Dispatch App

An experiment in accessible emergency communication

KEY WORDS:      Digital products, user interface, user experience, wire-framing

ROLE:                     Experience designer

TEAM:                    Virginia Drummond, Shahpar Mirza, Páula Sayago, Taryn Fitzgerald

CLASS:                  Product Design Methods

TIMELINE:            3 weeks

TOOLS:                  Pen & paper, Adobe Photoshop, Invision, Figma





The Dispatch App demonstrates how emergency information might be be quickly conveyed via text & images while alerting a user's loved ones. Our team studied how people age 17-25 prefer to communicate in stressful situations and how they can immediately share that information with the people they trust.


Dispatch use case

As of 2019, there is no universal, non-verbal way to access 9-1-1 services in the US. It is clear that developing better emergency communication systems is vital to our public health.

Dispatch provides a potential solution that:

  • Gives people who have difficulty speaking or listening​ a simple way to convey emergency information.

  • Provides for emotional and social needs, by alerting selected emergency contacts to keep friends, family, and significant others in the loop.

Although Dispatch cannot replace the expertise and comfort provided by traditional verbal 911 dispatchers, it does prototype a much-needed alternative for people who cannot or would prefer not to share their emergencies verbally.

How might we improve the way people age 17-25  communicate with emergency services?

Qualitative User Research


In order to understand the ways we might improve emergency communication we interviewed 24 people age 17-25. We found that two themes appeared consistently: the desire for alternative communication options and the need for a quick way to reach out to trusted parties about an injury.


"I felt overwhelmed talking to the dispatcher on the phone."

- Grace K, 22yo

"My mom didn't know what happened when I broke my leg, I wish she'd been in the emergency room with me.

- Jackson L, 17yo


Many of our internet-native users were unused to speaking on the phone or felt anxious during calls. One even mentioned going to WebMD before they considered calling an ambulance. For them text services can provide a reassuring alternatives to calls. Speech or hearing impaired users often had to ask a neighbor or stranger to call 911, although some used video-relay services to have ASL translators provide their information.


Simultaneously, we found that one of the largest needs in emergency communication was emotional and social-- alerting a caller's support network. Dispatch alerts selected emergency contacts to keep friends, family, and significant others in the loop during emergencies.

Primary emergency caller screens

Personas and User Flow


Dispatch creates an easy, non-verbal way to quickly convey emergency information, with a system in place to alert chosen emergency contacts with relevant information. Dispatch interacts with three primary categories of users to provide function.



Emergency Caller: This user is experiencing the emergency. They need to way to quickly convey their situation, get help, and feel supported.

Friends and Family: These users are the social support system of the emergency caller. They need to be alerted to the emergency.

Emergency Service Dispatch: These emergency personal need to know the type, time, and location of the emergency.

Our group focused on the emergency caller experience; namely how to create an intuitive, reassuring, and speedy product to share emergency information. 

Emergency caller screens in Dispatch

User Testing and Outcomes


Because Dispatch is designed for such high-risk situations, we needed to create low-risk ways to test user reactions. We wrote out a short story describing a biker breaking their arm and asked our 10 testers to imagine themselves as the biker. We then requested they use both Dispatch and a simulated phone conversation to communicate their injury type, time, and location. 


Dispatch: ~35s to communicate emergency type, time, & location​

Phone: ~50s to communicate emergency type, time, & location 

Dispatch users consistently conveyed their prefabricated injury scenario more quickly. However the lack of emotional reassurance from a real-time voice caused it to be ranked lower in warmth and reassurance. Users often commented that the ability to share their emergency with their family would be "a huge relief."

Broken arm Dispatch use case



When we began researching Dispatch, I expected to spend most of my time focusing on finding quick, universal visual ways to talk about emergencies. Once our team spent time with users and EMTs, it became obvious that one of the largest roles of emergency call lines is to reassure, provide advice, and comfort.

Key Takeaways

  • Emergency service communication isn't only about conveying the physical facts or details of an injury; the emotional needs of the recipient are crucial.

  • Alerting significant others and family members is a key component of providing a social safety net and managing panic.

  • Dispatch is NOT a replacement for verbal operators, but it does provide a much needed alternative for people with hearing or speech impediments.

  • Young people are used to turning to digital services for advice. In less serious emergencies, some users went to WebMD before calling an ambulance.

  • Accessibility is key; must be operated with one hand, color blind color safe, etc.

If I was able to continue this project past our three week deadline, I would recommend our entire design team go through emergency dispatcher training to fully understand the services emergency communication experts provide. Although we researched and interviewed for dispatcher experiences, going through the training itself would lend an invaluable first-person perspective to this challenge.   

Finding alternative ways people can communicate with emergency services is essential and Dispatch is a step in the right direction.