's time is spent on routine tasks, he or she also needs to count on the technology in the event of a high-stress incident, when one's ability to function may be impaired.

     Another key aspect of design is ensuring the product or solution has an interface that adequately reflects the mindset of the user. Is the use of this product self-evident, or does it conflict with how an individual wants to use the product? Does it work like other familiar devices used at home or in other aspects of life?

     In the past, these considerations have been dealt with separately or in a partial way. For instance, interoperability is a high priority for agencies all over the world and the industry has rightly been challenged to deliver against this objective. Yet interoperability on its own will not deliver intuitive communication tools.

     An interoperable device that is hard-to-use is of little value in an emergency situation.

Intuitive design drives measurable benefits

     When a mission-critical product is well-designed, it delivers various advantages, including:

  • More effective training — If the product is intuitive, the training required for its use will be minimal.
  • Quicker adoption — Dependable and easy-to-use technology that is comfortable to operate leads to higher and quicker adoption rates.
  • Ownership — If the system is truly second nature, users will take "ownership" and become the technology's greatest advocates. This not only improves its effectiveness in the field, but also bolsters the internal relationships between support staff, such as IT or radio managers, and front line officers.
  • Mission-focused — In an emergency, first responders will instinctively use the technology without hesitating or being distracted by its features.
The future of mission-critical design

     Mission critical design is essential for any technology or solution deployed in the public safety arena. A failure in communications can have dire consequences for the officers involved and the public they serve.

     Public safety equipment, such as radios, data terminals and video cameras, need to be easy to use under any circumstance or situation a first responder may encounter, from the routine to the life threatening. Recognizing the role that stress plays in an officer's ability to operate technology makes its design, testing and selection even more critical.

     Getting technology right the first time is imperative for first responders. It requires considerable up-front planning, commitment, user engagement and collaboration to get it right.

     Bruce Claxton, who holds a master's in industrial design, is a senior director with Motorola, where he's been for more than 25 years. He has 30 years experience in industrial design and currently directs the industrial design and human factors innovation teams for Motorola's Government & Public Safety Products & Solutions division.Thomas Quirke, who has a doctorate in telecommunications, is also director of Motorola's Government & Public Safety Products & Solutions division, and has more than 15 years of experience in the industry.