User Feedback Guides Radio Design
Tuesday, July 22, 2008 | Comments


By Sandra Wendelken

Ever wonder who decided on the shape of your two-way radio or where to put the push-to-talk (PTT) button? Users help guide many of the products released by the leading manufacturers of two-way radios for mission-critical communications. Each vendor has a different way of culling user input and incorporating it into products.

The mechanical design of two-way radios has evolved into a complicated mix of social science, graphic design, ergonomics and other factors. Motorola has 30 design-integration staff spread out in three locations: Plantation, Fla.; Penang, Malaysia; and Singapore. Each team is replicated with cross-functional staff in all three centers. The company has anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, engineers, graphic designers and others. “It’s not unusual to have a design review with all three teams at 6:30 a.m. in the United States and 6:30 p.m. in Asia,” says Bruce Claxton, senior director of design integration, who has been with Motorola 30 years and has had a hand in the design of every radio since the Saber.

In the ’80s, Motorola discovered ergonomics and human factors are keys to drive design. The design evolution has continued, and the company has added social science, anthropology and sociology, collectively called design research, Claxton says.

M/A-COM has radio development teams in Massachusetts and Virginia and some engineers in Ireland and the Far East. The company uses a variety of employees and outside consultants and engineers for its radio design, usually working in groups of about 12, says Greg Farmer, M/A-COM key operations solutions manager. “It’s a mixed bag depending on which product we’re talking about,” he says. “We think it’s good to get input from other people even if they don’t work for us.”

Tait Electronics uses a combination of market research techniques that grouped together are known as “voice of the customer” research. This can include techniques to capture user information such as interviews, focus groups, surveys and ethnography.

Tait developers and managers use a technique — also used at Toyota — called gemba. In Japanese, gemba means “the place where the truth can be found.” As part of gemba, engineers go on customer visits and integrate their insights at the factory-floor level. Tait also breaks down such insights using the Kano approach, where customers’ perceived importance of attributes is mapped out from the “attractive” to the “indifferent.”

Motorola’s team has ridden in police cars and helicopters and walked the streets with officers. The company also sent its designers to fire training school. “We immerse our team in the daily lives of end users. Designers are side by side with end users; it’s really about understanding their lives,” says Claxton.

For mechanical and user interface (UI) design, M/A-COM talks mostly with its existing customers, but it also works with research firms that help craft interviews so M/A-COM designers can talk to people who aren’t current customers to get their feedback.

Farmer says the design process is ongoing and informal. The company uses input from people who call its technical help desk with applicable questions. M/A-COM also has user groups that meet once a year. “We send representatives there and get feedback,” Farmer says. If the company is gearing up to launch a new product, more specific research is ongoing. “It’s fun and interesting and enlightening to see what the customers come up with,” M/A-COM’s Farmer says. “They do bring things up that we haven’t considered.”

Product Specifics

Geography plays a large role in product development for most vendors. “With Motorola’s TETRA radios, for example, the Metropolitan Police in London wanted something friendly,” Claxton says. “They’re not armed, so they wanted something that fits with the hierarchy of who they are. They wanted a radio that was more cell-phone-like — a little softer in its form factor. The South Korean police, however, wanted to exude more authority. We used the same platform and customized it to make the radio more authoritarian. The same core technology was exemplified in different characteristics.”

The U.S. market has been more cohesive in its expectations, Claxton says. “Products have evolved, and we have customized things, but for the most part, the characteristics have been somewhere in the middle. The U.S. market tends to expect that look in the middle. It gains respect, but doesn’t exude authority. Because the U.S. market wants more user-friendly radios, that has driven [Motorola’s] design and user orientation.”

Tait conducts research specific to each product. “Our dedicated industrial design team carries out concept testing and ensures that products are created that are fit for purpose and are consistent with the tough Tait brand,” says Gareth Richards, Tait spokesman. “For the TP8100, the Tait design team consulted users over aesthetic styling, ergonomics and interface usability.”

Tait also used rapid prototypes to verify and test designs and took two- and three-dimensional concepts to users for feedback. For the handheld control head on the new TM8254, Tait conducted group interviews with end users. The designers could observe and analyze users’ daily tasks and work environments, organize group brainstorming and test mock-ups with them, Richards says.

Sandra Wendelken is editor of MissionCritical Communications and RadioResource International. Contact her at

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