RETHINKING THE EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM

 

Roles: Lead UI Designer & RESEARCH ASSISTANT

PROJECT BACKGROUND

Emergency Alert systems are extremely important to ensure all matters of public safety, amber alerts through natural disasters. According to a study done by Ericsson in 2015, city authority communications are the top 5 areas of improvements in mega-cities. The core framework used by such urban areas has largely remained the same since its creation in 1997, with the exception of mobile alerts.  This project looks at how we can modernize the system by integrating a design language and incorporating iconography across all emergency alert platforms, including high resolution billboard displays and a modernized notification system for mobile alerts. This project was highly research intensive with the use of preliminary discovery, surveys done by the general public, user-testing, storyboarding, high and low fidelity prototyping, and revising to create a final product that is both cohesive and conscientious. The project team went to considerable lengths in mapping the proposed design against today's current system to demonstrate how citizens can be given a sense of control, and decrease the amount of apathy the current system creates among its citizens.

The project was presented infront of industry judges of UI & UX from Sabre, Capital One, & Aperio Insights and won second place. 


THE SOLUTION

 Create and redesign the current EAS to do the following:

  • Prioritize hierarchy of message elements, 
  • Design concise, unified, cross-device communication standards.
  • Utilize currently available technology.
  • Engage the public through clear, accessible calls to action.

  •  Encourage a sense of constancy and community 

THE PROBLEM

Through study and research, our group identified several weak areas of the current system which include message inconsistency, overly complex messages, and current system limitations. This project aims at refining this inefficient system through a variety of methods designed to communicate with citizens in ways they can quickly understand, share, and even use to take action if necessary. 


THE PROCESS

 
 

RESEARCH

Emergency Alerts are generated by several different organizations, requiring communication across these organizations. For instance, weather information often comes from the National Weather Service while AMBER Alerts are received from law enforcement. Additionally, there are constraints for each type of alert display. 

Because of the wide variety of messaging platforms with their differing requirements and limitations, developing an effective system has been a challenge. Even within each of these individual platforms, there is no standardization of the information communicated, which often results in inconsistencies across alerts and potentially even platforms. 

 
Demonstration of the current inconsistent design between Android and iOS for Emergency Alert Systems.

Demonstration of the current inconsistent design between Android and iOS for Emergency Alert Systems.

 

SURVEYS

In our initial concept, we targeted three spaces for alert dissemination: mobile devices, electronic highway billboards, and screens in public spaces. Combining these into an effective, cohesive system was going to prove challenging, as it has been for the current and previous arbiters of IPAWS and its predecessors. To determine how to best proceed, we formed a survey using the UT Dallas Qualtrics Web App. Comprised of 15 multiple choice and free response questions, the survey was designed to get a better understanding of an average person’s interpretations of the current alert systems. 

 
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KEY INSIGHTS

  • Most people feel emergency alert messages are important, not annoying. 

  • Weather alerts are inconsistent on mobile devices during emergency situations. 

  • People are unclear about what blue alerts & silver alerts mean. 

  • Apathy toward alerts may be a bigger issue than negativity. 


DEFINE SCOPE

Survey respondents demonstrated feelings of apathy when they selected the option, “I really don’t care” offered in a handful of questions pertaining to their feelings toward alert systems. This was a problem we endeavored to understand the basis for. We believe people feel disconnected from the information they receive, uninvolved, unable, or uninformed on how to best help in emergency situations – especially those such as AMBER and Silver alerts.

Therefore, in an effort to combat apathy, we developed guidelines determining the hierarchy of information displayed on each alert platform. With these guidelines, we defined the role of each citizen depending on the person's location and activity. These roles would end up being the refined scope of our project.

Drivers - Look for suspicious vehicles, seek shelter in an emergency, respond to road conditions 

Mobile Users - As they could be engaged in any activity, providing them with all details allows them to filter the information as needed. 

People in Public Spaces - Look for suspicious persons, identify suspicious vehicles, seek shelter in an emergency, plan drives accordingly 


IDEATION

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Our initial ideation focused on how our redesigned system could be implemented into the current system easily. We wanted to create a unified system with a consistent design and iconography between all platforms. The issue we faced is that adding images to mobile alerts or adding images to public displays would inevitably cost money. Our solution included having the cellular companies take the small amount of data for mobile alerts and public displays could be paid through tax payer money.

 

 

Initial Prototype

Our initial prototype were 2 redesigns for a proposed digital display for an Amber and Weather alert. This was our basis for our user testing for the next phase of our design process.


TESTING

We wanted our prototype to test whether the information on our newly designed, visual billboards were easier to understand and recall. However, simulating a vehicle traveling down a highway at 70mph and passing a billboard sign was not an easy task.

The prototype was comprised of three parts: a steering wheel, two videos showing two redesigned signs passing by, and a cardboard box meant to mimic the feeling of being in a car. Each participant took roughly five minutes to make it through all aspects of our prototype. We did not inform them of what they would be experiencing before clicking play on the videos. . 

FINDINGS

After the users completed the testing we had them complete a survey to see if they retained any information of the billboard that passed them. Unfortunately, most were unable to recall the information. Though we felt the testing situations were not ideal, we realized we needed to narrow down the information displayed on the billboard to only the necessary information to act on.


FINALIZATION 

In the final stages of this project, it became imperative to create a design language that unified the elements of this system. This design is reflected in mobile alerts and billboards so the public can immediately recognize the significance of the message. 

BILLBOARDS: VISUAL REDESIGN

Our final proposal includes a requirement to begin building and distributing full-color, HD modern Public Information Displays (PIDs) along highways. In addition to providing additional PIDs, which will take many years to deploy, the WEA will also use commercial electronic billboards to distribute alerts in certain circumstances. These PIDs will be used to augment the text-only electronic billboards that already line roadways. Time is a major factor in communicating information to recipients. Particularly in the case of citizens behind the wheel, time to read and comprehend may even be the most important consideration.

For this reason, our design of the billboards drastically reduced the amount of information shared to 4 pieces: 

  1. Alert Type
  2. Most Relevant Photo
  3. Most Necessary Individual Information
  4. Call to Action
By applying a hierarchy of informational importance based on pertinent details relevant to citizens in a role, the message becomes more focused and useable. 

By applying a hierarchy of informational importance based on pertinent details relevant to citizens in a role, the message becomes more focused and useable. 

Mobile alerts

The goal for redesigning mobile alerts is to accurately, memorably, and actionably relay all relevant details necessary in an emergency situation. One of the quickest ways to make information more memorable is to include pictures within the messages.

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Emergency Alerts need a permanent hub of existence within mobile device operating systems. This hub may be developed as a part of the device’s overall Settings apparatus or a separate app that cannot be disabled. Though the prototypes here relate to the iOS settings page, the overall solution was developed with the Android ecosystem and alternative operating systems in mind, as well. The notifications allow for the user to take action by calling 911 or receive more information. 

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CONCEPT VIDEO