People at the Heart of Design

Enhancing First Responders' Performance and Well-Being through Human-Centered Design.

9 minutes

9th of July, 2024

This article was originally published in Thinkers & Makers, a magazine from Akkodis featuring the smartest minds and innovative projects that are driving the future of technology and engineering.

Imagine the intense stress of a first responder arriving at the scene of a car accident. In that situation, it is crucially important that the tools to save lives and alleviate pain are at hand and designed to serve their purpose as well as they possibly can.

That goes for emergency medical equipment like trauma kits and defibrillators and for digital tools to monitor the injured, communicate with other rescue team members, or establish an overview of the crash site.

But these digital tools come with an inherent dilemma: As they increase their capabilities with ever-growing amounts of data, computing power, and high-speed connectivity, they can become increasingly complex to operate. There are too many options, too much information, and too many clicks for the tool to do the task.

No Extra Stress Needed

Digital complexity can increase stress, which is the last thing first responders need in a high-stress emergency. To the contrary, they need their tools to be intuitive and easy to use.

To illustrate the complexity of digital tools, let us look at an indispensable emergency medicine device, the crash cart. It was invented by US nurses and doctors in the ’60s, frustrated by the time it took to gather supplies for cardiac arrests. Among them is emergency department nurse Anita Dorr.

In 1967, she built a prototype in their garage with her husband. It looked much like the ones used today, on wheels and carrying all the supplies for emergency response stored in one place.

Imagine a 2024-style “crash cart” filled with digital technology, like screens, sensors, computers, mobile phones. The challenge of designing such a sophisticated device to be just as efficient and intuitive to use is infinitely more demanding than it was building its 60’s predecessor.

Such a device can only be effectively built by involving the people using it. Only then can engineers succeed in designing a tool that makes a difference instead of just a magnificent machine, however complex or elegant that machine might be. 

 Female firefighter in firefighting uniform

Humans at the Heart of Tech Development

An answer to the inherent dilemma of digital and computerized tools originates at the intersection of engineering, psychology, anthropology, and the arts. Labeled Human-Centered Design (HCD), it aims to put humans at the heart of the development of new technology. How? By involving them every step of the way. 

Typically, the HCD process starts with observing work routines and conducting workshops for users and developers to meet and exchange ideas. Together, they build cardboard prototypes of how a new device could look or design digital mock-ups of an application. Then, they build increasingly more advanced versions, with each iteration returning to users for evaluation.

To some, the Human-Centered Design approach may sound like common sense. But as interactive systems become increasingly complex, developers risk losing sight of their context. 

The direct engagement and user research methods applied by HCD secure technology solutions that address users' unique challenges and requirements and consider their emotional engagement with the solution.

City street with a policeman managing a drone

“Our empathy-led approach ensures we center our strategy and solutions thinking on true user needs. Working closely with first responders has demonstrated how technology provides a powerful opportunity to impact both operational and organizational outcomes”.

Jeremy Dennis, Global Söze Product Owner, Akkodis Australia

Almost Invisible

Jeremy Dennis, Global Söze Product Owner at Akkodis Australia, has worked in the Public Service & Justice (PS&J) sector for over a decade. 

“While it is easy to become enamored with AI technology, the successful adoption of these systems comes down to HCD principles: ensuring the technology is effective and enables users to get the job done with minimum effort”, says Dennis.

“The best-designed system should be almost invisible to the end user in the context of the task they are trying to accomplish.”

An example of this approach is Akkodis' work with Australian law enforcement: co-developing award-winning technology solutions that address core operational challenges and reduce organizational burdens. These solutions also help preserve valuable natural environments such as wetlands and dunes.

People on a street with their faces framed as if screened

Yarning and Söze

These solutions include the Yarning app and Söze. 

Yarning, a first-of-its-kind Aboriginal language translation app, allows officers to select and convey essential messages to Aboriginal People in their native language. It facilitates meaningful communication between police officers and speakers of Aboriginal languages. It also increases awareness and understanding of important matters in Aboriginal communities.

Söze, also developed in collaboration with Australian law enforcement, is a powerful data analytics platform. It empowers police investigators to integrate and visualize vast amounts of data from multiple sources and devices. It identifies persons of interest and their relationships by providing law enforcement with advanced analytical capabilities. This enhances public safety and security by saving time and reducing risk.

Söze has enabled investigations to be completed in a fraction of the time it would normally take. In one case, Söze enabled investigators to complete 24 months of analysis in only 6 months. 

Inspired by these and other law enforcement partnerships, Akkodis continues to explore how to deliver more positive outcomes for law enforcement agencies. Their efforts aim to benefit the agencies' workforces and their communities.

