Police officers are in the field in all weather and for long periods and, at times, their work will involve chasing people and physical confrontation. It follows that their equipment must be durable, comfortable, and unobtrusive to wear and seamlessly fit into their working lives. Achieving these goals requires an innovative product design and an obsession with seemingly small details. It’s the kind of work that Kevin Coles thrives on. He’s a product designer, who has been devising and manufacturing the accessories and mounts for Axon products used by the country’s police forces. Here he gives five observations on what most influences his team’s work.
· The devil is in the detail
· Considering all eventualities
· It’s all about empathy
· What is design thinking?
· Taking a holistic approach to design
The devil is in the detail
Each piece of equipment and accessory has to perfectly mould into police officers’ lives. This means, for example, that while Axon’s core products are the same in the US and UK, the way they are worn isn’t. The UK, for example, often has different requirements, which is why everything from UK-specific mounts to holsters and training suits are designed and manufactured in the UK.
For example, the Flex 2 is a small cigar-shaped point of view camera designed to record exactly what the wearer sees, but the camera needs to point directly at what the police officer is looking at: if they tip or turn their head, the camera needs to follow. In the US this is achieved by fixing it to officers’ sunglasses. But that’s not an option in the UK, where most police forces require officers to take off sunglasses when interacting with the public.
Speaking about this challenge, Coles says: “To develop the head mount for the Flex 2, I worked closely with the police firearm school and their officers. After observing and talking to officers, I decided firstly to place the camera on the peak of the police cap with a magnetic mount and then moved on to different solutions. We took a long time honing this product, and settled on a Velcro compatible loop covering to the peak and hook under the mount in combination with an especially designed and manufactured woven elastic with silicone dots, so that it would grip the camera but stay flexible. Developing this mount took a large number of interviews and rigorous testing, but we got it right in the end – it’s a top-rated product, with over 3,000 police officers using it. No matter how small a product is, we won’t stop until we get it just right.” He’s recently completed a new challenge successfully for a police force who needed the Flex 2 to be worn on the shoulder.
Considering all eventualities
To get the design just right, countless technical details have to be considered. Coles says, “We have to think carefully about materials. Equipment has to withstand pepper spray and fabrics have to be durable and breathable. We even use materials developed by NASA. Equipment, like a body-worn camera (BWC), has to withstand being pulled and grabbed. But in other situations – for example, if an officer has come off a motorbike or a wire gets trapped the camera should have a release mechanism, so that there’s no risk of the officer being pulled along. Police are not just walking, but also running, rolling on the floor, and jumping into their cars. We have to think about the worst possible scenario and design with it in mind because it could be a matter of life and death.”
To make sure not just every piece of equipment, but also every mount, holster and training suit, works perfectly and in every situation, numerous interviews are conducted before and during their development and throughout the in-depth testing regime.
It’s all about empathy
To get the design of fixes and mounts just right, the designer really has to understand the ins and outs of police officers’ daily work. Coles can draw on over twenty years of experience working closely with police, supplying equipment, getting to know different police forces and their exact requirements.
He knows on an intuitive level that all equipment just has to work: the best BWC is of little use if it is difficult to operate, poorly mounted so it moves about, or the lens angle isn’t right. Police officers are also often on their feet all day, so any equipment and its connectors have to be comfortable and user-friendly.
One particularly valuable experience was taking part in an instructor training course. “There was a part where they put you under stress,” says Coles. “They get you to run into a darkened room with smoke, flashing lights, loud banging noises and I had to get a pair of handcuffs on somebody. It really got my adrenaline going and gave me a feel of the stress officers can be under and an understanding that police equipment has to be robust and usable almost without thinking. To be honest I didn’t perform very well at all, but I learnt a lot about an officer’s work.”
What is design thinking?
Approaching design from the point of view of the user (quite literally in this case), is often referred to as ‘design thinking’, a shift in product development that has emerged in recent years. The designs evolve out of understanding and empathy: being able to put yourself into the position of the user rather than top-down product development, where the focus is on features. Indeed, the most successful companies put the needs of the customer first, focusing on user experience and solving their problems through intelligent design.
Taking a holistic approach
Coles works with his colleagues to put prototypes together in-house and then works with the police to thoroughly test and hone them until Axon is 100% satisfied that they meet the company’s high standards and satisfy customers' needs. He says, “We have worked with the College of Policing as well as different forces, who are very keen to have an input at the development stage and make sure they get the best products.” The process works well. It can involve the occasional setback when we haven’t quite got things right but as long as the end result turns out well and the customer is happy, it’s all worthwhile.
Axon takes a holistic approach to product development – it’s not just about an individual product, but how all the pieces of equipment work together, creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Axon’s vision is an ecosystem with the police officer at its centre, increasing their capabilities and making sure they are as effective as they possibly can be by providing powerful tools that are reliable and intuitive to use.
Good design is essential to the vision. And officers never pay much attention to the big little things, such as mounts, which means that Coles got it just right.