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When UI/UX becomes life or death

In the public safety space, ease and usability of software is mission critical


Content provided by CentralSquare Technologies via GovThink.com

By Tim Boyle

Approximately 85 percent of the public today expects the same level of service and speed from their government as they do from their retail and consumer experience, according to Accenture. Achieving a comparable level of private sector innovation is a major driver for software designers to improve the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) of products designed for the public sector.

It's important for UI/UX designers who work on public safety software to give responders the information they need in an effective manner as fast as possible.
It's important for UI/UX designers who work on public safety software to give responders the information they need in an effective manner as fast as possible. (Photo/Getty)

Keeping up with citizen expectations, however, is far from being the only reason for a heightened push toward more intuitive UI/UX for the public sector. A core tenet of software design is to provide the best experience possible for end users. In the public safety space, where the consequences can be life or death, ease and usability of software become all the more mission critical.

For users of public safety software in particular, strong UI/UX design is necessary because end users operate in a fast paced, high-stress environment where split-second decisions are common and information can change in an instant. Officers and dispatchers on duty are focused on critical issues, so they shouldn’t need to spend precious time trying to figure out how to use their software or to access critical information. As such, public safety UI/UX design needs to be intuitive, finely tuned and polished from the start.

Highlighting what's mission critical

Emphasizing safety and visual hierarchy are two of the most important aspects to keep in mind when designing public safety software. Law enforcement officers and firefighters often respond to dangerous and life-threatening situations, so they need to  be alerted to any particular cautions on a call for their safety and those around them. For example, they should be alerted about chemical explosives in a basement or an individual who is armed with a weapon. Software designers must make these types of notifications prominently visible in the application they’re developing. With this visual organization of information signifying what’s most important, the end user is quickly able to see priority alerts at a glance.

In addition, the technology landscape for public safety has very unique characteristics and requirements that must be carefully considered before any solutions are used in the real world. Public safety software UI/UX designers must consider variables such as daytime versus nighttime use; is the officer wearing polarized glasses or gloves; is the officer on scene with extraneous background noise or are they in a quiet location? How do designers create an experience that works for such a wide array of evolving variables that exist in a high-stress environment?

Addressing real challenges versus perceived problems

Historically, UI/UX designers would try to get as much information onto a screen as possible to try and solve for all possible scenarios, from the most common to the most extreme. The resulting products often had a crowded screen, leading the average end user to use only a fraction of what was visible on the screen while the rest would serve only as a distraction.

The key to combatting this major misstep is for designers to spend as much time as possible with officers to learn about the issues they face on a daily basis. In one example, a design team from CentralSquare Technologies spent over 800 hours with law enforcement agencies, fire departments and dispatch centers, learning how officers and dispatchers operated on a day-to-day basis and obtaining insight into how they interacted with their software products.  

In doing so, public safety software UI/UX designers create better and more intuitive solutions moving forward. Learning from the end user’s perspective to understand what is actually needed enables designers to simplify the design overall and also address the needs of certain segments of end users who may need only a subset of items. The challenge for designers is to create an experience that gives officers exactly what they need most while also giving them access to less frequently used applications in a streamlined, easy-to-use manner.

What's next in public safety software UI/UX design?

Moving forward, one of the biggest issues the design industry can solve is how to leverage integrations to help users save time. Currently, the duplication of data entry results when disparate systems do not connect information effectively. For example, an officer may be required to complete a report in one application but have to go into another application and copy and paste part of the previous report in a slightly different way. This significant drain on an officer’s time is a detriment, as the longer an officer spends filling out reports, the less time they have available to be out in the community.

Ideally, that information would flow automatically into all relevant applications. Not only would better integration save time for officers, but this would create a more cohesive, streamlined and productive experience for the user.

Remembering the core value in public safety software design

Public safety personnel's main mission is to keep their communities safe. At the end of the day, the public safety software officers rely on is just one tool to get that job done. Like most people, officers want to feel that their use of a particular software application will help make their day-to-day work easier and more efficient. Creating an intuitive software experience for law enforcement and public safety personnel will serve to help reduce distractions and increase productivity while on the job.

As public safety agencies look to modernize their technology footprint both for their own personnel and for the communities they serve, it's important for UI/UX designers who work on public safety software to give the officers the information they need in an effective manner as fast as possible. By truly appreciating the end-users and their issues, designers are going to be able to create better and simpler solutions moving forward.

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