Field testing with first responders

Usability labs are a great idea. But they have limitations when it comes to designing products for first responders. Fires, hurricanes and other emergencies don't happen in labs.

Motorola's design integration group has taken the concept of usability testing beyond the lab walls. Team members are riding with police, showing up at five-alarm fires and even undergoing the rigors of firefighting training to improve their understanding of the challenges facing first responders and apply them to the company's equipment.

'We are out with end users side-by-side with them in their daily lives and walking the streets with them,' said Bruce Claxton, senior director for design integration at Motorola's government public safety business unit. 'We've ridden in the helicopters chasing drunk drivers. We have been in the cop cars. We've gone through fire-training school.'

The team has learned what it's like to communicate when a fire is raging, emergency lights are flashing and noise exceeds 100 decibels. Along with that, crews are wearing heavy protective clothing, including gloves. In those conditions, it can be difficult to adjust the controls on a two-way radio, or even hear what is coming out of the speaker. 'When we went to the fire training school, we understood for the first time how firemen are thinking and what their challenges are,' Claxton said. 'Controls have to be in just the right places. The push-to-talk switch has to be in just the right place so that the center of gravity will lead you to having your thumb in the right place at the right time.'

The team, which has 35 members, is located in three design centers in the United States and Asia. One of the first products to be developed by the integrated design team is the APX 7000 two-way multiband radio handset, which will start shipping late this year.

The unit, Motorola's first multiband two-way radio, has a two-sided design. One side is dedicated to data communications and features a color display and large data entry keys. The other side is dedicated to audio communications and features a large speaker that increases sound levels by 50 percent compared with earlier models. Both sides have microphones, which deliver the added benefit of permitting noise-cancellation processing.

The APX 7000 also features a T shape with a wide top that makes the device easy to hold and offers more space for large control knobs and a data display on top. The unit even features a color warning system. 'The top display and a side display will change color to signify significant status changes, such as if someone hits the emergency button,' said Tom Quirke, Motorola's senior director of product marketing. 'If [the responder hits the emergency button], all the radios in the area will go orange.'

Motorola has also made the APX 7000 15 percent smaller than previous models.

'A lot of the 15 percent reduction in size comes from advances in silicon and also some advances in the radio componentry,' Quirke said. 'But a lot of the advances come through on the design side. By utilizing two sides of the radio it actually opens up a lot of the footprint you can have. That allows us to have a bigger speaker on one side, which we wouldn't normally be able to do if we were having keys and speakers together.'

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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