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Saving lives: How to optimise emergency apps

Danica Former UX Consultant 13th Feb, 2013
Usability of emergency apps could mean the difference between life and death. Image: Gridstone Emergency

Today almost all companies have a web presence, and with the rise of smartphone use many have developed mobile phone applications to create and maintain connections with people ‘on the go’.  Usability testing is often undertaken to ensure that these 'digital shop fronts' remain effective at attracting visitors and turning them into paying customers.  However, not all websites and mobile apps are devoted to driving online conversions.  The objectives of some are to protect and save users’ lives.

Numerous websites contain information and advice about how to survive in natural disasters such as floods, fires, earthquakes, cyclones and storms.  The objectives of these sites can be quite broad ranging, including but not limited to: successfully communicating with the public about current emergencies, providing information and guidelines on how to prepare for disaster situations, recruiting volunteers, acting as a media gateway, becoming a useful educational resource, advertising jobs/careers, and providing further contact support information.

Why emergency apps matter

In the event of a natural disaster, such as a bushfire, communicating current warnings and timely information to people in the surrounding area is critical to saving lives. 

Under these catastrophic weather conditions, users obviously cannot afford to waste any time searching for crucial data relevant to them on a website designed for, and accessed by, the entire population at large.  To this end, emergency applications have been developed to provide real-time access to official warnings and geographically specific incident reports, and therefore enhance the user’s decision making capabilities during emergencies and disasters.

Below are some examples of current emergency apps in the marketplace.

Emergency AUS (Nationwide)

Built by Gridstone, and powered by RIPE Intelligence, this app delivers warning and incident information issued by official agencies across Australia.  RIPE Intel have developed and applied a national parity for terminology and icons to ensure information is displayed consistently across Australia.

Screenshot from the Emergency Aus app

Users can set a watch area to keep an eye on warnings and incidents in their area of interest, and receive alerts directly to their phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Users are also invited to share comments and photos of emergency situations in real-time to help keep others informed.

The app took out the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud Warrior Award for Outstanding Business Value in Australia at the 2012 AWS Technical Innovator Awards. 

For more information see the iTunes store or RipeIntel website.

Fires Near Me (NSW)

Users can source information about current fires across NSW that are being attended by the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and other agencies.  The app initially centres the map on a user’s current location, and then allows them to choose another location.  It will alert the user if there is a fire within 50 km, and displays any fires within a 10 km radius of their location.

The NSW RFS incident control database sources the fire activity data.  The description stipulates that it is not ‘real-time’ information and is only a general indication of current activity.  

Recent user reviews and comments have been mixed.

Fire zone identification using the Fires NSW app

Positive experiences:

  • “Simple, easy to use access to information that might save your home or your life” User - January 10, 2013 (Samsung Nexus S with version 2.0.7)

  • “Great to have this vital info on hand. Easier to check from phone than the webpage.”User - January 18, 2013 (Samsung Galaxy Ace)

  • “Just downloaded this app today as living within the catastrophic fire alert area. So far been well informed of what is happening around us.”  User - January 8, 2013 (Version 2.0.7)

Negative experiences:

  • “Was great, now sometimes when i touch a listed fire to find out more, it disappears and so does the list and i have to start again.”  User - January 17, 2013 (SEMC Xperia X10 with version 2.0.7)
  • “As others have said, needs: saved home location, push notifications for fires within 50km of home and current location, possible integration with incident streams from FRNSW, SES, ability to tag incidents as "of interest" so push notifications received on change of status.”  User - Mikky1980

For more information see the iTunes store or RFS website

FireReady (VIC)

Developed by Naturally Being, this is the official Country Fire Authority (CFA) app for bushfire information in Victoria.  Users can assess their own FireReady status and remain aware of incidents around them in real-time.

This comprehensive application has been designed to put CFA and Department of Sustainability & Environment (DSE) bushfire information at user’s fingertips, enabling access to up-to-date bushfire warnings and advice when users are out and about.

A function on it known as Fire Watch allows users to set up geographic zones, so that if a fire warning is issued pertaining to their zone, they get a notification automatically sent to their phone.  The app, which is free, is compatible with iPhones and certain Android devices.  

Again, recent user reviews and comments have been mixed.