Dennis states, “Through a combination of ideation and HCD, we delve into current and emerging challenges faced by PS&J clients. This exploration helps us comprehend their needs, co-develop strategic roadmaps, and implement fit-for-purpose technology solutions”. 

“Our empathy-led approach ensures we center our strategy and solutions thinking on true user needs, and we contribute a holistic understanding of their activities and interactions with those solutions. Working closely with first responders has demonstrated how technology provides a powerful opportunity to impact both operational and organizational outcomes”.

A police officer working on his laptop at police station’s desk

Never a Burden

Technology must never be a burden or an obstacle, and certainly not for emergency personnel dealing with extreme, life-or-death situations. In fact, first responders are especially uncompromising towards tech that works against and not with them, not only because of the stress they’re under in emergencies. 

Often driven by a sense of purpose or a desire to make the world a better place, they don’t take kindly to technologies, tools, or processes hindering them in fulfilling their purpose.

Dr. Kristen Hamling a registered psychologist with over twenty years of experience, has worked extensively with first responders. In her PhD research, “Well-being in the Emergency Services,” she identifies operational and organizational stress as hurting the well-being of first responders.

“Technology has got a lot to offer here”, she says.

“Reducing organizational stress in emergency services workplaces requires a multi-modal approach. Akkodis is using HCD principles to investigate how technology can mitigate elements of organizational stress and thereby alleviate demands on first responders and their families.”  

HCD can make a huge difference for emergency personnel and other frontline workers in the Public Safety and justice sector.

Even more, technology can help people do an even better job while in action, relieve stress, and improve well-being before and after work.

Situational Awareness

When arriving at the scene of an emergency, first responders must get an overview of the situation. Drones, robots, and real-time monitoring systems can support situational awareness quickly and efficiently. 

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and robots can assist first responders with situational awareness and communications in hazardous environments, minimizing their risk exposure. 

Drones can provide real-time aerial views of the incident scene, while robots can perform tasks such as surveillance, search and rescue, or handling hazardous materials. These systems also provide real-time data to operations centers to optimize incident response management.

A human hand with a phone with an open app

Enhancing Communication and Collaboration

Effective communication is crucial in emergency response situations. Technologies like real-time messaging systems, mobile applications, and integrated communication platforms enable quick, reliable information sharing. 

This improved communication aids in better coordination, quicker response times, and enhanced teamwork among first responders, directly contributing to their effectiveness and mental health.

Physical Safety

There is also considerable scope for technology to enhance the physical safety of field responders. Equipping first responders with wearable devices and sensors can provide real-time data on their vital signs, physical condition, and exposure to hazardous substances. 

This information can help monitor their health and well-being during operations, alerting them and their teams to potential risks and allowing immediate intervention.

Innovative Training Through Virtual and Augmented Reality

Technology has a lot to offer when it comes to preparing for incidents and relieving stress afterward.

For instance, virtual and augmented reality tools can simulate realistic high-stress scenarios for training. This technology prepares first responders to handle real-world challenges efficiently, enhancing their decision-making skills and stress management. 

Such training improves immediate response capabilities and contributes to long-term resilience and well-being. These technologies can also support real-time situational awareness and communication, further supporting first responders in high-stress operational environments.

 A law-enforcement officer holding a phone

Integrated Well-being Support

According to Dr Hamling, technology may be incorporated into a holistic support system for emergency services workers. 

“While technology should complement, not replace, traditional stress-reduction techniques like exercise, meditation, and relaxation exercises, there is an opportunity to explore its role in enhancing well-being outcomes,” she says.

Recognizing the intense nature of emergency services work, technologies that support mental health and well-being can be integrated directly into the workflow of first responders. Wearables and mobile apps provide proactive health monitoring, while platforms like telehealth services and online counseling offer accessible mental health support. 

Biofeedback devices that monitor physiological markers such as heart rate variability can help users learn to regulate their autonomic nervous system and shift into a calmer state. Meditation, mindfulness, breathing apps, and even virtual reality environments can also promote a shift toward a calmer state of mind.

This comprehensive support system ensures that first responders have the resources to manage stress effectively and receive help whenever needed.

Not Limited to First Responders

The HCD concept considers the human perspective at every stage of the design process. This leads to processes, products, services, and systems that align with the specific requirements and expectations of those using them.

But their use is not limited to the emergency services – far from it. The HCD solutions that can help first responders can have much broader benefits for society and businesses.

In the corporate world, HCD principles can help reduce organizational stress and improve employee well-being. They can also enhance the performance of companies that adopt them. 

Rapid advances in areas such as data creation and analysis, AI and machine learning, automated processes, and predictive modeling combined with HCD principles offer new ways to improve processes and boost employee well-being. Akkodis has developed an HCD approach to ensure that the development of innovative technology solutions does just that - for firefighters and finance directors alike. 

City skyscrapers seen from below upward