In this post, we'll review a case study submission from one of our Exponent members, Chase Sutton.
Question: How would you design an emergency system for the 2020 Olympics?
If you want to brush up on the basics of answering Product Design Questions, check out Exponent’s lesson on how to ace the product design interview question.
(Chase’s answers are in regular font, interviewer’s responses in bold, and the editor’s notes in italics).
Here is a framework that we recommend you use for Product Design questions.
- Clarify the situation (what, why, where , how)
- Pain Points
- Feature Priority
Chase’s Answers (with Commentary)
Clarify the situation (what, why, where, how)
- To clarify, this system will be used at the upcoming Summer 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and I assume we will need to primarily focus on urban areas, including the streets of Tokyo, the stadiums, ...etc.
Yes that’s correct.
- There are many different types of disasters that could occur: terrorism, natural diasters, contagious diseases, ...etc. Because natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes are the most prevalent in Japan, I am going to key in on these types of emergencies. How does that sound?
Okay, I am fine with that.
- Great. So the goal of this emergency system is to help those attending the 2020 Olympics get to safety as quickly as possible during a natural disaster.
- From my understanding, Japan has made significant advances in preparing for earthquakes and tsunamis because of the prevalence of these events. Therefore, I am going to assume that Japan already has an adequate emergency infrastructure in place for these types of events. I believe the key here will be to familiarize the outside world with what Japan has already put in place during these emergency situations. What do you think about exploring this concept further?
Chase does a great job asking a lot of clarifying questions even before diving into the question. The assumptions are sound and Chase makes them confidently, yet doesn’t forget to check back in with the interviewer at all times. Remember, always aim to over-communicate to avoid not being on the same page with the interviewer.
I want to first think through the users of this emergency system. As I envision this international event taking place, I think there are a few distinct user types that would benefit from a thoughtfully designed emergency alert system: 1) Attendees, 2) Emergency responders, 3) Event organizers and staff.
Because emergency responders and the event staff will have gone through a lot of emergency preparations prior to the event, I will assume they are already very familiar with the emergency protocols. That leads me to believe that the most pressing user type to solve for are the attendees. How does that sound?
Great. We can break down our attendee persona a bit further then:
- Local Japanese citizens, who should be more familiar with Japan’s standard emergency drills, and most likely already signed up on Japan’s standard emergency alert system.
- Foreign visitors who I assume are at a much higher risk in case of emergency, as they lack the basic knowledge of the area, don’t speak Japanese, and are probably not hooked up with Japan’s standard emergency system.
Foreign visitors, given their lack of local context, presents the most opportunity to solve for. How does that sound?
That sounds reasonable.
These are some traits as well as pain points for our target persona, the foreign visitors.
After thinking through the persona, I think the most pressing needs to solve for are:
1) Connecting foreign visitors’ phones to Japan’s emergency alert system.
2) Clearly, and timely communicating where to go in case of emergency.
Do you agree?
Yup, sounds good.
Now I want to dig deeper into each of these ideas.
1) Connect foreign visitors’ phones to Japan’s emergency alert system.
- By connecting foreign visitors cellular devices to Japan’s existing emergency alert system, users could stay up-to-date in real time with the situation and emergency directions.
2) Clearly, and timely communicating where to go in case of emergency.
- Japan could utilize its advanced technologies to guide attendees to safety by creating visually stunning and universally understood directions.
- At night, bright lights and 3D holograms at night could float over the city and show people where to go.
- During the day, inflatable balloons could fly over evacuation routes and act like trail of crumbs that lead people to emergency shelters and safe areas.
- Buildings that are particularly well protected against earthquakes and tsunamis could be lit up and have balloons flying around them to signify they are safe.
- If something were to go wrong with pre-ordained evacuation routes, emergency personnel can pop the balloons in order to not lead people in that direction.
Do you have any thoughts on either of these ideas?
I think these are both reasonable solutions, please recommend which idea you think is best.
While this is a solid initial brainstorm, I believe Chase could’ve taken more time coming up with solutions that are both practical and creative. While the first idea is practical, it is rather uninteresting, and the second idea is creative, yet slightly impractical. (We will cover these points further during the Pitfalls section as well as Feedback.)
