[Picture 1: ERGOSIGN's Dr. Marcus Plach]
ERGOSIGN's Dr. Marcus Plach answers questions on the subject of designing modern, user-friendly operator interfaces.
"In the beginning everything was hammer finish green."
Along with a machine's performance the design of the user interface is gaining more and more importance as a sales point. This does not just apply to a contemporary design: perfected ergonomics and intuitive operation contribute considerably to operational safety and efficient utilization of the machine. ERGOSIGN has specialized in the design and optimization of user interfaces for office, industry and medical applications, and is among the market leaders in this field. In the interview Dr. Markus Plach, psychologist and ERGOSIGN's director, explains the trends in this area, and the distinguishing features of a good user interface.
[Picture 2: User interfaces developed by ERGOSIGN]
Question: Dr. Plach, what are the distinguishing features of a good operating system?
Dr. Plach: Its user friendliness and serviceability; we call this "Usability". A distinguishing feature of a technicially mature operating concept is that the respective program, device or machine can be used efficiently, and that in an uncomplicated, clearly arranged way. Not least there is also what we call "joy of use", meaning the satifaction of certain aesthetic demands. In the end, any operating concept always depends on its practical application, and the operating environment. Both must be considered with the design of an operating interface or an operating device. The basic rule, however, is that a perfect operating concept works intuitively, meaning that is is self-explanatory and easily comprehensible. If you already need a thick manual just for the operation, and the meaning of graphic elements is not immediately apparent, something has gone fundamentally wrong. Even if it sounds boring already: prime examples for intuitive operation that everybody knows these days are the iPhone or the iPad. With most previous mobile communication devices you could nearly break a finger, still not knowing in which sub-menu you were just being stuck. Here Apple has set standards that affect other areas, too. Such paragons make demands and expectations grow in other areas, too, as far as intuitive operation is concerned.
[Picture 3: Visualization of a saw control system designed by ERGOSIGN]
Question: You are talking about industrial applications?
Dr. Plach: Yes, I am. It is becoming more and more difficult for machine manufacturers to explain why visualizations are still often supplied with high-value machines or plant using means that are regarded as outdated with consumer products. Moreover, intuitive visualization and operation have a different relevance in an industrial environment than with consumables: maloperation causes direct expenditure, can lead to nonoperation periods, and also affect operational safety. Different studies have come to the conclusion that good usability reduces maloperation with all its negative consequences considerably. Besides, a sophisticated and self-explanatory operating system reduces user training time. And, finally, it can also improve motivation - keyword: "Joy of use".
Question: What demands are you experiencing from your customers?
Dr. Plach: Those who come to us have of course already dealt with the subject, and want specialists to handle the design of the user interface. Although the usability subject is a rather young one the awareness of it is currently growing strongly. The user-friendly and visually appealing design of the user interface is coming more and more into the fore as a sales point. This is, with a certain delay, a similar trend as with the design of the machines themselves. In the beginning all machines were hammer finish green. The appearance came second, what counted was performance. That performance being right design becomes an important point with the buyer's next decisive step. In a way, this is the same as with cars: consumption, spaciousness, reliability are all important rational factors. But every car salesman will tell you that sleek design and colour, too, are important buying impulse triggers. Manufacturers must make rational decisions, on the other hand they are also human, and want to feel good after buying a new machine. There is a "must have" factor in machine sales, too.
[Picture 4: Clarity has top priority with error handling]
Question: What does ERGOSIGN have to offer that machine manufacturers cannot do?
Dr. Plach: Most machine manufacturers use their own programmers and sometimes also industrial designers for the design of the input solutions. The programmer regards providing access to all variables through operating elements as his priority with design coming second. Designers contribute their design knowledge but are often not aware of the practical requirements of the operational staff on the ground, and have no knowledge of occupational psychology and perceptional theory. Of course a few minimum standards are meanwhile established with the manufacturers: the advantages of touchscreens are immediately clear to anybody and the fact that large-size screens provide added clarity is appreciated, too. Once it comes to the term "intuitive operation", however, most machine manufacturers discover that they have no real conception of this. At ERGOSIGN programmers, designers and psychologists work together interdisciplinarily. With every order we first analyze which users are to work with the devices later, and under which conditions.
