When technology and human response become one

Bruce Claxton, a master innovator at Motorola, talks about saving lives with technology that’s second nature

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When technology and human response become one (Jovana Obradovic/ITP Images)
By  Vineetha Menon Published  April 23, 2009

Imagine being strapped with heavy gear as you manoeuvre your way round a burning building to save lives. If you’re a firefighter, the situation might be one you’re trained to handle, but it’s still overwhelming - you can’t breathe or see because of the smoke and the roar of the fire is deafening…but what if you’re trying to work a product at the same time?

For emergency first responders, such as firefighters and law enforcement officers, communication could literally mean the difference between life and death. The technology they use is not only used to keep them safe but to also ensure that good outcomes come out of extreme situations.

This is what Motorola’s mission critical communications products are all about. They are designed to aid human reactions in situations of extreme stress, danger and uncertainty. This also refers to what’s known as High Velocity Human Factors (HVHF).

“The amazing thing we’ve discovered, and I don’t think this has been documented anywhere, is that the physical response is actually before the mental response. When you’re frightened, your body reacts before your mind,” Bruce Claxton, senior director of Motorola’s Design Integration section, explained of the company’s research which is used to design mission critical products.

Claxton is a Fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America (FIDSA) and is a master innovator at Motorola. He’s been with the company for more than 25 years and has been instrumental in the design of these products.

“Motorola has a long tradition of excellence in technology and engineering, and the new piece is bringing social science to design. We have anthropologists and psychologists in our group, and it’s about uncovering how people think and what motivates them,” says Claxton.

“We’ve sent our designers to fire training schools. They’re in the fire, in the smoke; they know what it’s like. When you go in a fire, its deafening, you can’t see because its fire and smoke and you can’t move real well because of 75 pounds of gear. We call that situational disability,” explains Claxton. “We’re chasing speeders in Australia in helicopters; we’re walking the streets of London with Met Police to really understand how their full day goes. And so now how do I use the product?”

Motorola designers and researchers are expected to immerse themselves in the end user experience to deliver a product that meets expectations. Simultaneously, the company also conducts continual usability testing with end users to get feedback right away.

A completely new product in this category could easily take a few years to develop because of all the research and feedback involved.

Motorola has a long tradition of blending human response factors into the design of mission critical communications devices. In the mid-80s, the company thought it made sense to locate emergency buttons at the base of the antenna, which can be easily used in threatening situations as the first person responder won’t need to look down at the radio to raise an alarm.

“Even our competition today uses the same kind of approach because it makes so much sense,” says Claxton. “It’s all about understanding how we interface with the product so that I can think about my job, what I can do to communicate, and how I use the product which is so simple and understandable that it goes in the background.”

Another design factor Motorola adopts is having all the electrical components placed in the right order so that the centre of gravity for the device is key. The radios have simple menu interfaces and large buttons integrated on the handset, which make it easy for the user to perform different functions.

All of this is tackled at their three design studios located in Asia and the United States of America.

“Our design studios are in locations not too different than Dubai – we’re in Singapore, Malaysia and Florida. It’s the tropics. Sometimes the designers forget there are extremely cold climates where you need gloves. Also, for oil, mining, fire and gas environments, they use functional gloves and we need to make these things very ‘gloveable’. Our job is to design for extremes – it’s not about consumer products, these things are work tools.”

In the Middle East, it’s the Atex Tetra portable radios for the oil and gas sectors that enjoy the most demand. Motorola recently announced a milestone with the shipment of its one millionth Tetra terminal, which went to the Jordan Armed Forces (JAF). While language customization options are available for the products, the terminals shipped have all so far been with an English interface.

The milestone is the latest Tetra success for Motorola in the MENA region which is currently experiencing rapid growth. “We’ve had a long history in this market and in this region of the world,” Claxton adds.

Going forward Claxton believes that as long as the focus is on people using the technology and not the other way round, designing mission critical technology can’t go wrong.

“We can always talk about technology but its how do you get to the technology… the technology curve is flattening and so corporations say - well, how do I make myself different? Design and usability is the answer. In the end, it’s all about people and technology that’s second nature.”

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