Sunday, January 17, 2010

A serious question on user interaction

While at CES I noticed that Taser was exhibiting, mainly around their Protector Family Safety Platform. From a product strategy point of view, Taser is branching out from their traditional product line, and leveraging their brand into another area of personal safety - parental controls of mobile devices. In a future post we'll analyze this move, as parental control of mobile devices is going to be a huge market. But this entry isn't about strategy, rather let's focus on user interaction.

While I was at the Taser booth I noticed some of their more traditional products.  Taser has created an incredible brand, and testament is that their name is now a generic term for these devices and even a verb i.e. "someone was Tasered".  Using a Taser is all about delivering non-lethal force to stop an attacker, and in this post I'm not going to pass any judgement on the use of these devices or the company - let's just focus on the user interaction.

What caught my eye at the show was one of their law enforcement models that was generally shaped and used like a handgun - especially the handgun like safety catch and trigger. I am sure that  there are many reasons Taser used this shape and mode of user interaction for law enforcement products, and likely law enforcement officials felt that it would leverage the training their already conduct in handgun use.  Taser is a professional company and would have done a lot of research.

Officers generally carry the devices in a belt holster similar to a handgun, so have a handgun on one side, and a Taser on the other side.  Is anyone starting to see a possible issue here?

I have incredible respect for Law Enforcement and the job they do every day - many people tend to focus on the ngative, but every day these men and women put their lives on the line for us - every day they walk out the door of their home, and their spouse doesn't know if they will be back.

No matter how much training someone receives, in the heat of a situation anything can happen.  I am ex-military, and I was always fascinated how adrenaline took over in the more realistic training situations and you forgot a lot of the training. Law Enforcement officials have a difficult decisions to make in an instant, often when their lives are being threatened or they are in the middle of a physical struggle.

So here's the issue - a Law Enforcement officer now has two devices that operate in almost identical fashion:

  • Reach for my main-side - handgun = lethal force
  • Reach for my off-side - Taser = non-lethal force.  
  • Once either device is in your hand, operate safety and trigger identically
The only thing the users selection of lethal and non-lethal force is the side of their body that they reach?  Does this make sense from a user interaction perspective?  

Tragically there has been a situation in California where a Law Enforcement officer was captured on video shooting a suspect in the back with his handgun after a violent struggle - there is no doubt in my mind he thought he was going for his Taser, but in the heat of the moment ended up with a handgun, and the results were tragic for both people.  I spoke to another officer at a New Years Eve party, and he said in his department that there has been similar cases of officers pulling their handgun instead of Taser (but luckily no harm done).

One of the aims of user interaction is to avoid mistakes by operators, especially serious mistakes. This is definitely an extreme and emotional case, but we need to ask does it make sense for the non-lethal devices to follow the same model of user interaction as the handgun (lethal force)?  With an electronic device (i.e. not mechanical like a handgun), why not do away with the trigger, or make it the opposite e.g push forward with your finger?  Or even use a completely non-handgun shaped device such as the consumer oriented Taser C2?

Think of the impact of user interaction here - are we failing the Law Enforcement community AND our community by not providing a better model of user interaction between lethal and non-lethal force?  

Feb 2010 Footnote 

There have been a recent series of news articles on the incident discussed above, and the Taser/handgun interaction question is getting even more serious.  Here is the text from one of the articles:

A few hours before he fatally shot an unarmed train rider on Jan. 1, 2009, former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle decided he wanted a Taser. So he called up a fellow officer and borrowed one. He did not, however, adjust the holster that came with it - something that all BART officers were expected to do to make sure their Taser was in the position that best suited them. That would have demanded up to 15 minutes of work with an Allen wrench and a Phillips-head screwdriver.

Other articles report that because he was using a borrowed Taser, it was positioned for a RIGHT HAND draw, so the officer lost the ability to discriminate via dominant/non-dominant hand. BART police are advised in training to use their non-dominant hand to deploy a Taser, but are permitted to use either hand.

This tragedy could have been avoided with a redesign of the Taser to not operate like a handgun. Ditto each officer *must* have their own holster, permanently adjusted to their own size/position.  They can still share the actual units, but not holsters.
We are putting too much pressure on our already stressed law enforcement officials.