Image showing Spot and Lex at the World Usability Day 2013 in Rapperswil.

Usability meets Safety: World Usability Day 2013 in Rapperswil


Usability in unobvious places: the World Usability Day 2013 in Rapperswil illuminated the connection of usability and safety in different industry branches.

Safety through usability

What if the usability of a product directly influences the safety of the user? On the 14th of November, the World Usability Day 2013, speakers from different industry branches were invited to talk about ‘usability in critical situations’ at the HSR Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil.

The event was opened by Roland Siegenthaler who, using the toilets in the ZRH Prime Tower as an example, showed that usability is an increasingly important topic. And not just with regards to trivial things: In London, there are as many as three different types of fire extinguishers, each for a different types of fire – so in case of an emergency, how do we know which one to use? What if our own safety depends upon the usability of a product?

Keynote: To err is human – human errors and accidents

One of the most influential error sources when using products and software are human beings. Prof. Dr. Markus Hackenfort, professor for applied psychology, is head of the research group ‘factor human being in traffic and safety’ at the ZHAW. Human failure is one of the main accident causes in air, barge and road traffic. How can we put measures in place to avoid human error?

Human failure is often due to us misjudging a situation. For instance, many people think that being on the phone whilst driving is no problem, yet measured objectively, the driver is actually under a lot of stress. We have to find a way to increase the road users’ awareness of danger. Subjective judgement determines to a great degree whether a situation is likely to be accident-free: The less dangerous a situation seems, the more likely accidents are and vice versa. The trouble is that road users often underestimate safety hazards because they know neither the situation nor its possible effects well enough.

To create safer traffic conditions, we need to look at the overall system and consider where the factors technology, organisation and human being meet – for that is where accidents occur. Technical safety solutions such as an ABS system can also have negative effects, because the more we can tell ourselves that the system will take care of safety hazards, the less attentive we become. It is hence necessary to point out the objective danger of a situation – transparency can work miracles.

Safety vs usability: Interaction design in aviation

Working as an interaction designer in the area of aviation means working in a highly regulated area. But usability and safety need not exclude one another, as Cindy Dorfmann and Andreas Godehart, both interaction designers for Jeppesen, could demonstrate by showing two of their aviation software products.

Mobile FliteDeck is a navigation software for professional pilots. It directs itself at a small, highly professional group and has to comply strictly with the law and the regulations of air traffic. Nevertheless, human factors, technology and the complex system of the cockpit could be brought together in a straight forward, user-friendly product with a long life cycle.

To develop this complex product, wireframes, information architecture and finally first demonstrators in the form of Flash prototypes were used. Several iterations and user tests followed. It was important to take account of both the strict regulations of aviation and the situational circumstances, such as the fact that pilots always fly in pairs. Throughout the whole process, the interaction designers had the important task of mediating between the different influences involved.

The second project presented was Mobile FliteDeck VFR, a product for commercial aviation, which addresses amateur pilots. With this different target audience, other factors became important. A market-centred approach with market surveys, personas and alpha users was chosen. Interestingly, the development team chose to settle for flat design not because of the iOS7 hype, but because the defined personas indicated that this would be the best visual layout.

Please take a seat in the waiting room…: patient management in a university hospital

How can you display a random and spontaneously changing situation such as the A&E department of the University Hospital Zurich? Henning Fritzenwalder, independent usability consultant based in Berlin, spoke about his experiences with exactly this situation. His goal was to develop an “Accident and Emergency Department Dashboard 2013” for the University Hospital Zurich which brought together the data of existing hospital software.

Throughout the course of three months many sketches were made, which, going through numerable iterations, were further developed and improved. As it is impossible for a designer to simulate the stressful situation, not to speak of the actual emergency setup, an iterative production process was indispensable.

The final dashboard has to display the different bits of information in a clear and understandable way, which takes into account the acuteness of the emergencies. This classification of emergencies is still based on the five category triage system developed by Pirogov in the middle of the 19th century. The data displayed on the dashboard should also be shown in relation to each other, so that the staff can recognise things quickly. Thus, the capacity of the A&E can be calibrated so as to be able to take care of all critical cases.

Nurse, the mouse please! – Computer-assisted operations

Computer systems have been in use in operating theatres for quite some time. Raimund Erdmann, founder of Erdmann Design, works in designing devices for medical technology, an area where high standards and usability are a key necessity.

Medical technology underlies strict regulations; each and every step regarding design and analysis has to be recorded in a usability file. Planning, sketches, prototypes – everything has to be documented in detail. Erdmann Design uses a Human Centered Design approach for the development of medical engineering products, which fuses ergonomic design with usability. Design and usability are being developed together.

As it is important to carefully investigate and evaluate the end environment of the device, the operation theatres are being examined over the course of several hundred hours. To have the optimal end result in form of a flawlessly functioning, easily employable device, experience mapping is an important tool, as is detailed usability testing.

The development of medical technology is, along with other aspects, a difficult field because the liability is connected to many risks. Good, thorough documentation and transparency can minimise these risk factors by optimising the usability and safety of products.

Saving minutes and men — SBB emergency management with computer assistance

From the announcement at the station to the railway switch on the tracks: Usually, everything is automated in railway traffic. But what happens if something goes wrong? ALEA, the alarm and event assistant is called into action. Markus Flückiger, usability consultant for Zühlke, has developed this system in close collaboration with its end users.

As a first step, very basic sketches were drawn out with the aid of case studies. After several usability run throughs with mockups and storyboards, a first paper prototype was developed, which was evaluated in role playing scenarios. Only after further evaluations with a now interactive prototype did the software development begin, which used scrum, requirements and usability engineering, interaction and visual design, user interface specification and wireframes as well as usability optimisations.

Contextual inquiry was used to examine how communication usually happens during emergency situations and to identify the communication roles involved. Thus, it was not only possible to determine which information would need to be sent where, but to decide what should be communicated electronically in the first place, and what had better still be communicated over the phone. After all, the software should be an optimisation to existing processes.

Another challenge emerged from the fact that the electronic assistant has to cope with highly complex processes. To find the best solution, the project team had to work closely with the end users, the actual experts in the field. Participatory Design proved to be an apt approach to create a product for such a highly complex environment. Feedback from the users was indispensable: Without a well-functioning team, no good usability can be created.

Usability from another perspective

The presentations on the World Usability Day meeting in Rapperswil showed that usability is a central aspect in the most different areas. All speakers presented unique topics and could demonstrate in an interesting and impressive way how usability plays a part in many different industries which influence us on a daily basis. Usability is an omnipresent, broad topic which we encounter in places where we might not even think of it.