Over the last 15 years, our communication skills have undergone rapid changes – including those of machine operators. Consumer devices such as smartphones and tablet computers have opened up a whole new digital world of device operation. This is having an impact on industry, too: A new generation is joining the workforce, and they have much higher expectations of what HMI software design should look like.
So if you are contemplating the next innovation in your machine design, an in-depth analysis of the development of your next human-machine interfaces is worth your while for various reasons. Just controlling the components is no longer enough for a machine. It is also expected to provide comprehensive data. And these must be made available to operators in such a manner that in the course of monitoring and analysis, they can optimize production and performance.
Operators of the younger generation are used to consumer devices. But how do you create easy, intuitive machine operation for complex processes, which at the same time meets the expectations of these operators?
This puts the operator profile at center stage – who is the human at the machine, how do they work, and what is important to them? What are the main trends in machine operation that need to be taken into account? A well-thought-out HMI design can sway the decision of a prospective buyer of industrial machines in favor or against your product.
We have collected 6 tips for you that will help you design and create an improved HMI. Create a unique user experience and rise above the competition.
Tip 1: Listen closely to your in-house teams during the analysis process.
Your software and electronics teams work closely with your customers. They are familiar with the requirements and challenges of day-to-day work and can contribute valuable knowledge to the analysis process.
A solid HMI concept has the end users in mind. It is tailored to their requirements, tasks and their work environment. Your in-house teams are familiar with the valuable experiences and feedback from a variety of user groups.
They know what is important for each type of user: Where do they need an at-a-glance overview? What relevant figures and information do they need to access quickly? Which features make their day-to-day work easier?
These answers and many more should be included in the design process from the outset. This will lead to solutions that enhance the user satisfaction in the long term, and in turn achieve higher productivity.
Tip 2: Use the services of an external UX designer.
In HMI software design, it pays off to think intensely and comprehensively about the architecture before starting on the implementation. Bring a user experience designer on board who will support you, your team and the process right from the start.
A UX partner is familiar with the latest hardware on the market and all its special features such as wireless technology, force feedback or haptic input elements. Aesthetics are as important as the look and feel, the screen quality, thought-out color schemes for color hues and intuitive navigation.
He will work with you not just in considering the user interface application or software but also the entire HMI including all its physical buttons and controls.
He moderates the process and provides the structure. What is important: It’s all about listening. This process results in a consensus which in turn creates clear requirements for your developers.
If you cut corners here, you end up losing in more ways than one: You will fail to provide your machine with a unique user experience, and you will pass up on an excellent USP opportunity.
Tip 3: Create a detailed profile of the target group of operators.
When a customer starts an analysis process, the following scenario often plays out: There are two very different groups of users. The first group includes the old-timers – employees with many years of technical experience. They know the existing applications inside out and know how to get every last bit of performance out of the machine.
The other group are mostly younger operators, frequently temporary workers providing unskilled labor in production. They must be able to quickly grasp the state that a machine is in so that they can take the appropriate action.
Frequently, heated discussions ensue about what the future user interface should look like. Should it be a sophisticated interface with many detailed settings for the experts? Or rather a simplified interface with just a few settings and a streamlined design?
The answer: Both groups are right. But they are revealing different use cases that both apply to the machine.
The crucial question is this: Who will ultimately operate the machine, and for what purpose will they use the operator application?
While the machine is producing, somebody must monitor it and must be able to view the important information in an easy-to-read format even from a distance. But if the machine needs to be set up, or the process needs to optimized, or diagnostics need to be run – then an expert needs access to the whole range of functionality of the user interface.
Tip 4: Maintain independence from your ux designer.
At the start of the project, you can temporarily use additional resources for implementations, be they in-house resources or purchased resources. Keep in mind, though: Such additional services come with start and end dates.
So you must maintain your independence. Remain in the driver’s seat of the development of your visualization application. As soon as the customization or maintenance stage starts, the project should be managed entirely in-house and no longer depend on any third parties.
Tip 5: Keep the architecture open.
Check thoroughly whether the technologies used are freely programmable so that the system will really be without any barriers. Avoid vendor lock-in.
Invest in a flexible framework that will still work later, when the application is growing or needs to be adapted to different machine types or customer requirements. A common code base is extremely important – it can continue to develop and evolve and integrate seamlessly into modern CI/CD processes.
Tip 6: Keep your visual design flexible.
Today’s state of the art includes the option of making the visual design of the application independent of the functionality. This allows for a retroactive expansion of the application’s functionality without having to take the style guide into particular consideration. It is predefined through cascading style sheets (CSS), which guarantees that the result always has the desired look.
At the beginning, remember: It's all about listening. Listen carefully, both internally and externally. Create personas: The decisive factor for a successful HMI design is who will ultimately operate the machine and what the operating application will be used for.
External partners can support you in implementing the new operating concept. However, keep your independence - later further developments should be able to be handled by the internal team. An open software architecture is therefore of great importance.
Make the visual design of the application independent of the function. This way, you can easily implement important enhancements in the future.