Developing the future of control room software

Digital design informed by the real needs of control room operatives
control room operative looking at mapping software on a computer monitor

Emergency services control rooms are operated by highly skilled people working under pressure to help people in need of urgent help. When members of the public call 999 or 111 and speak to someone in a control room that operative is not only on the phone but also looking at an array of monitors with different interfaces on. The importance of design in ensuring that the software they use is precisely attuned to their needs cannot be underestimated. 

NEC provides critical, life-saving software for control rooms, operations centres and emergency dispatch. We worked with them to design solutions for the next generation of emergency services looking at three core areas: 

  • Moving from a product to a service and platform mindset, transitioning to Software as a service (SaaS).
  • Providing design support to their product teams.
  • Developing a design system to be used across their future product suite

“For me, it’s helping people...We are the link between the people and the officers who attend. It doesn’t matter what systems we have, they just have to work.”

Paul - a Control room operative for 30 years

A day in the life of a control room

We started by visiting a control room to shadow call handlers and dispatchers and talk to them about their work.  We learned about the importance of teamwork and clear communication between systems and the people that use them.

Calls come in to a call handler, who takes details and hands over to the radio team who are in contact with police teams. They have multiple interfaces to look at, spread over 2 to 4 monitors. We discovered important features of their workflow – for instance, some operators rarely use a mouse, learning shortcuts so they can type keystrokes for all commands. We were also surprised to learn their telephony equipment is operated by a foot pedal. 

There’s a lot of information that has to be accessed, understood and shared very quickly while they make decisions at the same time as talking to others. The need for equipment that minimises stress and complexity is clear. 

Spending time in the control room allowed us to understand the context and cross-channel experience between systems, hardware, software and interaction between people.

A week of hypothesis-driven design and rapid prototyping

We kicked off the project with a one-week design sprint. A multidisciplinary team worked together on accelerated product thinking, inspiration, concept design and sharing skills.

We used hypothesis-driven design to move quickly from reviewing research, inspiration and creating initial ideas to designing and testing prototypes to learn from. 

We built cardboard monitors so we could quickly test ideas using paper prototypes. One of the team had worked for many years as a call handler and we invited control room operatives in to do some user testing on our preliminary designs – moving from paper to Figma click-throughs by the end of the week. 

“A highlight was turning our ideas into usable features and capabilities....”

Sprint participant

Moving to a longer-term strategic partnership

The Snook and APD team began setting up visits to control rooms for further research and testing. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressures that put on the emergency services, the visits had to be put on hold and reimagined. 

Following a pivot and restructure to the research and testing framework, the team began engaging with control rooms and APD teams remotely. This involved working flexibly with control room teams to provide times and channels that worked for them. A sign-up form was developed which asked individuals to select preferred dates, times and video call software.

Crafting principles to guide strategic design decisions

Early on in the project, the team developed a set of principles based on the needs, behaviours and context of control rooms. These were created as a set of values for the product and service to act as a guidepost for the project team to continually check their decisions against. The design principles were:

  • Keep it simple

Control room staff don’t need extra noise, redundant information and tools they don’t use. Keeping things simple doesn’t mean we simplify them. We cater to the complexity of the interactions we support, without unnecessary clutter.

  • Milliseconds count 

Time spent trying to find the right information is time taken away from getting to the scene of an incident quickly. Our objective is to ensure that control room staff don’t waste time on avoidable tasks like duplication, moving items around on screen and trying to find information.

  • Empower users

Control room staff develop preferred ways of working to maximise their efficiency. One size doesn’t fit all. We need to create multiple ways for people to navigate and share information so they can personalise their workflow.

  • Minimum eye movement

Heat mapping of eye movements has shown that people who use multiple monitors eyes’ travel vast distances in a typical workday. Designing to avoid unnecessary eye strain can reduce fatigue and increase productivity.

  • Build once, use many

Our design needs to incorporate future use and integrations. Wherever possible we should focus on the application and extension of existing design patterns. We see our product as a set of modular elements. 

Testing prototypes with control room operatives

Key design features, iconography and user stories were tested with control room operatives. Using a Figma prototype environment allowed us to learn quickly and refine. Once we arrived at a validated design, the individual features were shared with the APD development team to be implemented in the live Azure environment. These were then re-tested in future rounds of testing sessions where, when possible, the user was ‘driving’ the real product software in mocked-up scenarios.

Transforming the organisation with a service mindset

APD had already restructured teams and roles as the Snook team were working with them. This provided a great opportunity to influence and define an operating model and organisational structure with a service mindset.   

We ran a series of workshops with the APD strategy team, provided on the ground training with the development team and held informal meetings to refine an end to end customer experience that took us into a full-stack service design approach. Together we helped to move APD from a traditional IT, technology first, organisation to one that balances business needs and capabilities with user and customer needs. 

Standardising design for efficiency and consistency

The Snook team worked closely with the developers to create a design system that could be used to standardise the design of future products and services across the Public Safety OS suite. 

Design elements were uploaded into the Figma library first then planned into the development sprints. This means that the elements had been tested enough for the APD team to have confidence in the design and functionality. They would be able to replicate the design patterns in future knowing they work. Not only does this save time and duplicate effort but it also creates a consistency across APD services. 

Figma prototype of mapping software interface

An end to end customer experience map and strategy

Throughout the project the Snook team co-created an end-to-end customer experience map and strategy with teams across APD. This zoomed out to the level of a customer relationship  – from procurement to switching – as well as diving in deep to the experience of ‘use’ of a product/service. 

‘Maps’ for control rooms’ needs now and in the future

Maps was launched in December 2020.  It brings together information from multiple data sources including CCTV, Points of Interest, Highways cameras and Google Street View. Control room operatives can track and share details of callers, incidents, officers and their capabilities and make fast, well-informed dispatch decisions. 

But as well as improved situational awareness, there is a vision of an integrated modular suite of emergency response software, run on a software as a service model so that everything from installation to handling incidents and upgrading is carefully designed and delivered by APD to ensure control room staff can just concentrate on serving the public.

Building on the user-centred approach we used, the team at NECSWS is getting ready to launch more products as part of a modular Software as a Service platform.