Motorola Solutions’ users are on the front lines of a new reality. Here’s how design is keeping them safe.

4 min read
Rebecca Kerr
  •  Apr 8, 2020
Link copied to clipboard

Motorola Solutions’ design team was already intimately familiar with the pressure of designing for people on the front lines. They create the public safety command center platforms, 911 call management software, and community engagement tools dispatchers, chiefs of police, and first responders rely on in both emergency situations and everyday events. Even on the best of days, dispatchers work from muscle memory to quickly navigate the user interface. That means the products Motorola Solutions designs have to be meticulously crafted and tested to work, and work exactly the way their users expect.

And now, their users are at the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. The stakes are even higher. Peoples’ lives depend on products working so intuitively a new dispatcher could jump in and work fast from day one. It’s a tremendous responsibility the Motorola Solutions design team must rise to meet every day.

At the head of this team is Lexie Spiro, Sr. Director of User Experience. We asked him about how he and his team are working quickly to understand the new reality their users are facing, and why people need design in times of crisis:

How has your work changed now that your users are on the front lines of a global pandemic?

Collaboration within the design team hasn’t changed much. We haven’t always worked from home, but we’ve always had teammates scattered across offices from Chicago to Krakow to Bangalore, so we’re used to collaborating from a distance. We believe in co-locating design with developers and product managers, which means we have designers in eight official sites around the world.

However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t work in the same building with developers and product managers at the moment. That means we have to find new ways of enabling collaboration. We connect with our developers and product managers through InVision from wherever we are, working together to review ideas and challenge our thinking.

The question we’re answering is the same: How can design keep safe those whose job it is to keep us safe?

Most people don’t ever think about what it’s like to be a 911 call taker or dispatcher. These are some of the toughest jobs on earth. On a normal day lives are at stake, but in a pandemic the stakes are multiplied exponentially.

Meanwhile, they’re juggling multiple complex software applications for every task—and the systems they’re using weren’t designed to work together holistically. Their overall user experience is fundamentally broken.

Our work is redesigning their entire workflow end-to-end to make it 100% intuitive, so that zero user training is required. We want to lower the barrier for entry, so that it’s easier for our customers to recruit and onboard more staff very quickly. You can imagine how that will make our customers, and therefore our communities, much more resilient in a pandemic.

When it comes to testing our designs, we’ve had to lean into our internal network of subject matter experts more than usual, because our real users are overwhelmed with keeping people safe from the virus. We’re fortunate to have former dispatchers and police chiefs who work in-house. They’ve never had to manage a city through a pandemic, but they can still think like those who have to do that now. We’re constantly running ideas, sketches, and prototypes by them to check that we’re on track. That little bit of feedback is crucial. Our users have to be able to navigate our tools on autopilot, so it has to be right even when time is short.

What would you say to design leaders guiding their teams through this crisis?

The role of design is changing. Your company is enabling the design teams that are enabling the world to survive. These first few weeks of change are when we need to focus on making sure our teammates are safe, and their kids are well. But there’s also a new sense of normalcy coming. The key is to try to keep everyone connected.

That’s uniquely important for design, because we need diversity of thought. At the fuzzy frontend of envisioning a solution for a new problem, it’s about sharing ideas and bouncing things around, and that becomes harder when you’re not co-located. Tools like InVision are huge for us in that regard.

To build that connection, try to hold onto some of your old team interactions. And try to keep them light. For example, when we worked in the office, Isabel Firpo, who leads Design Operations, started a biweekly livestream event called Jedi Talks, where team members would present on a topic of interest. We kept that after we went home to work, and increased it to a weekly cadence. For the first all-remote Jedi Talk our lead design system developer ran a demo on how he codes UI components, but as his example, he built an animated poop emoji component. That was the most important Jedi Talk we’d ever hosted. Everyone was more engaged than ever, having one shared conversation in the video conference chat and playing off each other’s jokes, instead of having separate conversations in scattered offices. The routine things we used to do have become more important, not less.

But also think beyond the way you used to do things. Use your design tools on the team itself. Run experiments, try different ways of collaborating, and try not to be so dogmatic about how a design sprint works.

If you challenge everything you do with ‘what if,’ especially now, you’ll be more confident in your practices.

Maybe most importantly, start re-thinking your team priorities now. Processes will be different going forward, whether because of working from home, or timelines changing, or a new sense of urgency. How does that change what you value, especially in terms of how you spend time in your design process?

How can teams show the value of design to a business owner in an uncertain time like this?

Netflix has a different purpose now. A different level of importance. So does Amazon. And Peloton. The way you package your product, the way you think about your value proposition, all of that needs to change. Now is the time for design to connect with users, reframe their needs, and represent them to the business. We can contemplate a number of possible outcomes more quickly and cheaply than any other team. We can prototype possibilities in high fidelity and test them in the real world to see how they play, so the business can move in a new direction with confidence.

Design becomes more important when there is more uncertainty. Design helps people think through that uncertainty in concrete ways.

Unlike most people, designers thrive in uncertainty and ambiguity. We provide structure when there isn’t any–think about designers in the automotive industry showcasing their ‘concept cars,’ and simultaneously showcasing what the future might look like. That structure and vision is why design is needed now more than ever.

It’s hard to picture what the world will be like one week from now, let alone one month or one year out from this crisis. Things are going to change rapidly. Old assumptions are being thrown out. As we’ve always done, we need to help companies think big and think differently about where we are going.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard