Lessons from Disaster Research

March 10, 2014

When the life-threatening catastrophe Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern United States, proper disaster preparedness and disaster response and the subsequent recovery all depended on people having a good user experience with Web and mobile information resources. These resources provided information that helped people to prepare for the disaster and, subsequently, let them apply for recovery assistance during the aftermath of the disaster. In disastrous situations like this, the right information needs to be immediately available to people because there may not be time for a second chance to obtain it.

Over a number of years, I have had the opportunity to do user experience research and evaluation work relating to natural disasters. In that time, the poignancy of what I have seen and heard regarding the impacts of negative and positive Web or mobile experiences on disaster recovery has made these experiences some of the most meaningful of my UX career. While user experience is important for any Web site or application, my seeing how user experience directly affected survivors’ ability to get through a disaster and get help when they needed it showed me the value of a quality user experience and the importance of user research.

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Explaining needed improvements to the user experience of sites or applications that provide information about disaster preparedness and relief is often about telling a story—about framing a set of experiences into a coherent whole and making both general and specific recommendations to improve disaster resources. While the stories that I’ll present here come from an important domain that may be different from what most UX professionals experience, the lessons I’ve learned are very similar to those that I’ve taken away from working in other domains. These disaster-related UX stories provide lessons that can remind us how closely user research is tied to improving UX design and developing a UX strategy that focuses on user needs. Ultimately, good research leads to more usable sites and applications. This is especially for the sites and applications that people need when in the direst of situations.

Focus on Essential Information

How can we use lessons that derive from user experiences relating to disaster preparedness and relief to frame good design? Companies may try to ensure that their designs are inclusive and representative of the needs of all of their audience groups. For example, they may want to make sure that all visitors will appreciate their home page, so they’ll provide a little something for everyone. However, the problem is that a call to action that is targeted at one group may not communicate clearly enough to that group or may be so loud that it pulls in other user groups.

To assess a new Web site that was geared toward disaster survivors, I went to Galveston, Texas, a few weeks after a hurricane to test it out on survivors. These were representative users who would understand the purpose of the site I was testing. While the site was 90% geared toward survivors, it also had a large call to action for local emergency managers whose job was to manage the disaster situation. Its intent was to provide all emergency managers quick access to the content that they would need. This call to action was labeled Disaster Management.

When I asked a participant in my study to show me what she would do on the site to get assistance with disaster recovery, the woman clicked Disaster Management. So did two other survivors who were research participants. When I asked participants what drew them to this link, the general consensus among them was that it resonated with survivors as a place they could go to “manage my disaster.” However, to the site’s designers, disaster management had meant a place for emergency managers. In a real-life situation, disaster survivors like these would likely have become lost on the site and would not have gotten the help they needed. A video clip showing what the survivors did and how they explained their actions led to a quick change on the Web site.

Disaster stories can also illustrate issues with responsive design. On a Web site for disaster survivors, Featured News—regularly updated tidbits of anecdotal interest—was just one small part of a full Web site, but it loomed large on a mobile device. So something that did not bother the target populations on the big screen became very distracting when a grid-based responsive system placed this feature near the top of the home page. Survivors told me that, after the disaster, they were stressed and needed to find information fast. They did not want distractions.

Key takeaway—Eliminate the design and content fluff. Focus on the target user groups’ most critical needs and goals instead of trying to offer a little bit of everything for everyone.

Find the Right Research Participants

For user research and, specifically, for usability testing, the quickest, easiest approach is to get just about anyone who uses the appropriate hardware or mobile device to try out a Web site or app. But the easiest approach is not necessarily the best approach. In the case of the survivors in Galveston, they were desperate to find a clear pathway to help them navigate their personal disaster experience, but were disappointed when the pathway that they chose led them to content for disaster management. Would members of the public who had not experienced a disaster have looked at this terminology in the same way? Maybe not. Disaster survivors who participated in my user research generally conveyed a sense of urgency and desperation to find critical information. Generic participants, who had not experienced the same level of desperation as true disaster survivors, might have approached the site resources differently—possibly more carefully. Thus, such participants might not provide a wholly accurate set of data.

Plus, doing user research with specific targeted users yields small nuances that research with other participants might not uncover. When I was interviewing a senior-citizen, apartment-dwelling survivor after Hurricane Sandy, the participant looked at a graphic of an emergency supply kit in a large, waterproof-plastic bin that illustrated how to collect disaster-preparedness supplies and said that the content on the page must not be geared toward her because nobody would expect an elderly person to carry a big plastic bin down several flights of stairs. This one graphic turned that person away from all of the rest of the disaster-preparedness information on the page, so one less person was ready for a disaster.

