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Command Line's Not Dead: Designing for 911 Dispatchers

Breaking patterns and best practices for a better power user experience

I was about to show some emergency dispatchers a mockup of what I believed would be a huge advance to their current software. I was proud of the work and thought I was about to bring dispatching into the 21st century. Then I received the feedback, “That’s not going to work for us. Where’s the command line?” Smug grin wiped straight off face. I had fallen into the same trap Apple did with the non-expandable trash bin design of the Mac Pro. It looked great, but didn’t give professional users want they wanted.

Three years later, we’ve just successfully launched v2 of a product I knew we’d have to redesign from the ground up before v1 was even launched. This is going to be the story of that journey.

A strange thing happened when I started working at this public safety startup nearly five years ago with the goal of making ethical, intuitive software. Many of the interaction and UI patterns I had internalized over my career to make things easier to use for consumers simply didn’t translate over to the new space. Dependable best practices like giving a visually pleasing amount of negative space around elements went out the window when confronted with hundreds of data fields to juggle. Users wanted text to be bigger for their aging eyes, but when given a choice of more information on screen they chose that every time. Half the users wanted this, and the other half preferred that.

The solution, as it turned out, was a mental shift amongst the design team about what “good” design is. Most design work that we encounter is made for consumers that need to be persuaded to use a product and continue to stay engaged. What we were designing was more akin to a Bloomberg Terminal, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Photoshop, or even an OS. We had to remind ourselves the users were highly trained experts using the software for 12 hour shifts day after day. They wanted the option to navigate and work solely using keyboard. To customize the layout of the tools depending on their needs and priorities. We realized we couldn’t build a single “best” way to work. Instead we had to undertake the massive effort to build a multi-window, multi-panel system that could be flexible enough to grow without understanding all the ways it might be used in the future.

Daniel Yang

I am the multi-award-winning head of design at Mark43, a public safety software startup that makes products for police, emergency dispatchers, and firefighters, used in situation where every second counts. Initially with no experience in the first responder space, it was a crash course in truly listening to users and reverse engineering systems and processes that not even our customers fully understood.

I made the transition to designing government enterprise software after my time in the healthcare space at ZocDoc, connecting patients with doctors. The marketplace dynamic at ZocDoc gave me insight into consumer behavior at scale, using data in design, as well as on the backend doctor-facing portal.

I was a part of teams that won Best in Category at IxDA Interaction Awards as part of both Mark43 and ZocDoc.

In a prior life, I worked at various agencies such as HUGE and CP+B on consumer marketing projects.

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