There is a man on the intersection of the 163 North and the 8 East, lying on the ground, with blood coming out of his head. There are 5 cars involved, maybe 6. It's 9:30 am, and there is a lot of traffic headed directly at the accident. Even though I know its probably already been reported, I pick up my phone to report the crash and make sure bloody guy gets the ambulance he needs. This is the phone call I expected to make:
911: This is 911 please explain your emergency
Me: There was an accident on the 163 and the 8 and there is a man lying on the ground with blood everywhere that probably needs an ambulance
911: We'll make sure to send someone out there
However, the emergency reporting system had "upgraded" since the last time I used it. Below is the phone call that actually happened. WARNING: extreme ellipses may follow.
Phone: Welcome to the California Highway Patrol
Me: Hi I'd like to report...
911: ... If you would like to report an emergency, please press or say 1 now
Me listens to the menu
911: If you would like to report an emergency, please press or say 1 now
Me: ... huh?
911 hangs up
Terrible emergency system design just happened, and it may be killing people. From the moment I got the first busy signal (is it 1982 again?), this shiny new 911 reporting system/workflow/call-taker/whatever made it hard for me to complete a critical task and gave me motivation to write about the lessons learned from this short dialog.
A key concept in designing obviousness is that all choices should be as easy as possible. I had already decided that this was an emergency by dialing 911, and yet they forced me to rethink my choice verbally or by touch tone. You know 911, you're right, this isn't an emergency - I was robbed by gunpoint and killed by the time I figured out what the hell was going on with your system. Note to everyone who makes things: reducing redundant choices is the key to accessibility by end users and marks the efficiency of a system.
Deciding to use an automated system for a critical human-centric task such as 911 is a huge mistake. People (read:I) hate automated telephone systems and even if they have come a long way since first inception they are notorious for long waits, incorrect routing, and frustrated end users. Perhaps they actually want to discourage people from calling 911. In my case, congratulations 911, you have succeeded.
After deciding to go with the automated answering system, someone made a decision that talk to an operator was not an option in the main menu, let alone the default choice. Systems that ignore the usage patterns in which all of its users exist will suffer if not die before the second server is even plugged in. Even if the new system is better in every which way, a good system has no traction if people can't use it based on some piece of previous knowledge. Every automated system has a skip to operator option - where is yours 911? I can't find Ctl + Alt + Del on my phone...
So whomever made the decision at 911 headquarters to switch from an easy to use, simple emergency system to an automated, confusing pile of crap, congratulations on your un-success! You're fired.
Now can I have my old 911 back?