The speed of communication in an emergency situation can mean the difference between life and death. Telecommunications companies, like Motorola, recognise this and are designing tools that can optimise how fast we are able to communicate in these situations.

The portable radio is the key tool for emergency response agencies and support units. It is what all personnel reach for and depend on when they need to urgently communicate.

According to Bruce Claxton, senior director, Design Integration for Motorola, “Some officers have said that the radio is their most important tool. They will do away with their weapon, but never their radio, which is their lifeline to connecting to others for help”.

In response to this, Motorola has developed the APX 7000, a new multi-band portable radio. The process used by Motorola to design this product is innovative and fascinating for a number of reasons. And the fact that the radio is fifteen per cent smaller than comparable products while incorporating every single function requested by real users is no mean feat.

Taking a closer look at the design process for this radio provides insight into how and why Motorola included its specific features.

Motorola’s aim was to optimise the speed, efficiency and usability of the portable radio for emergency response workers. To achieve this, Motorola conducted three years of research to find out exactly what users need to communicate quickly and effectively.

They also took into account how people behave in emergency situations and how this information could be translated into the design, and the technology required. In other words, intelligent design that combines applied psychology, input from real users, on-site testing and engineering ingenuity.

Underpinning the design is enabling users to focus on the critical situation, rather than on operating or using the equipment. The idea is that using the APX 7000 should be “second nature” to the user – it should be just ‘right’. This speeds up initial contact and results in a more rapid response.

This is where the idea of ‘user-centric’ or ‘user-centred’ design comes in. User-centred design is simply about considering the end-user first in the design process, rather than the technology or the product.

Bruce Claxton describes it as “… placing the user ahead of any assumptions and technologies. It is about defining the future from the end user’s point of view”. However, technology is still important. “It is a key consideration that we need to apply to the process.”

A good example is the APX 7000’s large Push To Talk (PTT) switch – considered the most important control on a radio. Based on their research, Motorola believe this switch is the right size and in exactly the right place when the radio is picked up, based on the centre of gravity. The enlarged button with enhanced grooves is easy to see, simple to operate and can be used by the right or left hand.

A key part of this process is the study of users’ behaviours and motivations. So rather than the usual multidisciplinary approach of design and engineering, Motorola incorporated social science, specifically applied psychology. “The new frontier (in product design) is the social sciences, art and design,” says Claxton.

The designers then translated the results of the psychologists’ research into a ‘visual language’, or a ‘vision’ of the actual product. “We can gather a large volume of data, but it’s really of no use if it can’t be translated or synthesised into a solution,” Claxton explains.

One element in this psychological approach is the consideration of High Velocity Human Factors (HVHF). These are basically a paradigm in social sciences that specifically studies human performance in emergency situations.

Because crises are usually stressful, volatile and complex scenarios, people often experience a condition called “nonequilibrium”. In addition to producing reactions such as trembling, diminished hearing and tunnel vision, this condition can affect our physical ability to respond effectively, for example, we have difficulty operating complex equipment.

Taking into account the limitations that extreme stress places on people, Motorola designed the APX 7000 to be easier to use and more intuitive. In other words, they looked at, “…how products should behave to fit our abilities in these moments of stress and terror.”

Belief in the idea that, “Only by living it do you really begin to understand the conditions of the end user and become able to dream new possibilities”, the designers and psychologists were also sent into the field to gain first-hand experience of the demands faced by emergency workers.

In these real-life situations, the psychologist knows how to observe behaviour and the designer knows how to study the tools.

Motorola also replicated and simulated emergency situations in their Usability Lab and closely liaised with workers in the industry at all stages of the design process, including in the early discussions and the usability testing.

Another part of this multidisciplinary approach is Velcro-modelling. Used by psychologists, this ‘participatory’ research method gives people the opportunity to express ideas in a three-dimensional model by using a Velcro kit made up of “form factors and stick-on pieces”.

For Motorola, this process was, “… carefully facilitated by a psychologist that drives the exploration process and dialogue to find new ideas. It is not about the exact pieces made in Velcro, but the resultant conversation. Dialogue results in creative combinations being discovered”.

In this case, Velcro-modelling would have assisted researchers in rating the order of importance for the radio’s functions.

The ‘chunk and layer’ method – another user-centred design concept – was also employed as a way of organising the complex information that the radio has to transmit.

In this product, rather than present users with too much information at once, it is carefully organised so that only crucial information is revealed when it is needed.

“Putting key pieces into ‘chunks’ that are easily understood helps to organise it and makes it easier to access and be understood. Layering it becomes a second step whereby you set some of the information in the user interface back in the top layer.”

To understand how all this theory and research was actually applied to the APX 7000, it is worth looking at some of its more innovative features.

One of the unique features of the APX 7000 is the T-shape and double-sided controls. This design takes into account the request by users to have a much larger display on top of the radio, louder audio and the ability to operate the controls and keypad with gloves.

“We went on to develop a data side of the product with a huge display and large ‘glovable’ keys. The audio side has a much larger and louder speaker. A control top, which satisfied optimum control layout, a top display as well as a properly placed emergency button, resulted in a form factor that was larger on top than below – hence a ‘T’ form factor.”

This T-shape provides a slip-free grip and wider area for knob spacing and differentiation, “… in a seamless eyes-off, hands-on operation”.

It is two-sided for both voice and data interaction: the voice side has a large speaker and microphone for optimal audio performance, while the data side has a large, high contrast colour display, keypad and secondary speaker and microphone.

The speakers are designed to reproduce speech that can be understood in high noise environments and the microphones have ‘directional-sensing technology’, which actually uses digital processes and voice coders to locate the talker and actually detect and eliminate background noise.

‘Interoperability’ is another term mentioned in descriptions of the APX 7000. In the case of a radio, ‘interoperability’ basically means that it is compatible with other communication equipment so that information can be successfully exchanged.

“In mission critical situations agencies from different jurisdictions often operate on different frequency bands – requiring personnel to carry two radios in order to communicate with one another,” says Claxton.

Reducing the amount of equipment and providing seamless communication with other emergency organisations can improve mobility, safety and response times.

If the process of user-centred design and a multidisciplinary approach that includes the social sciences is actually the “new frontier in product design”, it can only have a positive impact.

Finding out exactly what users need, what their work environment is really like and what tasks they need to perform most frequently and with what tools, in addition to discovering the complex behaviours and motivations, will assist companies to develop more successful products.

Developing prototypes before money is spent on manufacturing the actual product is also a cost-effective approach. 

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