Designing User Experience for the Factories of Tomorrow

by Olga Zinoveva, Senior Software Engineer, Bright Machines

The User Experience (UX) discipline in the technology sector has evolved rapidly over the last two decades and we’ve all witnessed the changes.  For example, the transition from button-based phones and keyboard-only interfaces to increasingly powerful yet easy-to-use, touch-based smartphones and tablets. A parallel change has been happening in factories, with industrial Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) evolving from physical push buttons, lights and switches in the 1980s, to the multi-touch screens of today. And we are not done evolving yet!

I have worked on various consumer applications in the past, including games and websites, and was directly responsible for building the UX on a couple of those projects. My experience in consumer UX gives me some insight into the many exciting opportunities that lie ahead for industrial UX. Here are a few I’ve been thinking of.

Defining UX in the factory context

In a setting where a vast array of hardware devices are connected to each other in complex ways, and users range from operators on the factory floor to project managers in remote offices, UX goes far beyond a single screen. Instead, it encompasses the full experience of using the system, from any interface or device that connects to it. Industrial UX is a mix of software (dedicated touchscreen panels or apps) and hardware (buttons, feeders) interfaces controlling the machines on the floor, monitors giving real-time status updates about the production line, and services generating reports based on data collected in the cloud over many weeks. Almost every component we build becomes a part of the user experience, so we must approach design holistically. Every software and hardware engineer, product manager, and data scientist must think like a UX designer.

Increased software capabilities mean increased complexity

The role and responsibility of software in manufacturing is growing rapidly. But with more software capabilities comes more UX complexity. As more tasks move from hardware to software – whether running on the device itself, in a local server, or in the cloud – the number of ways that users can interact with the system and their complexity increase. Yet the UX we build cannot simply hide this complexity from the users. A core concept of UX design is that people always form mental models of how a system operates, whether we want them to or not, and if their model sufficiently differs from reality, it will lead to frustration and mistakes.  Therefore, the next-generation factory UX will need to be intuitive and straightforward, but never oversimplified. The goal is to design a UX that helps users build the right conceptual models from the start to maximize productivity and minimize training time and mistakes.

The high bar set by consumer devices

Almost every worker in a modern factory has used a smartphone or tablet – this year, global smartphone usage is expected to hit 2.5 billion (and it’s growing)! As a result, today’s factory workers have a high level of technical literacy and familiarity with certain interaction standards. This represents an incredible opportunity for industrial UX because it can reduce training time for any UX that follows these standards. At the same time, the ubiquity of thoughtfully designed consumer devices has raised the bar for the quality of user interactions, responsiveness, and UX clarity in the factory context. Workers now expect industrial interfaces to work as well as their personal smartphones.

Building UX for the factory of tomorrow is no small feat, but it represents a massive opportunity and an exciting time for UX professionals as they help inform the next wave of industrial innovation.

An edited version of this article also appeared in Design World on June 3, 2019.

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