Question: What does this mean in detail?
Dr. Plach: Our iterative development process is divided into several steps. During the analysing phase at the beginning of a new project we look at the operational conditions in detail. The main focus of this process is not on which functions the device has to incorporate but rather on whether is is to be used outdoors, meaning in daylight or under outdoors conditions, or indoors, whether the user will be wearing gloves, what the user's level of attentitiveness is likely to be, and much more. Subsequently, the conceptional phase begins where we define the interaction options, select and arrange obvious operational elements, structure the menus, etc. Once the framework is ready the product is tested extensively.
Question: How does this testing work?
Dr. Plach: Quite conventionally: We invite test subjects who are to accomplish realistic tasks with the interface. For this purpose we put them into a room with a reflective wall, and make a video recording of the test runs for analysis. This way we register every irritation on the part of our test subjects which indicates that our operational solution still leaves room for improvement. Only once the evaluation has provided satisfactory results do we apply ourselves to the "Look & Feel" realization, meaning the final specification of the coloring, the draft and design of the icons as well as the development of the detail interaction.
Question: When you are developing the design for a visualization for a machine or plant manufacturer, how does the integration in the actual application work? Where are the interfaces?
Dr. Plach: Indeed, the visualization system used by the manufacturer can prove to be a limiting factor. Initially we supply just the design with the structure and the style guide. Metaphorically speaking, this means that we go to the customer with an armful of paper, and tell him how the operating structure and the user interfaces will look, based on the analysis and a design process oriented on usability. Following this the customer's PLC and visualization programmers together transfer our ideas and suggestions to the respective visualization system. Unfortunately, a part of the graphic concept sometimes gets lost if, for example, control elements cannot be realized in the geometric styles originally intended or if certain graphic effects cannot be displayed. This can of course spoil an originally good concept. For this reason it is ideal, and that is what we recommend to our customers, to use XAML-based visualization systems. If that is the case we can create our design concept in this markup language and the customer can adopt it exactly as it is.
Question: May we ask you to explain this in more detail?
Dr. Plach: Modern, Windows-based visualization systems such as INOSOFT's VisiWin use XAML as a format for the specification of the user interface. This means that we as designers can fully concentrate on our business with all established design tools that generate XAML code such as Expression Blend, Illustrator or Zam 3D without having to worry about any concept not being transferable as planned at a later stage. Our XAML code can then be integrated seamlessly in the program logic by the machine manufacturers' programmers. With XAML we can even make subsequent amendments without affecting the programmers' work. Such visualization systems are an investment in quality that will pay off over and over again, saving a lot of work in the course of time. We have, by the way, entered into a partnership with INOSOFT, the HMI-Alliance, to provide joint support to machine and plant manufacturers with the implementation of operating interfaces. INOSOFT contributes long-standing experience with process visualization and driver programming. Together we can offer our customers in the automation business complete services including programming.
Question: Finally, Dr. Plach, what future progress do you envisage?
Dr. Plach: What we are talking about here will in the foreseeable future become a matter of course. Soon manufacturers will no longer be able to afford not to pay attention to ergonomics and contemporary design with graphic interfaces and visualizations.
Question: Is this not first and foremost a question of cost?
Dr. Plach: As I already mentioned this has long been not just a question of appearance but an economic factor. According to an IBM study every Euro invested in usability saves ten to a hundred times that amount in support and documentation cost. Moreover, the operation becomes safer and simpler. A self-explanatory, simple-to-operate user interface also drastically reduces staff training and familiarization cost. Therefore, it is a worthwhile investment at any rate. Manufacturers will understand this competitive advantage, and say goodbye to half-baked solutions. That also includes the use of visualization systems that do not provide truly good results but just results within the limits of their capabilities which requires the acceptance of partly severe restrictions. What we need is a change, a new appreciation of usability. I am sure, however, that this will come naturally.