Motorola plans to unveil at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in August a new mobile radio control head that is the second product developed under the company's mission-critical design program that is driven by principles of applied psychology.

Several years ago, Motorola decided to step up its effort to design products based on the needs of those who use them. It established three design centers — in Plantation, Fla., Singapore and Malaysia — for this purpose. "It's a global effort," said Bruce Claxton, the company's senior director of design integration. "Our customers are all over the world."

Many of those customers meet with product designers at the center to discuss ways to improve usability. One of the techniques involves Velcro blocks in various sizes and shapes that represent radio components. These pieces are configured in myriad ways in an attempt to create the ideal product. But the dialog that ensues during these exercises is the real takeaway for Motorola, according to Claxton, as those discussions not only generate new product ideas but also provide a window into how end users think about products — and their jobs.

"What they put together isn't as important as what they said," Claxton said.

It's so important to get into their heads that Motorola five years ago started employing anthropologists and psychologists to work directly with the product designers. Teams with members representing all three disciplines are sent into the field to shadow first responders, to get a better sense of the rigors of their jobs and how they use products in the field.

"We want to understand their behavior and what motivates them," Claxton said. "That takes you to a very different place."

Claxton said it is critical that the psychologists and designers work side by side. "They see things from different vantage points."

The teams have even participated in firefighting training, which involved putting on all of the gear and entering a burning structure.

"It helps them understand moments of high stress," Claxton said. "They come back thinking very differently."

The APX 7000 portable radio unveiled at APCO last year was the first product spawned by Motorola's mission-critical design program. Buttons were enlarged to make the radio easier to use when wearing heavy gloves. The front display was enlarged to make it easier to read. An "intelligent lighting" feature was added, which lets dispatchers send a signal that changes the background light on the display to various colors to alert the user to certain situations — red for an emergency situation, for instance. Additionally, the emergency button was moved to the base of the antenna, which lets first responders find it without having to look down at the radio. Also, a top display was added to let users view information and alerts while the radio is secured to their bodies. Finally, Motorola changed the way batteries are swapped out — now the process is similar to that used to change the battery on a power drill — and the speaker was redesigned into a bar configuration to make it cleanable using a brush, a plus for users working in very dirty environments.

The next step was to better understand what happens inside of a police vehicle in order to redesign the mobile radio control head, Claxton said. "It's a hodge-podge. There's a lot of stuff in the car."

To do this, Motorola convinced a sheriff's department in Florida to donate a police car for 18 months. It also brought out the blow torches to weld together a chopped down car to recreate just the inside of the cabin. The effort resulted in several design changes for the control head, which Claxton said would be available for shipping sometime in 2010.

For instance, controls were reorganized based on priority, and a control was added for the vehicle's siren and lights, to make them easier to find in a high-stress situation such as a car pursuit. Also, the siren-and-light control was redesigned to make it easier to use. With this system, all an officer has to do is make one "big turn" of the knob to engage the siren and lights; he can dial back as needed when the situation calms, according to Claxton.

While other radio vendors claim to design their products based on end-user needs, Claxton is confident that none do so based on the rigors of applied psychology, which he believes gives Motorola a significant edge on the competition.

"Sometimes end-user needs are unspoken," Claxton said. "The psychological observation and analysis of first responders brings them to the surface."