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Designing products for life-saving situations

newsmaker When mission critical equals life-and-death, intuitive use is the basis of designing devices for such events, says Motorola's design team head.
Written by Sol E. Solomon, Contributor
Bruce-Claxton, Motorola

newsmaker As Motorola's senior director Bruce Claxton leads his design integration (DI) team of industrial designers and psychologists, he must ensure the products they create are intuitive and easy to use in life-saving, mission-critical situations.

This is because Motorola's Government and Public Safety business' DI team designs two-way radio communications devices for firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians. Motorola's four DI centers in Plantation, Florida; Penang, Malaysia; Singapore; and Copenhagen, Denmark are each staffed by people with a combination of social sciences and design expertise.

Claxton spoke with ZDNet Asia about what goes into the making of a product that could make a difference in a life-threatening situation.

Q: How is the design process for mission-critical devices different from that of mainstream devices? What are the human factors you have to take into consideration?
Claxton: [Our work] is about…social science…anthropology, psychology and design all working together. Design and usability are the key differentiators: How can I make this product safer? Our organization is also about integrating end-users, engineering and business.

We're in the business of mission-critical design for first responders who include emergency, fire and police personnel. So we are pursuing technology that's second nature--where the technology is in the background while it allows the users to perform their mission [without having] to worry about any equipment. [This means] the equipment works in the background while helping them do their jobs.

It brings us to the role of user-centered design [that is] all about understanding the lives of these first responders. [For example], all these communications products have an emergency button. We realized some time back that if we put the emergency button at the base of the antenna, the product would be tremendously safer. So if I am a police officer and my life is threatened, I don't want to have to look for the control. I have to just keep my eye on the job. The technology is second nature, and I run my hand down the antenna and hit the emergency button.

Is this design feature that you incorporated based on something you noticed or was it through feedback from emergency personnel?
It was a creative connection. In fact, many times, [the end-users] won't tell us these things. You're out there and you're observing what they need, and you make the connection. We're observing the behavior and we go, "ah, there's an idea here", and we make the connection.

If you look at a lot of products today, they keep getting more complex. Our job is to make the complex become very simple. So we need to understand what goes on in these people's minds, what motivates them and how they think. So we spend a lot of time in the field.


Being present at firefighting exercies gives Motorola designers and engineers a first-hand perspective.

For example, we sent our people to firefighting training with firefighters from Bomba, [Malaysia's Fire and Rescue Department]. They actually go to the same fire training, they suit up, they're in full smoke, and they're using our products. So it's different from asking someone else about the product as they're actually experiencing it.

We've been with Bomba firefighters a number of times, which was so successful that…it changed our process. Our designers went out and the engineers wanted to join them. After experiencing the fire [first-hand,] the engineers said: "We don't think we are calibrating our tests properly. It's not very accurate because this is really something very different." So the process changed as a result of the firefighter training.

It's about seeing things through the eyes of our customers. We want to understand the intensity of the moment.

For your staff on these field missions, what are the special traits they must have?
They need to be able to demonstrate the aptitude of observation, the aptitude of listening, and there are subtle skills involved. You just don't send anybody out. They can go out and they can come back and say: "I went to a fire. There were lots of trucks around." [But] it takes a special person to see the thinking behind the scenes.

[Observing] behaviors is going to be more important to drive innovation. For example, our customers said: "I want our products to be 'glove-able'." They're going to use these products with gloves on, so we have to do something different to the product to make it "glove-able". So the controls of the products are enhanced, even the rotary control on the top which, for the size of such [communications] products, is pretty big. But I know I can operate that with gloves.

What this leads us to is the idea of designing for extremes, which are moments that are very stressful. When we talk to our end-users, they say their lives are hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. So to understand more about that we put our research team on this topic and we started looking at what happens to human performance under stress.

When our life is in danger, lots of things break down our normal conditions and we don't perform the same. During situations of extreme stress or trauma, your body is shaking, your vision is narrowing, your hearing is kind of diminished, people are calling your name or instructions and you're not hearing them--it's an extremely different environment.

So now, we're thinking how first responders function in that environment. What do we have to do different with the design?

What are the basic features required of a mission-critical device?
The basic feature in [our] case is that it's a communications device. For mission critical, it needs to be instant communication. I don't want to spend any time looking for the controls or how I need to talk. That's where a two-way radio is the most effective means for such an environment because as a push-to-talk (PTT) device, I know this is my lifeline. If my life's in danger, I could either hit the emergency button. Or if I want to talk, I just hit the PTT and talk. Or people could instantly get in touch with me.

The other thing is they have to be loud. So you will usually see a lot of space dedicated to audio so it has a high volume.

Also, to be used with gloves, you'll see large rotary controls for the volume and channels on the top.

The volume control, PTT and audio are the most important elements in the communication device for such mission-critical situations.

What is the underlying philosophy that guides you when you design devices for public safety users?
Once, when we came out of a fire training exercise, there was a sign over the door that said "Time=Lives"--that's very powerful. So now, when we're designing something, we're asking ourselves: "Does that take more time than it did before, or is it less time?" So we're applying that criteria to our design thinking and it changes how you design things.


The design of communications equipment must allow emergency staff to use them easily even with gloves on.

That's now the new philosophy because it makes technology second nature, it makes things simpler.

How do you decide how much more capabilities to add to a device while ensuring that you're not adding too much?
The success of these products is what you left out, because you remember that the environment is about saving lives. You don’t want to encumber people with too much. So the tremendous success comes from what I choose to leave out of the product.

It takes a lot of discipline because the inclination is: "Wouldn't it be fun to put this on or that?" If you begin to confuse people and add too much, you've degraded the functionality of the product.

Are there cultural differences when designing for a mission-critical market?
A police department said [it wanted something] really friendly and approachable, but when we went to another part of the world, they said: "We want something with more authority for our police radio, can you change it?" So the two products are the same but each has a very different "postures". This [cultural difference] is about personality.

The other [difference] is just simple human dimensions. You'll see some parts of the world that want big products--the United States and Germany, for example. Those same products won't sell in Asia where people will say they're just too big and heavy.

Have you heard from emergency service organizations about specific situations when features of your products saved lives?
We have heard stories where an officer is wearing a radio and he's shot, but the bullet hit the radio and stopped it—[the device] is so dense it saved his life.

In other cases, we've had products almost melted away in fires and they still work. People have been pinned down in a fire. They've called out for help on the radio. Help has come, saved their lives, and the radio is completely melted but it's still working.

So that's the kind of thing that gets us jazzed on doing this work.

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