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Thursday, May 28, 2015

CMU HCI Students Work with Draper Laboratory to Solve First Responders’ Problems

Lab, University Share Approach

Companies often develop software applications and new devices based on the desires that customers articulate in meetings or requirements documents. However, this approach often leads to a system that doesn’t accomplish what the users truly need. Instead, when engineers work closely with their customers in actual work environments, they can gain a deep understanding of users’ needs – and the consequences of missing the mark.

Five students in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) are taking that approach as they seek to better understand the problems experienced by firefighters, police officers and other first responders.

The students, whose master’s thesis work is sponsored by Draper Laboratory, are supervised by Emily Vincent and Trevor Savage of the Lab’s Human Centered Design & Engineering group. Vincent and Savage, who are both CMU HCII graduates, use this approach in developing new systems for customers in fields including healthcare, aerospace, defense, and energy.

“If you bring people in and say ‘tell me what you want,’ you’re not guaranteed to learn what they need,” Vincent explained. “But when you directly experience their problems while working with the user, that’s when you can come up with a solution that really makes a difference. This approach works for all of our users, who range from saving lives to running a power plant to flying a spacecraft.”

While this approach is used at companies like Microsoft and Google that design consumer products, it is less common at companies that develop new technologies in areas like aerospace and defense, Vincent said.

“The first thing we all said when we started researching Draper more in depth is ‘this is so cool!’" said Tess Bailie, user experience (UX) strategist and visual design lead for the student team. “It's been a unique learning experience where the technology isn’t the limitation. We get to take amazing tech and apply it to the first responder industry. With the mentors being familiar with our methods, the goals and strategies align well, and Emily and Trevor are able to push our concepts and ideas further than we expected. Draper’s mission to solve hard problems in the public interest has inspired us to take on a really difficult challenge. We're confident we'll build a tool that will have a significant impact.”

The students got a feel for the problems that first responders encounter in situations that were as realistic as possible. They rode alongside police officers and saw the uncertainty they deal with in the course of assessing situations as they filter the information they get from the scene, people involved with the situation, witnesses, and other officers. They also conducted exercises with firefighters simulating the difficulties that they experience with vision, hearing and communicating.

The students found that some of the technology intended to help first responders communicate, including radios, can be useful for some applications, but poorly suited for others, keeping the personnel on both ends of the conversation from gathering critical data. Responders also often struggle with cognitive and sensory overload, which may inhibit their ability to determine what information is important to relay to others or cause them to overlook critical details in time constrained environments, according to the student research.

In addition to Bailie, the team includes Zack Aman, product manager; Ryan Brill, UX designer; Alan Herman, UX designer; and Jim Martin, tech lead.

This summer, the students will work with Vincent and Savage to discuss their insights and identify a problem that they can address. The students will then develop a working prototype solution before the end of August.

The insights that the students are generating can also benefit users outside of the first responder community. Technology that addresses cognitive load, situational awareness, and ability to communicate and coordinate within large groups can be applied for purposes including helping stock traders make quick decisions based on large volumes of data or coordinating the use of heavy machinery on a construction site.

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