User-centered Product Strategy for a Startup

Business Challenge

Granville Rail Disaster, Australia January 1977

What police, fire-fighters and EMTs do in their everyday job, the rest of us consider a crisis.

What happens when these professionals face a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe?

Without exercising their emergency plans, they would freak out like the rest of us.

But building exercises to test emergency plans is difficult, sometimes life-threatening, work. Planning the exercise itself is difficult and error prone.

We created Cliffside Software to develop the world’s first comprehensive exercise planning tool.

Results

Image of screenshot for Logistics page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Logistics page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Narratives page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Narratives page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for MSEL (Master Sequence of Events List) page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The "MSEL" page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Simulated Activities page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Simulated Activities page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Events page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Events page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot of Messaging page from PLAN Ahead software

The Messages page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Objectives page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Objectives page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Evaluation Development page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Evaluation Development page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Evaluation Response page in PLAN Ahead notebook.

An Evaluation Response page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot for Lessons Learned page in Plan AHEAD notebook.

The Lessons Learned page from the primary interface for Plan AHEAD, a three-ring notebook.

Image of screenshot of dialog box, showing "Shuttle" system from Plan AHEAD.

The unique "Shuttle" system allowed agencies to create, send and manage separate notebook pages to collaborators who didn't own the main product.

Plan AHEAD: All Hazard Exercise Administration and Development, a comprehensive software application to plan exercises to test emergency plans.

Used by over 300 counties, four FEMA regions, and countless government and private corporations, Plan AHEAD was the first application to capture, manage and build exercise information.

Plan AHEAD:

  • ran on IBM-PCs with Windows 3.1 O/S (the common environment for most government agencies at the time)
  • presented a familiar user interface (a tabbed-notebook, similar to what exercise planners used in the real world)
  • built exercises up from individual components (objectives, narratives, messages) which could be shared across agencies and across exercises
  • created a unique “shuttle” system, enabling collaboration across government “sneaker networks”

Process

Photo of typical emergency exercise in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) with numerous personnel working together.

An emergency exercise in process. We participated in many of these to better learn the process and understand our users.

Photo of a three-ring binder, open to a section with colored sticky-notes identifying the exercise components and taxonomy

The marked up "master notebook," with common information architecture identified with colored sticky notes.

Back in 1996, I had an intuition about how to do user-centered research, but Plan AHEAD was my first, full-fledged effort. We began with an extended "discovery" period.

Discover

The founders of Cliffside enrolled in local, State and Federal level training for exercise planning and disaster preparedness. Not only were we meeting our future customers, we got hands-on experience in exercise development and management.

Among the hundreds of lessons learned, one stands out: Emergency response personnel sincerely want to help. They help others as a way of operating in the world.

Definition

We asked agencies across the world to send us their exercise planning materials. We received dozens of their notebooks along with handfuls of federal standards for exercise planning.

In spite of significant differences in terminology, one pattern emerged across all of the materials: these people used a three-ring binder to manage the thousands of details necessary to create an exercise.

I created a "master" exercise notebook that rationalized all of the incoming materials.

 

Image from a digital prototype of an early stage concept for the software

An early digital prototype to test our understanding of user workflow, and the concept of a notebook as usable GUI.

Screenshot of the closed Plan AHEAD notebook, the display users would see prior to beginning a new exercise.

The final version of the Plan AHEAD three-ring binder.

Screenshot of Plan AHEAD notebook, open to the MSEL page, showing all tabs below the display area.

The tabbed notebook, opened to the "MSEL" page.

Image of screenshot of dialog box, showing "Shuttle" system from Plan AHEAD.

The Shuttle system dialog. The gauges provide progress indications as the system builds a floppy disk for distribution.

Image of screenshot of dialog box, showing "Shuttle" system from Plan AHEAD showing shuttle complete and ready for take-off.

The Shuttle system dialog. The process is complete. The Shuttle "takes off" via an animation flying up the screen across the gauges.

Design

Early on, I prototyped an interface for a notebook-based application, which we iteratively tested with our local contacts. Our initial guess about the workflow was flawed: we had thought exercise planners would choose the type of exercise to build as the first step. We learned that exercises develop organically as planners move through the devlopment process.

I chose a skeuomorphic design of the notebook because our users were largely unfamiliar with using computers (it was 1996 and government agencies were limited in their technology infrastructure). A three-ring binder was familiar and immediately understandable to these inexperienced users.

Deliver

We chose Borland's Delphi (Object Pascal) development environment as our platform. It was amazingly easy to use, incredibly fast, and made Windows programming a breeze.

We had over 155 modules, 122 screens, a complete help system, a demo and interactive training. Our first release was 18 months after the initial glimmer of an idea. We used RAD (rapid application development) an early form of Agile development to work iteratively with users to craft each next release.

Notably, we developed the "Shuttle" system - a unique method of letting exercise planners share portions of the product with collaborators without those team members having to own the full product. It was a "sneaker-net" equivalent to a Cloud solution, long before the Cloud.

Collaboration | Contributions

By any account, this was a massive undertaking, exceeding 20 person-years of effort, completed within two years. I was one of four founders, the others of whom were responsible for marketing, investor relations, finance, and business planning and strategy.

As VP Operations and UX Director, I was responsible for:

  • All user research, product design and specifications
  • Database design, normalization and structure
  • All IT infrastructure, development tools and fulfillment processes
  • All software development processes, including remote (non-Web!) collaboration with contractors
  • All hiring and firing, and managing of 10+ employees, contractors and consultants

We relied on numerous consultants: graphic designers (product and marketing materials), help documentation and training, technical engineering (test development and coding) and legal (IP and patent exploration, contract and employee handbook, NDA and partnership agreements).