Software has gone through a fundamental shift over the past decade or so. When computers were just entering the corporate world, the approach to software design was to make products that do as many things as possible because most users made their purchase decisions by comparing which system had the longest checklist of things you could do with it. And they were tech savvy, so they were willing to deal with clumsy user interaction styles.

safety software

Training has a tendency to be boring and getting the user engaged can increase learning.

Then software became a mass market product. Everyone started using some kind of software. It became just as important, if not more, to make software easy to use. This meant it had to be simple, fast, error-resistant and recoverable. Graphical user interfaces became the standard user-interface model because everything the user wanted to do was located somewhere in a pull-down menu.

Now a third generation has shifted the focus to what has become known as “user experience,” or even more broadly, “customer experience.” Software designers, or at least the good ones, have come to realize that it is the quality of the overall experience that users have when interacting with the system that makes it effective. Even if it is possible for a user to easily learn and quickly use the software, this doesn’t guarantee that they will. Software designers are starting to use words like customer “engagement” or even “delight” to describe the idea that users enjoy using the software, so they willingly choose to use it when they can.

What does this mean for safety software? Do we need an employee to be engaged and delighted when downloading the MSDS for a chemical he just spilled? Or do we leave this for the next release of Angry Birds? The question is a little more complicated than it seems on the surface. Looking a little beyond the tongue-in-cheek terminology, the evolution of design to focus on the entire experience is an important advancement. An engaged user is more likely to use the software when the functionality is relevant, as opposed to using less effective methods or just “winging it” manually. An engaged user is also more likely to explore advanced features, perhaps becoming a more competent user along the way. This engaged user is also more likely to stick with a challenging task when he or she is experiencing difficulty.

User experience

User experience is a multi-dimensional measure that considers the software, the user and the environment. It describes both how well a system supports users as they try to make sense of a domain space and the aesthetic experience that results from its use. It combines the functionality of the system, the cognitive, perceptual and psychomotor requirements for using the system, and the psychological and social influences surrounding its use. It also considers the context of use. An engaging user experience during a slow-paced training exercise does not necessarily translate to an engaging user experience during the chaos of emergency procedures after a disaster. Safety software that is designed to provide an engaging user experience in both of these contexts provides two key advantages: better performance and better emotional attachment.

Design for performance

An engaging user experience puts users into a flow state — the state we get into when we feel totally immersed in an activity. Time seems to stand still. We enjoy the experience and are intrinsically motivated to complete tasks at ever increasing levels of difficulty. It is most common in games where users are trying to beat their friends or their high score. But many software designers are using games as a model for making other kinds of systems engaging — a practice referred to as gamification.

In safety software, we will probably never get users engaged as much as they would be in an immersive adventure experience1, but many software designers have generated a partial version of flow by creating smooth, easy-to-use, distraction-free user interfaces. This is useful in the training environment because training has a tendency to be boring and getting the user engaged can increase learning. It is also useful in the chaos of disaster response because there are many distractions that compete for the employee’s attention. During normal use, which generally falls somewhere in between boredom and chaos, designs that encourage users to explore advanced features can increase the employee’s expertise, reducing the need for advanced and refresher training later.

Design for emotion

Engaged users also get more emotionally invested in their use of the system. We used to think that emotion distracted from learning and the development of expertise, but recent research has shown just the opposite. All memories are tagged with somatic markers based on the emotional significance attached to the experience. Engaging system designs leverage this emotion to strengthen the memory created during training, even when the employee goes in expecting boredom. It also makes it easier to retrieve the memory months later on the shop floor, which is particularly important in chaotic environments such as disaster response.

An engaging experience

Most safety software doesn’t come with a user experience rating listed on the front of the package. Sometimes you might be able to get a sense of the experience from ratings and reviews on third-party sites that sell the software. You can also call around for opinions among your colleagues or on professional networks like LinkedIn. However you go about it, it is worth the effort. Finding safety software that delivers an engaging experience can decrease your training costs, improve the training effectiveness, and keep your employees safer.