My initial training in usability occurred during my undergraduate years, within the framework of my bachelor’s degree in psychology. The research methodology that was applied to usability fit well within an experimental psychology approach. After graduating with my psychology degree, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in sociology, with one emphasis on the use of technology by different social groups.

Although usability is still frequently framed with the rubric of psychology, I find that I rely heavily on my sociological training as I conduct user experience research. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with survivors of different disaster types.

To those who do not study disaster survivors, it might seem that disaster survivors are disaster survivors. They have experienced something enormous, powerful and dangerous, and they have survived. Their experience with web content would thus be framed by the impact of the disaster on their psyches.

The experiences of those who experienced hurricanes and those who experienced flooding were fairly similar and often closely related, as hurricanes sometimes led to large-scale floods. But for the first time, given the number of disasters caused by tornados in 2011, I got to do user research with those who had survived tornados. And I got to see a number of differences between these two different groups of survivors and how these group differences would impact their disaster Web sites. Three major differences that I noticed were the impact of the speed in which the disaster occurred, the strong desire to be better prepared for the next disaster, and the trauma that children experienced.

Speed of Disaster: One of the major group differences is that those who had experienced hurricanes and flooding had some warning. They were given notice that they needed to evacuate, and often had time to collect a few hurried things before leaving their home. Tornado survivors had almost no warning. I picture in my mind the survivor who was also an actor. He demonstrated in slow motion how he and his wife were running for the basement but never made it. They saw the back of their home get ripped off, but fortunately were in the front of their home, and were alive to tell the tale. As an educational tool long-term preparedness information on surviving tornados would be valuable, but those who hear a tornado in the distance would not have time to look up information on where to go or what to do. This advocates for an emergency text message solution where everyone in a particular geographic region could get a “Get to your basement now!” type message sent by local governments regardless of whether people had signed up for such a service in advance.

Need for Preparedness for the next Disaster: Those who experienced a flood or a hurricane did not express as strong a desire to be knowledgeable on general disaster preparedness as those who experienced a tornado. This likely relates to the speed of the disaster as described above and was a need derived not only from the impact of the rapid damage that the survivors had experienced, but also from seeing the situations of their friends and neighbors. This suggests that a message that invokes the rapid community devastation and impact of a tornado on a community could potentially be more valuable in encouraging individuals to be prepared.

Experiences with Children: Never before had I heard such stories of children traumatized by the disaster. I’ve seen the resiliency of children after experiencing a flooded home that dislocated them. But now I heard stories like that of a woman who had a tree fall on the car. Fortunately, it crushed the front of the car, and she and her children survived. She described how they were traumatized. So did another survivor who described the trauma of her children after a tornado ripped up their garage. This argues for better coping resources not only for adults, but for children as well.

Sociology and usability do make sense together. Someone asked me once why I need to go out to disaster sites to meet with survivors as opposed to just finding a set of non-survivors in the DC area to interview. The answer is two-fold. By being at the scene of disasters, I can best ascertain the social context within which individuals experienced the trauma of their situation. In addition, by using actual survivors as participants, I can better comprehend the events that survivors’ experienced. I can thus more clearly see the impact that their interaction with the disaster itself, with other survivors and with disaster workers had on the lens through which they could look at web and mobile content.

Image Courtesy of Vizual Studio / Shutterstock