These points are noticeable even more because the ideas are rough sketches of Chase’s vision, instead of being specific and visual. We’ll cover this part of feedback more during the next section, Vision.
I think this is a great opportunity for Japan to display it’s advanced technologies to the world.
Japan is known for its technical prowess and I assume Japan would want to display their internationally recognized strengths during the most celebrated global event. By pairing Japan’s technologies, the country’s artistic culture, and advanced, local emergency systems in place, Japan could design an emergency system that is both practical and suiting the purpose of the Olympic to advertise the nation and its unique strengths.
This is where the interviewer can really paint a clear, intriguing picture of the solution she proposed. How is the solution going to look like? Where are the entry points? How are we going to market? How do we know we are successful? How do we get to success then?
Since Chase’s proposed solution is still very abstract and hard to visualize (since the scope of the problem/solution is huge), he could have spent more time here explaining how exactly this infrastructure will look like, get built, and be stored or how other important user type to consider, the emergency operators, would control the system accordingly during emergency.
Feature Priority & Pitfalls
While it would be important to connect foreign visitors’ mobile devices with Japan’s emergency alert system, there are a few risks to this approach:
1) Not everyone’s mobile device will have service.
2) An alert that a tsunami or earthquake is coming soon still won’t help people know where to go for safety.
Therefore, Japan should focus on building physical markers in the real world to help users get to safety. To elaborate on the pros and cons:
- Event organizers and emergency responders could design and build universally understood signals.
- Users would not need special equipment (or even their phones) in case of emergency.
- This emergency infrastructure could serve as artistic decorations for the Olympics and could help Japan highlight its technical advancement to the world, even if a natural disaster doesn’t occur.
- Events are held in a variety of locations, and it would be a challenge to make sure that every event site is equipped this emergency infrastructure.
- Emergency routes and instructions can change any second, therefore it would be important to make sure the system can adapt to new routes and be controlled by the emergency operators.
Coming back to the pitfalls of the proposed idea, I agree with Chase’s analysis here.
I would add that
- For the first idea of connecting everyone’s phone to Japan’s emergency alert system, besides the service and connectivity issues during an emergency, there could be hardships having all the individual attendees following instructions correctly and timely to connect their devices.
- For the second idea, this is a huge investment for Japan spanning vast physical areas to cover as well as carefully coordinating sophisticated technologies as Chase pointed out, and I’m not sure whether the ROI is there for Japan. I am not convinced that Japan would do this just for decorations and show-off of their technological prowess in case there is no emergency.
Furthermore, if the goal is to really highlight Japan’s technical advancements to the world, I am not sure whether the balloons and 3D holograms are going to cut the bar (have these not been done before elsewhere?), which puts the entire idea into danger.
Feedback from Exponent’s PM Coach
What Chase did well:
- Chase demonstrated a great use of Exponent’s recommended structure for product design questions. I especially liked how he spent plenty of time asking clarifying questions before jumping into the solutions.
- Chase was eloquent and composed in his delivery and his assumptions were sound.
What Chase could improve on:
- Chase could work on the specificity of his solutions. I pointed out that the first idea was practical yet uninteresting, and the second idea was creative, but less practical and could be flushed out.
Always pause to evaluate your own solutions before committing to them. Are they unique enough? Would people actually use them? Whenever the answer is no to these questions, chances are the interviewer is thinking the same. Don’t panic, and take the time to do another round of brainstorms that build on these ideas.
For instance, if the technologies that Chase propose we use for his second solution aren’t innovative enough, he could brainstorm other tech Japan could utilize.
- Chase could’ve painted a clearer, more visual vision of the chosen ideas as part of his delivery. Due to the scope of the problem and the solution, it was hard to understand and visualize how exactly his solutions will come to reality. The missing details also didn’t help me as an interviewer get more excited about his ideas.
Whenever there is a window, paint a visually clear and exciting vision to the interviewer. Don’t forget to over-communicate the vision as the solutions inside your head may not get fully understood to their justice if you don’t.
That’s a wrap! Thank you so much for reading.
Once again, if you’d like to practice with more product design questions like this, check out Exponent’s Product Design Course.
If you have an awesome case like this you are waiting to publish through Exponent, please email [email protected].
Thank you so much Chase for your valuable submission!