Key takeaway—Research participants should be as similar to real users in real situations as possible. It is only then that you can discover important nuances and understand the true issues of real users.

When I looked at disaster survivors in general, I discovered that the behavior and usage of a disaster site by tornado survivors were not the same as for those who had experienced flooding or hurricanes. Tornado survivors had almost no warning before disaster struck. A tornado survivor physically demonstrated how he and his wife had been running for the basement, but never made it there. They had seen the back of their home get ripped off. Fortunately, they were in the front of their home, so were alive to tell the tale.

From stories like this, we learned what resources were really valuable specifically to tornado survivors. Obviously, those who hear a tornado coming would not have time to look up extensive information on where to go or what to do. First and foremost, they needed to be told, “Get into your basement now!” or to find out what to do if they didn’t have a basement. Later, once they had found safety, they could learn more. This is different from hurricanes, when people have a bit more warning, so there’s more time to give them additional context.

Key takeaway—Just as the needs and behaviors of tornado survivors are different from those of hurricane survivors, your research participants should represent as many different specific user types as possible.

Lessons That Inform UX Strategy

At its core, UX strategy is about assessing the critical context of use by asking questions like Why is the company doing what it’s doing? and determining who is using a system in that critical context of use. When considering Web or mobile disaster resources, there are basically three reasons why an organization has created them:

  1. They are helping survivors after a disaster.
  2. They are creating ways for emergency personnel to do their jobs better.
  3. They are helping the general public both to prepare for a disaster and to deal with a disaster’s aftermath.

Disaster survivors are actually a very broad group of people who may have very different kinds of usability needs. During my user research with disaster survivors, it became clear that the elderly and other vulnerable populations had more difficulty obtaining critical information than younger survivors did.

When I interviewed senior-citizen survivors about their experiences getting help online after the disaster, I heard complaints about small print, information that they missed because it was below the fold, the wordiness of text, and a site’s expecting users to do a lot of navigation. For seniors, these complaints were much more prevalent than for the general population. The end result was that some seniors gave up trying to use the Internet to get help and others endured more frustrations. I also learned that seniors often have help when using Web resources, so framing information to instruct their adult children or caregivers in assisting the people they care for is also essential on these types of disaster-resource sites.

Those who publish disaster-preparedness information online for the benefit of the general public should be aware that only a subset of the population will actually take this information seriously and review it carefully. One disaster survivor said to me that he had seen warnings to evacuate, but over the years, he’d seen many warnings that didn’t turn out to be actual disasters, so he didn’t take the warnings or the disaster-preparedness information online seriously. Pointing to the disaster-preparedness Web site that I was evaluating, he asked me, “Where is the sense of urgency?”

A comprehensive strategy for a disaster-preparedness site should certainly consider additional ways in which to promote such information. Still, this information is going to resonate only with a certain subset of the population. So perhaps the appropriate promotional strategy in this case would have been to use electronic means to achieve viral preparedness. Focus on those visitors who are particularly interested the information on the site, and ask them to email the information to three friends who may not be as concerned about preparedness as they should be.

Key takeaway—UX strategy must be comprehensive and account for adaptability to issues that may come into focus only after conducting user research.

The unique situations that disaster survivors encounter and their experiences with disaster resources on the Web provide more extreme examples of the importance of good user experiences. However, we can generalize the lessons that we learn from disaster survivors to all users. UX strategists should consider all possible user groups, not just generic users. Content strategists should focus on meeting users’ critical needs and resist the urge to populate a site with distracting fluff. UX researchers should try to recruit participants who represent as many specific user groups as possible to reveal nuances that they would not otherwise see. 

Owner and Principal User Experience Consultant at Lebsontech LLC

Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Cory LebsonCory established his small, successful UX consulting firm in 1997 and has been a UX consultant for nearly 20 years. His core client base has included a number of Federal government, commercial, non-profit, and educational organizations. Lebsontech focuses primarily on UX strategy, user research, and associated training. Cory greatly enjoys teaching topics relating to user experience and technology and frequently gives talks and workshops on UX career development, usability, user experience, information architecture, mobile UX, and accessibility. Recently, he has been a guest on a radio talk-show and published several articles on user experience. Cory has an MBA in marketing and technology management, as well as an MA in sociology and a BS in psychology. Cory is Past President of the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) International and is Past President of the UXPA DC Chapter. He is also author of the forthcoming book UX Careers Handbook.  Read More

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