Friday, September 09, 2005

UX and Disaster Relief

I live in Southern California. Seismologists tell us there's an 80-90% probability that a great quake of 7.0 magnitude or larger will strike the region before 2024—and "could cause the level of destruction and disruption seen...on the Gulf Coast."

I'm better prepared than most. Even so, after that quake I'm still going to need the vigorous and effective resources that only the federal government can provide. And given the appalling federal response to Katrina, I can only pray that our Big One is much delayed.

The tragic disaster of Katrina will be teaching hard lessons for years to come. I'm no expert on disaster relief, but I do know a bit about user experience—and given what I've seen in New Orleans, FEMA has a lot to learn about UXCentricity.

As I read and listen to the stories of survivors and evacuees, I note three common themes—themes that suggest ways to improve the human experience FEMA and other government agencies offer in times of disaster.

Speed. That thousands were left to fend for themselves for days in the wake of Katrina is one of America's most shameful moments. Over and over again, survivors (lacking food and water) repeated the number of days they had waited for assistance. And with each day, the cries grew more desperate. Why? Because people are reasonable. In the midst of disaster, they are more than aware of the tremendous challenges faced by relief agencies. They know it will take a couple of days to get things rolling. But when little is done for four, five or six days, anger is to be expected.

Here in SoCal, we've been told that we need to be prepared to care for ourselves for the first two or three days after a major quake. I imagine that New Orleanians had been told something similar. Yet they had to wait far longer. For the people massed at the Superdome and Convention Center, that's especially inexcusable. When people are facing the loss of everything they own—and the lives of those they love—a speedy initial response is as UXCentric as it gets.

Anticipation/preparedness. A characteristic of natural disasters is that they are unexpected. Yet in Tornado Alley, people expect tornadoes. In California, we expect earthquakes. In New Orleans, people expected a hurricane that could flood the city. It is unconscionable that Homeland Security apparently views the chance of a terrorist attack (of which the nation has suffered few) as more likely than natural disasters (which occur with regularity). To be caught so flatfooted on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast despite long-range forecasts and last year's eerily prescient New Orleans FEMA drill is ridiculous. We're all told to be prepared; our government should be too.

I offer this suggestion—one that will also help speed initial responses: Station "rapid relief forces" in disaster-prone regions, ready to fly at a moment's notice. Stocked with MREs, water, medical and sanitary supplies, these could be staffed by trained National Guard or active-duty troops to provide vital necessities quickly until more substantial services could be established. Imagine the difference in New Orleans if two or three such forces had flown in to the Superdome on the day after Katrina.

Tell the truth. While FEMA seemed frozen in place, the mainstream media poured into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The world saw the tragedy first-hand—so when the federal spinmeisters tried to weave their spells, we saw the distortions. We cheered Mayor Nagin as he vented his anger on the air. We jeered George Bush's assertion that the government didn't expect the levees to fail. We applauded Kanye West for speaking his unscripted and understandable opinion. An Everyman (on our behalf) cursed at Dick Cheney's doublespeak.

People are reasonable. In a disaster, they know things don't run smoothly—and they may very well know more about the situation than those offering assistance. So tell them the truth, even when it's difficult. Don't make promises that can't be delivered. Don't evade the questions. If you don't know the answer, say so. Above all, don't bullshit.

Like all UXCentricity, it comes down to respect for the people who need and use your goods or services. A rapid response shows respect to those suffering, signaling the nation's concern regardless of class or color. Anticipating a disaster (even one that may not come for years) by maintaining readiness communicates the government's value of citizens. And telling the truth demonstrates a high regard for people—that they are reasonable even in dire times.

A little UXCentricity goes a long way. Here's hoping that FEMA includes it in its much-needed overhaul.

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