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Usability review: Who designed this thing anyway?

by Scott Rains
The Rolling Rains Report

Ever find yourself asking, "Who designed this thing anyway?" I do. I also found someone who figured out what to do next. Her story might someday impact us all.

Usability, accessibility and universal design

SPOT Personal Safety Device

Julie Jones is founder and CEO of Engineered Travel, a company that works with manufacturers of existing products and shows them how to apply Universal Design thinking. The result can be anything from product improvements involving simple engineering changes to the development of entirely new products to meet the needs of the disability market.

Julie has recently teamed up with Bob Davis of the GEOS Travel Safety Group who provides integrated security, safety and resilient communications services for corporations as well as domestic and international travelers. With former police, military, and government security professionals in-house and having extensive knowledge of search and rescue (SAR) practice GEOS partnered with the manufacturers of the SPOT Satellite Messenger to provide a new type of personal safety device.

I have been field testing it.

I like it!

Let me reiterate that the purpose of Engineered Travel is to take products that were not designed with the disability community in mind and make them accessible. That said, even with opportunities for design improvements I have had fun playing with SPOT as I traveled from Brazil to Alaska. It evoked a satisfying round of "tech envy" as I took it out of my briefcase during a meeting of technology innovators in San Francisco recently. I am getting quite a few requests to be added to the list that receives a SPOT "Check In" email pinpointing me on a Google map as I globe trot with SPOT.

There is always inconvenience, even risk involved in travel. For someone with a disability what may be inconvenience for some can be a risk - a vehicle that goes dead somewhere out of cell phone range for example. This is where a personal location device like SPOT literally becomes a life saver.

The orange and black ruggedized waterproof unit has several functions. These include 9-1-1 mode, a less urgent Help mode, and a simple Check-in mode.

From the SPOT website here is how 9-1-1 mode works:

Once activated, SPOT will acquire its exact coordinates from the GPS network, and send that location along with a distress message to a GEOS International Emergency Response Center every five minutes until canceled. The Emergency Response Center notifies the appropriate emergency responders based on your location and personal information - which may include local police, highway patrol, the Coast Guard, our country's embassy or consulate, or other emergency response or search and rescue teams - as well as notifying your emergency contact person(s) about the receipt of a distress signal.

In Help or Check-in mode SPOT contacts those who you have designated to receive an SMS message or an email. The email also includes a link to a Google map showing your location within 15 feet. At your SPOT account online you compose the email and select who you want to receive the message before you travel.

SPOT alert map

Something that seems ingenious is the SPOT Tracking feature. It is the second function to the OK button used for Check-in mode. This "Optional feature" is very useful in the event you need to be located but also need to move. Tracking leaves a breadcrumb trail of where you have been. Once activated this feature plots your location every 10 minutes for 24 hours, without having to re-push a button.

SPOT distinguishes itself from existing products in a number of ways. It uses satellite technology and the GEOS Emergency Response Center that is not dependent on cell phone reception, Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or the PSAP (Public Service Access Points) network. This adds a layer of human contact which, in one case described to me by Bob Davis of GEOS, led to additional lives being saved.

I was told one story about a rescue using SPOT. In an avalanche situation a SPOT owner's distress call was verified by GEOS. (Note: SPOT is not designed to function under snow.) GEOSí call to the owner's emergency contact revealed that the owner's party included eight people. That information allowed the Search and Rescue team to be prepared and make a successful rescue.

SPOT is waterproof although it is not designed to signal effectively when submerged in water.

Scott kayaking through an ice flow in Alaska

This feature, that SPOT is waterproof for up to 30 minutes even when submerged at 1 meter, was quite a reassurance as I kayaked through an ice flow in Alaska last month with the unit in my pocket. Doubly reassuring as one iceberg chose to imitate a rotary saw blade by flipping top for bottom just after we passed it.

More often I suspect that the waterproofing feature will come in handy when I am juggling coffee cups or at the pool.

In my analysis of the product, and the team behind it, my opinion is that the three part team involving SPOT, GEOS, and Engineered Travel is what makes this product/service bundle such a potential benefit to the disability community. Team members express genuine interest in achieving usability for, to quote the classic definition of Universal Design, "the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design."

For some people with disability the current SPOT form factor will work just fine. For others Engineered Travel needs to work its magic. In its present form SPOT controls lack sensory redundancy for those of varying abilities.

I found the buttons took effort to push under warm conditions and required me to use a pen or other implement to activate when my fingers became weaker in the cold. The size and non-slip material along the edges were a benefit in gripping the unit but the protruding belt clip on the back makes the unit unstable when laid on a flat surface in order to work the buttons. The easy release fasteners made opening the case for battery insertion possible. The color makes it easy to locate.

Whether you need a safety device for when you are in a cell phone dead zone, a monsoon downpour, or just want to accurately geo-tag your photos on Google maps this is a handy unit to have. Thinking ahead to travel, emergency, or disaster situations where normal communication channels are unavailable I am reminded of the Bonn Declaration that "Disasters are Always Inclusive." This unit could also be a lifesaver.

SPOT is useful in its current version for those with good to fair visual acuity and fine motor skills. Given my conversations with representatives of the GEOS Travel Safety Group and Engineered Travel I suspect that we will see modifications. These in turn will show concretely how the consumer power of the disability community is coming of age and once again demonstrate the Curb Cut Effect of Universal Design to the benefit of us all.

Author disclosure statement

The following article is an extract from a post on Rolling Rains, a popular blog "precipitating dialogue on travel, disability, and universal design" titled "Usability Review: The SPOT Personal Safety Device". As a result of meeting Julie Jones, Scott has since joined Engineered Travel's Disabled Advisors Board. In that role he field tests products such as SPOT. Items are loaned to him for the trial period but he receives no financial compensation or free products and provides design, usability, and market analysis to Engineered Travel - as well as early product reviews for readers of the Rolling Rains Report.

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