Making Systems More User-Friendly

The latest and greatest security solutions don’t mean squat if they are too complex for end users to operate. Technological innovation is wonderful, but we must incorporate operational simplicity to achieve security’s peace-of-mind objectives.

Recently, I reviewed some government standards designed and implemented with the intent to make systems easier to access and use for disabled people. This got me thinking about something we often take for granted: How user-friendly are the systems we are designing, selling and installing?

One of the problems we have always faced in technology industries, including electronic security, is the systems have been designed and built by engineers and technicians only to be turned over to laypeople to operate and understand. This is often apparent in the user’s manuals that are often filled with technical jargon, acronyms and logic that make them difficult to fully understand for nontechnical owners.

How often have you, as a manufacturer or dealer, taken the time to conduct focus groups to better help you understand your customers’ needs and perceptions of the products and services you provide? These exercises can be real eye-openers.

This month, we will take a look and possibly do a self-examination of the efforts we are taking to make customers comfortable with the systems they interface with on a daily basis.

Government Standards Set Stage

While we often find ourselves surrounded by more and more government standards and regulations, as technology implementers it can help us be more sensitive in general to the “user-friendly” nature of our work. When you think about it, nontechnical system users are handicapped in a way as they often do not have, or wish to have, the technical savvy to fully comprehend sophisticated security systems.

So, how can we make these systems accommodate their comfort level? This is your challenge and your government’s suggestions can help.

Two government standards I have referenced for this article are the well-known, wide-sweeping American Disabilities Act (ADA; and the lesser-known Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ( Experienced dealers have often had to apply ADA standards to public areas such as fire annunciation, door and device access. 

By using the concepts contained within these standards in everyday installations we can make both public and private areas more accessible and user-friendly for all, not just those with physical or mental disabilities.   

5 Important Elements of Usability

Moving forward we should first clarify use of the terms “accessibility” and “usability.” The dictionary defines accessibility as the capability of being reached, while usability is the capability of being used. Accessibility will often be emphasized in ADA regarding hardware as the disabled must be able to reach products and services. Usability is more applicable to all using a product or service. This will be emphasized in areas such as Section 508 in dealing with electronic and information technology (EIT) such as software and Web sites.

The concepts of good usability are not complicated and may even seem simple. However, are you doing your best to comply? In order to make EIT usable as a product or service it should have the following five elements:

  • Easy to learn — If your customers cannot learn to use something quickly they will develop a negative attitude of your product, services and company. Simple instructions on mobile apps, Web sites or workstations will make customers happier.
  • Quick to use — Avoid long learning curves. Busy businesspeople do not want their staff going through extra steps and long waits to process a new alarm badge.
  • Simple to remember — Did you know that 50% of all Web sales are lost due to poor design? Similarly, customers operating alarms may only have to disarm a system once in a blue moon. How easy is that process for them to remember?
  • Easy to navigate — Have you configured the systems software, startup and backup process with easy steps, and even diagrams to reference? People will always make errors when operating a system. What have you done to minimize them?
  • Enjoyable ease of use — Often customers do not regularly use their security system because it is not enjoyable to use. If the systems talked to them in a nice voice or operational software had a friendly appearance then it would be more inviting to use. Keep the engineering design in the background. Do your mobile apps address content, design and function?

3 Dealers’ Ideas from the Field

I asked the security community to share some suggestions on how to make systems more user-friendly, including those aimed at disabled users. Below are some replies.

“I have used LED indicators on door strikes and different colored strobes on alarm outputs for deaf customers. I also implemented installation standards for making alarm keypads wheelchair friendly. I added an ‘Is the system suitable for their user?’ line to our system takeover checklists. I also added a big REX button for arm/disarm for a customer with macular degeneration.”

— Jim Sutton, AAA Alarm Systems, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

“Our company uses voice keypads and remote controls for arming/disarming. We have a way to add voice control with voice prompts.”

— Thomas Callarik, Hitek Security Solutions, Martins Ferry, Ohio

“Several of our dealers have used our long-range RFID readers and tags for severely handicapped users, such as for doctor offices, etc., tied into automatic door openers. Some have been programmed to work with their Wiegand access control panels. Others have simply used the onboard relay on our reader.”

— Pete Martin, 1st Choice Security Solutions, Atlanta

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About the Author


Bob is currently a Security Sales & Integration "Tech Talk" columnist and a contributing technical writer. Bob installed his first DIY home intercom system at the age of 13, and formally started his technology career as a Navy communication electronics technician during the Vietnam War. He then attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering and went on to complete a Security Management program at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Since 1976, Bob has served in a variety of technical, training and project management positions with organizations such ADT, Rollins, National Guardian, Lockheed Martin, American Alarm Supply, Sonitrol and Ingersoll Rand. Early in his career, Bob started and operated his own alarm dealership. He has also served as treasurer of the Wisconsin Burglar and Fire Alarm Association and on Security Industry Association (SIA) standards committees. Bob also provides media and training consulting to the security industry.

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