“Device-focused research enhances FirstNet user experience;" FirstNet Authority logo; a person using a smartphone

Device-focused research with public safety yields key insights

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) is dedicated to enhancing the FirstNet network and advancing public safety communications for first responders nationwide. To help guide our activities, investments, and resources, we developed a FirstNet Authority Roadmap (Roadmap) in 2019 that lays out six priority areas, or domains, that public safety identified as critical to the network’s success.

One of these domains focuses on the User Experience—more specifically, how to provide public safety with an intuitively designed user experience on the FirstNet network. We envision a user experience driven by public safety operational needs that enables users to stay focused on their primary mission. In support of this vision, we have established priorities to provide robust, purpose-built, mission-capable devices and mission-enabling applications for public safety’s diverse needs.

Implementing these priorities requires a deep understanding of how first responders interact with the FirstNet network through devices and applications, as well as their needs and expectations of the network. To better understand these aspects of user experience, the FirstNet Authority conducted in-person and virtual engagements with the public safety community throughout 2021 to learn about:

  • What broadband devices first responders are using and why they chose them
  • How responders would prefer to interact with the FirstNet network during daily and emergent operations
  • What a next-generation public safety device should include to further enable their mission

Through these discussions, the FirstNet Authority sought to bring public safety’s voice into the User Experience domain and broader Roadmap planning processes and better understand how to put the power of FirstNet in the hands of public safety.

Engaging and surveying first responders

To best understand public safety’s operational use and device needs in the field, the User Experience domain team interviewed first responders from all disciplines, targeting individuals at all levels—from command staff to “boots on the ground.” In total, responders from 31 states participated in the interview. 

The User Experience domain team leveraged both quantitative and qualitative research methods to collect comprehensive data throughout the engagements. The techniques included 35 focus groups and a quantitative survey conducted between July and December 2021.

  • We carefully planned and executed focus groups through a series of online and in-person discussions designed to examine device purchasing trends and how operational roles affect device choices. We also conducted a “blue sky” discussion to get participants to think beyond today’s existing devices to the art of the possible.
  • We gave the quantitative survey to participants immediately following, or in lieu of, the focus groups. It included both traditional survey questions and a discrete choice model that allowed us to understand purchase choices based on perceived value and utility.

What we heard

We identified several factors that influence public safety’s user experience and choice of devices:

  • Desire for simplicity: Participants repeatedly expressed the need for a simple device design that supports their day-to-day functions, as well as mission critical or “worst case” scenarios. A simpler design facilitates an easier user experience and quicker data exchange among responders. Participants defined simplicity as a device that is easy to use and carry, intuitive, uncomplicated, and does not slow responders down.
  • Redundancy versus a converged device: Many participants stated their desire for a converged, all-in-one device; however, there were mixed opinions on the concept and applicability. A dichotomy exists between public safety’s desire to carry fewer devices while still having access to a backup communications solution, if needed.
  • Consider the full scope of operations: Participants said they did not want a device designed for a singular use—whether it be for fire response, a traffic stop, or patient care reporting. They wanted devices designed with features that support the full scope of public safety operations.
  • Cost, investment, and technology evolution: Many participants noted the cost and investment for a smartphone is nominal when compared to a traditional land mobile radio device, and the turnaround time for procurement and setup is quicker. The commercial nature of smartphones and annual tech refresh of the devices, including processing power, sensors, and frequency bands, benefit the public safety community without requiring a major technology reinvestment.
  • Perception of Value: The quantitative survey responses revealed how individuals value select device factors (e.g., brand, ruggedization, price) by asking participants to select their choice among hypothetical alternatives. The responses indicated device price has the greatest impact on responders’ hypothetical decision to purchase devices for their agencies, followed by device brand. However, further simulations using the discrete choice model showed device choice is not solely dependent on price. Participants were willing to procure more expensive devices from a preferred brand based on other factors, such as advanced features or ruggedization.
  • Let responders be responders: Technology should supplement or augment responder capabilities. It should not distract responders from their primary mission and purpose. This concept ties into the need for simplicity in technology.

Continued dialogue with the FirstNet Authority to learn more

The FirstNet Authority is dedicated to creating a differentiated broadband user experience to help public safety save lives and protect communities. The User Experience domain is guiding our efforts to make this vision a reality. If you are interested in learning more about this study or speaking with our subject matter experts about user experience, please contact info@firstnet.gov.

For more information on the User Experience domain, including key technology areas, visit FirstNet.gov/roadmap.        

Learn more about how FirstNet is transforming public safety communications — contact your local FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisor and sign up for our discipline newsletters. Follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn for the latest FirstNet Authority updates.

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