Creative solutions in alarm design

Developing an interdisciplinary framework for understanding and innovating the cognitive ecology of alarmscape scenarios.


  • Cognitive Ergonomics
  • Cognitive Semiotics

Alarm design for highly purpose-driven cognitive environments (e.g. healthcare, aviation) has generally been approached in a somewhat ad hoc manner, and there is consequently a series of problems with alarm efficacy. In recent years industry professionals and academics have recognised the need for a move from a multi- to an interdisciplinary approach to the “alarm problem” (i.e. who, when, about what, and how to alarm), which means that tools for integrating disciplinary insights and understanding the ecology of alarm scenarios are much needed.

This project takes its point of departure in a set of ethnographic studies of two highly purpose-driven cognitive environments in which auditory alarms play a key role: an intensive care unit and a space mission control room. A variety of qualitative and quantitative measures will be used to inform the three objectives of the project:

  1. explore methodological tools to capture and stratify the cognitive ecology of alarmscape scenarios,
  2. develop a meta-theoretical framework that provides structure for the integration of insights from different alarm-related disciplines,
  3. provide guidelines for experimental approaches to alarm design.

Ultimately the project is intended to facilitate a more nuanced and inclusive debate between psychologists, sound designers, engineers, and others with an interest in improving the utilisation of sound as an alarm medium.


Elif Özcan; Technical University of Delft; Explore sound design options with experts in sound design and their industrial connections

Research Fellow
Michael Sonne Kristensen

Judy Edworthy, Sue Denham (Plymouth University), Elif Özcan (Technical University of Delft).

Further Reading
  • Edworthy, J (2012) Medical audible alarms: a review. J Am Med Inform Assoc ;0:1–6. doi:10.1136/amiajnl-2012-001061.
  • Edworthy, J, Hellier, E., Titchener, K, Naweed, A. & Roels, R (2011) Heterogeneity in alarm sets makes them easier to learn International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 41, 136-146. doi:10.1016/j.ergon.2010.12.004
  • Hutchins, E. (2010). Cognitive Ecology. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2(4), 705–7015. doi:10.1111/j.1756-8765.2010.01089.x
  • Lahlou, S. (2011). How can we capture the subject’s perspective? An evidence-based approach for the social scientist. Social Science Information, 50(3-4), 607–655. doi: 10.1177/0539018411411033
  • Seagull, F. J., & Sanderson, P. M. (2001). Anesthesia alarms in context: An observational study. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 43(1), 66–78. doi:10.1518/001872001775992453
  • Zlatev, J. (2012). Cognitive semiotics: An emerging field for the transdisciplinary study of meaning. The Public Journal of Semiotics, 4(1), 2–24.