Why Good UX Saves Lives (Literally)

By Jeff Jahn

We've all experienced it. That beep beep beep sound that starts at 1:30 in the morning and doesn't stop until somebody sleepily gets up and, in a state of half-awareness, takes the battery out of one of their smoke or carbon monoxide sensors so they can go back to dreaming.

This incessant beeping almost always begins at night. If the designers behind these essential devices were to have taken a few minutes to consider how their devices are used and perceived by their users under real-life circumstances, it could all have been easily avoided.

I speak from experience on the subject, having spent more than a decade developing experiences that engage the audiences of our customers. It's for this reason that, as I experienced the dreaded nighttime beep happen at our house, I couldn't help but consider the obvious problem here. A disabled smoke detector is worthless, and the current user experience relies on a person being rational during a period when they may not even remember having gotten up to respond to the low-battery notice.

So how should it have been solved? With just a few minutes of thought, one could find a way to change the timing of these alerts to increase the likelihood of them happening at a time when the owner is most receptive to it. A basic light sensor would cost pennies to add and would prevent the middle-of-the-night interaction that sees your least viable brain making decisions that could ultimately end in tragedy.

Having spent most of my working life considering how users interact with our work, I'm going to throw a couple arguments at my own suggestion to see how they pass muster. The first counterargument is that adding another sensor would jeopardize battery life. To this, I'd point out that the sensor can remain unused until such time as the smoke detector notices that the battery is becoming low. Once that happens, it can simply check to see whether it is daylight before notifying. Under normal use, there would be no additional load.

The next objection might be that this particular detector may be in a closet, basement or somewhere else that doesn't regularly see light and may never notify its owner. Again, this is easy to solve by simply determining that at a certain battery level, it ignores the light sensor and simply alerts as usual. Let's say that today the detector beeps a low battery warning at 20 percent. Were this to be moved to trigger 5 percent sooner with the use of a light sensor before defaulting back to the current warning at 20 percent, it would provide days of opportunity to be heard at a time when someone is home and awake to observe it.

Thankfully, this is an industry that is finally, after decades of stagnation, being disrupted by products like Google's Nest Protect. Their user-focused approach has been a welcome shift from irritating necessity to a device that feels like it belongs in your home. It even actively encourages you to test it and performs self-checks designed to ensure it is operating as intended.

That's not to say the Nest is perfect. But for possibly the first time in this space, a company decided to think about consumer behavior when designing a tool that could very well save its customers life. By going that extra mile on user experience, they and others have been able to create devices that people are far more likely to keep in proper operational order.

Google's push towards innovation in a stale space has allowed Nest to grab significant market share in the smart home arena, while pushing more traditional companies like Kidde to develop more modern equivalents (RemoteLync Monitor). In parallel, other startups such as Roost and Onelink have emerged to challenge the Nest Protect, ensuring that the technology on all sides will continue to advance.

Your user experience is unlikely to have a life-or-death impact, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored. Nor should you consider it OK to maintain a poor experience just because that's the industry standard. We've become one of the most awarded companies in our space by continuously reinventing and refining the customer experience, and it's the best way to ensure your long-term relevance in an age where products, companies and entire industries are being disrupted daily.

Consider whether you would rather be part of a legacy product in the middle of disruption, or be the one doing the disruption.

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Founder & Chief Nerd at DynamiX.

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