Advancements in mission-critical radio communications have progressed at a steady pace. A look across the industry reveals a host of new capabilities being added to devices and enabled by network enhancements, fueled in large part by remaining spectrum limitations and the need for even greater interoperability.

Ongoing dialogue with end users reveals a need for more functionality coupled with new and advanced capabilities, such as the delivery of video and data. This was further affirmed by the joint Motorola/APCO survey conducted earlier this year, when public-safety users expressed a strong demand for technologies that streamline incident response times — such as GPS and smart traffic routing systems — or deliver incident-related video to mobile units.

Innovative technologies and features must evolve without adding user complexity. Companies developing technologies must listen to — and observe — their customers closely to ensure that, in both form and function, their products are second nature in operation. Advancing technology without careful consideration to design requirements could cause more harm than good to the safety of first responders and the communities they serve.

Buttons, knobs and displays need to be in the right places and should be intuitive to use without adding extra and perhaps unnecessary steps. The device size and weight cannot burden already gear-laden firefighters, police officers and other first responders. All of these considerations have a common element — good product design that is focused on mission-critical users' behavior.

The ideal process for designing mission-critical products must include social sciences, cognitive psychology and anthropology, as purpose-built solutions for public-safety end users demand a thorough understanding of behaviors and needs. It is not enough to interview a handful of users to ask what they want, or map product design around industry trends. The essence of good design is usability, which requires the study of users' behavior to accurately assess product performance.

Design teams can get this deeper understanding only by observing day-to-day behavior. This is accomplished most effectively by logging hundreds of hours riding alongside emergency responders to see first-hand how they use technology, and even participating in first-responder training exercises. Experiencing the extremes of firefighters' jobs has brought new insights to product design.

High Velocity Human Factors, which studies how people respond to highly stressful situations, provides additional insights to design opportunities. Products designed for mission-critical applications must excel in all situations, performing equally well during a high-speed chase as on mundane, everyday tasks. Ask people to provide detailed accounts of how they used a device during extreme situations and they probably won't remember.

Why is it essential for designers to make this effort? To gain the insights that will make products safer and easier to use during emergencies without losing critical features. Every minute counts when saving lives, and that fact must be paramount to our industry's design criteria.

Public-safety solutions must be built for the rigors of the job. Mission-critical design elements must be coupled with an engineering approach that delivers true interoperability and scalability. As even more advanced capabilities emerge from the lab, vendors must continue to provide platforms that allow for expansion without additional investment in equipment.

The goal must be this: leverage innovative design to provide simple solutions to end users and deliver greater efficiencies, while solving the contradiction between size, weight and function without compromise. End users must benefit from purpose-built technologies that are intuitive in their operation — allowing first responders to focus on their mission, not the technology in hand.

Bruce Claxton is Motorola's senior director for design integration.