Usability of Disaster Apps

PhD Project by Marion Lara Tan
Supervised by Dr Raj Prasanna, Dr Kristin Stock, Dr Emma E H Doyle, Dr Graham Leonard and Prof David Johnston
Completed on 2020

Multiple smartphone applications (apps) exist that can enhance the public’s resilience to disasters. Despite the capabilities of these apps, they can only be effective if users find them usable.  Availability does not automatically translate to usability nor does it guarantee continued usage by the target users. A disaster app will be of little or no value if a user abandons it after the initial download. It is, therefore, essential to understand the users’ perspectives on the usability of disaster apps. In the context of disaster apps, usability entails providing the elements that effectively facilitate users in retrieving critical information, and thus enabling them to make decisions during crises.

Establishing good usability for effective systems relies upon focussing on the user whereby technological solutions match the user’s needs and expectations. However, most studies on the usability of disaster context technologies have been conducted with emergency responders, and only a few have investigated the publics’ perspectives as end-users. This doctoral project, written within a ‘PhD-thesis-with-publication’ format, addresses this gap by investigating the usability of disaster apps through the perspectives of the public end-users. The investigation takes an explicitly perceived usability standpoint where the experiences of the end-users are prioritised.

Data analysis involved user-centric information to understand the public’s context and the mechanisms of disaster app usability. A mixed methods approach incorporates the qualitative analysis of app store data of 1,405 user reviews from 58 existing disaster apps, the quantitative analysis of 271 survey responses from actual disaster app users, and the qualitative analysis of usability inquiries with 18 members of the public.

Insights gathered from this doctoral project highlight that end-users do not anticipate using disaster apps frequently, which poses particular challenges. Furthermore, despite the anticipated low frequency of use, because of the life-safety association of disasters apps, end-users have an expectation that the apps can operate with adequate usability when needed. This doctoral project provides focussed outcomes that consider such user perspectives.

First, an app store analysis investigating user reviews identified new usability concerns particular to disaster apps. It highlighted users’ opinion on phone resource usage and relevance of content, among others. More importantly, it defined a new usability factor, app dependability, relating to the life-safety context of disaster apps. App dependability is the degree to which users’ perceive that an app can operate dependably during critical scenarios.

Second, the quantitative results from this research have contributed towards producing a usability-continuance model, highlighting the usability factors that affect end-users’ intention to keep or uninstall a disaster app. The key influences for users’ intention to keep disaster apps are: (1) users’ perceptions as to whether the app delivers its function (app utility), (2) whether it does so dependably (app dependability), and (3) whether it presents information that can be easily understood (user-interface output). Subsequently, too much focus on (4) user-interface graphics and (5) user-interface input can encourage users to uninstall apps.

Third, the results from the qualitative analysis of the inquiry data provide a basis for developing guidelines for disaster app usability. In the expectation of low level of engagement with disaster app users, the guidelines list recommendations addressing information salience, cognitive load, and trust.

This doctoral project provides several contributions to the body of knowledge for usability and disaster apps. It reiterates the importance of investigating the usability of technological products for disasters and showcases the value of user-centric data in understanding usability. It has investigated usability with particular attention to the end-users’ perspectives on the context of disaster apps and, thus, produces a theoretical usability-continuance model to advance disaster app usability research and usability guidelines to encourage responsible design in practice.

Publications associated with the thesis

Full version of the thesis:

Tan, M L (2020) Usability of disaster apps: understanding the perspectives of the public as end-users: a dissertation presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Emergency Management at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from:

Journal publications

Tan, M.L., Prasanna, R., Stock, K., Doyle, E.E.H., Leonard, G., & Johnston, D. (2020). Understanding end-users’ perspectives: Towards developing usability guidelines for disaster apps. Progress in Disaster Science.

Tan, M. L., Prasanna, R., Stock, K., Doyle, E.E.H., Leonard, G., & Johnston, D. (2020). Modified usability framework for disaster Apps: A qualitative thematic analysis of user reviews. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science.

Tan, M. L., Prasanna, R., Stock, K., Hudson-Doyle, E., Leonard, G., & Johnston, D. M. (2017). Mobile applications in crisis informatics literature: a systematic review. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 24, 297-311.  

Conference Proceedings

Tan, M. L., Prasanna, R., Stock, K., Hudson-Doyle, E., Leonard, G., & Johnston, D. (2019). Enhancing the usability of a disaster app: exploring the perspectives of the public as users. In Z. Franco, J. J. Gonzalez, & J. H. Canos (Eds.), 16th ISCRAM Conference (pp. 876–886). Valencia.

Tan, M. L., Prasanna, R., Hudson-Doyle, E., Stock, K., Leonard, G., & Johnston, D. M. (2018). Usability factors affecting the continuance intention of disaster apps . In the proceedings of ISCRAM Asia Pacific: Innovating for Resilience – 1st International Conference on Information Systems in Crisis Response and Management Asia Pacific. Wellington.

Tan, M. L., Prasanna, R., Hudson-Doyle, E., Stock, K., Leonard, G., & Johnston, D. M. (2016). A review: Crisis informatics and mobile applications in building resilience. In the Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Building Resilience (pp. 504–516). Auckland

For more information, contact Marion Lara Tan (