Beyond the Screen: Creating Context-Aware Alerts

Jennifer Fraser | May 25, 2018 | 4 Min Read

When designing push notifications and alerts, it's vital to consider technology's context of use and the user's environment as whole to ensure alerts are delivered effectively. Let's look at two examples to visualize this.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Elif Özcan speak at Carleton University. Dr. Özcan teaches at the TU Delft and works, more specifically, within their Critical Alarms Lab.

Having spent that last few years working on projects in Healthcare, Aviation, and Security, with part of that time spent mulling on challenges around alerts and notifications in various environments, it was exciting to hear from someone who is completely focused on the challenges related to “critical alarms”.

There is a lot of information that has been published on alert fatigue and its connection to errors by the same people that those alerts are supposed to be helping. In the security project with which I was involved, we were looking at the challenge of how to notify security personnel about the detection of a weapon in a variety of situations (e.g. a hotel, a government building, a nightclub etc). With the pervasiveness of connected devices, thinking about how to deliver these notifications in various physical environments gets the former intern architect inside of me excited.

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It’s a pretty interesting design challenge to think about how to deliver the information about a possible weapon detection to security personnel in, say, a nightclub: a dimly lit environment with incredibly loud music and thumping bass. If we take a screen out of the equation because the security personnel won’t want to be distracted by having to look at their phone, what other tools do we have in our toolkit to convey an alert?

  • Visual – would a visual cue work in a dimly lit environment that already has a lot of lights flashing around to the music?
  • Audio – would an audio cue work in a space that is already filled with loud music and thumping bass?
  • Haptic – would a haptic cue be noticeable with the vibrations the security personnel is already feeling from the bass of the music?

This is such an interesting design problem and is one that could only be solved with prototyping, contextual research, and iteration.

But, regardless as to how the nightclub notification challenge is solved, connected devices have a role to play in terms of both broadening the number senses that can now be used to “receive” the alert, and broadening the canvas that can be used to express that alert so we can move beyond just using a screen alone as the medium to convey information.

Beyond that, connected sensors can also be used to dynamically determine which medium is used to convey alerts. In Özcan’s explorations on the “Silent ICU”, they explore having audio alerts silenced, but sent to the nurse remotely, when only the patient is in the room to “ensure optimal rest”. However, when medical staff is in the room, their presence is detected, signaling the monitors to display more information and audio feedback is switched on. The ICAS “Silent ICU” solution allows the nurse to review alerts remotely in a less intrusive manner to determine whether it is something that needs immediate attention without disturbing the patient.

It’s exciting to think about the impact such a dynamic system could have on patients, their families, and the medical staff. This would create a more restful physical environment for patients and their families and would decrease alert fatigue amongst medical staff by delivering timely, actionable notifications – both of which would lead to better patient outcomes.

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But, in order to do this, we as designers need to think outside of the single device for which we are designing and look at the system as a whole: the people, the processes, and the technologies involved and how they interact in the physical environment across our spectrum of senses. With this, more holistic approach, we can start delivering products that improve the well-being of both patients and medical staff.

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