Fire zone identification using CFA app

Positive experiences:

  • “By manually uninstalling the old and re-installing the newest version i am now able to use the fireready app to its full extent. It is now faster than the previous version and hopefully more reliable.”  User - January 8, 2013 (Samsung Galaxy S2 with version 3.0.3)
  • “Great app for anyone living on a rural property or in a high fire danger zone in Victoria. Great design with a nice UI”   User - January 28, 2013 (HTC One X with version 3.0.3)

Negative experiences:

  • “Fires being discussed on ABC radio are nowhere to be found. Also, where is the description of the icon meanings?”   User - January 23, 2013 (Samsung Galaxy Nexus with version 3.0.3)
  • “Can't set location for alerts using touch and hold on map -pops up 'location unavailable', 'use current location' activity symbol keeps spinning." User - January 9, 2013 (Version 3.0.3)
  • “Tells me there is a fire near me but won't let me see where. My son rang me whilst shopping to tell me there was a fire two gardens back i got no notifications at all!!!! These problems need fixing ASAP.”  User - January 24, 2013 (Samsung Galaxy S2 with version 3.0.3)
  • “Interface is very fiddly and not intuitive.”  User - January 16, 2013 (HTC Nexus One with version 3.0.3)

For more information see the iTunes store or Naturally Being website.

What happens when apps go wrong

As evidenced by some of the negative comments listed above, recently there has been some widely reported commentary regarding how these emergency apps are (not) working in practice.  On Thursday 24 January, The Age ran a story headed ‘Faulty fire app triggers anger’ stating that large numbers of people had reported problems with CFA's FireReady app.  The article sites user experiences where the app “freezes, has information delays, locks phones, has too many ''bugs'', is as slow as ''a sloth in a glue pot'' [or] simply fails to open.” 

Quoting from the article in The Age:

Jacinta Allan, opposition spokeswoman for police and emergency services, said ''As a matter of urgency the Baillieu government needs to fix these problems, as they are vital tools that people rely on for information.''

In addition, a CFA spokeswoman said the app was not functioning properly for some Windows phone users and BlackBerry users but it was working with developers on these issues. ''An updated version of the app will be released but not before extensive testing,'' the spokeswoman said.

What you do can to make sure it doesn’t happen to your app

With users relying on phone apps to make critical decisions about their safety in the event of a natural disaster, the information needs to be correct, geographically relevant, easily accessible and available in real-time.  User Acceptance Testing (UAT) and Usability Testing are both crucial to ensuring that these apps work when needed.

It is prudent to continually explore the requirements of your target audience, and then continually test the application to make sure it meets those evolving needs.  After clarifying the purpose of your app - who are your users, what interaction do you want them to undertake, what information do they need fast access to, what is most important, how can you ensure the information is trustworthy - you will need to undertake testing.

User Acceptance Testing (UAT) is used to check a system against its agreed requirements/functionality, to make sure it will do what the clients want it to. It should include load testing to see how a system performs under expected loads and if it can recover once it crashes.

Usability Testing is integral to understanding how well real users can learn and use a product to achieve their goals and how satisfied they are with that process.  It is a combination of factors including ease of learning, efficiency of use, memorability, error frequency and severity, and subjective satisfaction.

Testing your app to ensure usability in life threatening situations

Natural disasters can be extremely stressful environments, and people experiencing them can naturally panic. Obviously it would be unethical to put participants under duress during user testing, however, knowing that your app is user-friendly is so important.  You need to have an idea of how users will interact with the app in life threatening situations. 

Research suggests that stress impairs a number of mental processes.  A recent review of the existing stress and performance research literature found that in a bushfire situation, high levels of anxiety compromise survival-related decision making.  Importantly for phone application design, fearful and anxious users are likely to:

“(a) be slow to respond to indications of threat and to be clumsy in their actions
(b) fail to notice cues of emerging threats and become distracted from essential tasks;
(c) have difficulty keeping things in mind and remembering important information; and
(d) find it hard to think issues through so as to select the best option to take.

Emergency apps need to be usable in the event of an approaching bushfire, so it’s not ideal to test them in the pleasant environment of an air-conditioned research room. Therefore you will need to consider testing in a situation where users are under significant time constraints or cognitive loads.  For example, in some psychological experiments participants are asked to perform arithmetic tasks whilst completing other tasks.  Users could be asked to do the same, before being presented with an emergency app and asked to find the nearest fire within a short time-frame.  Ultimately "no experiment can capture the disaster stresses of overwhelming threat to life and limb," so it may prove valuable (depending on ethical considerations) to test future emergency apps with the survivors of bush-fire affected areas, and obtain their feedback.

As with website optimisation, app optimisation should be a process of continual improvement. With emergency apps now being designed to protect and save users’ lives, we can't afford not to test and optimise them, especially in environments that simulate disaster situations to ensure they are capable of meeting user needs in practice.

About The Author

Danica Former UX Consultant

Danica previously worked with us and was a great community hero; incredibly passionate about doing work that benefitted people’s quality of life and projects that influenced public policy. With a background in market research, psychology, biology, international relations and political science, Danica would continually grow her understanding of the psychological basis of behaviour, and explore how people used technology.


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