Having worked on the Propelics/Anexinet team for over 5 years, I’ve been lucky to participate in projects across many industries, from pharmaceutical to financial, healthcare, and professional services. But a few weeks ago, I worked on an unusual project—for a medical instrument prototype—basically, a digital hub that assists physicians during intensive care procedures. What’s more, it wasn’t for Android, iPhone or web (platforms I’m accustomed to). Rather, the first version of this medical instrument was built in a platform called QNX, a Unix-like operating system often used for these types of projects and interfaces.
I want to make clear that the purpose of this blog post is not to talk about the specifics of the project, but to share my analysis, research, and best-practice findings in preparing to propose viable, industry-focused UX ideas.
Let’s start by defining what I mean by Industrial UX. To be more specific, I’m referring to Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs). These interfaces are digital dashboards, used to control and operate machinery (whether whole or in-part). This includes digital instrument clusters in car dashboards, smart home hubs, remote control switchboards, medical imaging dashboards, heart rate monitors, etc.
The following are my top 8 tips to achieve an intuitive, effective Industrial UX.
1. Understand the key differences and design limitations of UX/UI for HMI vs consumer-facing apps.
In the past, HMI UX was far more contextual than it was innovative. This is because these interfaces are meant to help the user complete a goal with the least possible effort; user interaction should be simplified as much as possible, while being as intuitive as possible. Unlike consumer apps, HMI UX should not promote continuous usage. Also consider that HMIs are used in environments where users should not be distracted from the physical world around them. For example, a vehicle’s central dashboard is there to let the driver initiate a call, tune to a radio station, turn on the AC—and in modern cars, to let them now if an object is close to the car. With all of these, interaction is generally reduced to turning something on or off. To avoid distraction from the road, these dashboards even block drivers from performing tasks that require more interaction.
2. Screen-content should be hierarchical and minimized.
According to the Gestalt principle, grouping related objects and UI elements helps users quickly interpret a set of visual elements as a specific unit. Group all main action on one side of the screen or group tags and labels by colors or font sizes that users can mentally associate. This practice reduces a lot cognitive load and makes informational and instructional reading smoother.
Similarly, HMI design must be clear and specific. This means “avoid the unnecessary.” For example, multiple colors, division lines, icons, text or images that don’t provide specific information or help users efficiently comprehend the instructions. Keep it simple and straight to reduce cognitive load and to minimize distraction from the physical world.
3. Prompt the next step.
Another good trick is to flatten the UI learning curve. Provide only the options essential to completing a goal. If the path is not precisely linear or there are multiple ways to complete the goal, try prompting the fewest possible options by visually distinguishing those elements in the layout. Provide such prompts in a timely and efficient manner so users always know what to do next.
4. Introduce audio-visual elements.
Beep..beep..beep. Unlike consumer apps, such as your banking or social apps, adding sounds to HMI key-presses and other interactions isn’t about “fanciness.” It’s about reaffirming an action or indicating success. Hearing a beep when you press a button confirms you succeeded in pressing it. Adding sounds to alerts and errors promotes awareness and attracts the user’s attention. It’s also important to be aware of loudness in the environment. Often, HMIs are used around loud machinery. In these cases, you should also consider using visual cues to provide feedback to users that something is actually happening. This way, the app will engage 3 out of 5 senses: sight, touch and hearing.
5. Design for “way outs” not “happy paths.”
When designing for HMI, one challenge is considering error-ratio as a big factor in your UX decisions. A good way to mitigate error is to add helpful instructions or workaround options to prevent confusion and frustration. Again, considering the environment of use will help you evaluate this error ratio; factors such as viewing distance, screen angle, use of gloves, etc. that influence how users see and interact with text, buttons, and overall UI.
6. Design for “non-technology-oriented” users and iterate testing in stressful environments.
A person who drives a 2005 VW Jetta, should be able to drive and operate a 2019 Tesla Model S. That’s the whole point: make it accessible. HMI user experience may involve exhaustive iterations to help designers and engineers keep the UX simple and user-friendly. Giving users a say, is a must before moving ahead with implementation. Following all user sessions and feedback closely will provide all the data you need to understand the goals associated with each specific user-requirement.
7. Color usage considerations. Contrast preferences and contextual color usage.
Following a measurement approach similar to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), designers should test contrast ratios to ensure adequate contrast visually impaired users. To simplify matters, start by defining the environment in which the interface will be used. Is it for indoor or outdoor usage? In daylight, at night, or both? Used over long time periods or in brief sessions? The figure below provides guidance on what background color works best in various scenarios.
Have you heard about the 60/30/10 Color Rule (used mostly in interior design)? Well, it applies here, too, reducing visual friction and hence, cognitive load.
With HMI UX, the use of contextual colors is not about giving life to the design. Rather, this principle applies Color Physiology to drive the user’s attention in a contextual way. For example, the use of red for errors, yellow for warnings, green for successful tasks or positive actions. HMI color usage should be somewhat flat and monochromatic; the use of color should focus on the contextual field, not the aesthetics. Also, be aware that color psychology doesn’t always apply across cultures. So, if the tool is going to be used worldwide, consider using meaningful icons in addition to colors.
8. Consider User-Journey Maps
Though this is the final point of the blog post, you should consider this your starting point. HMI design is composed of 3 worlds: 1) Digital (the tool), 2) Physical (the environment and physical elements), and 3) State of mind (stress and focus level). User-journey maps are excellent tools to evaluate stress and focus peaks and therefore propose an adequate UX response for each scenario. This exercise will help you comprehend all fronts to propose a great solution at each iteration.
Finally, I want to share an information source I found while researching this topic: “UX for the industrial environment” by Johnathan Walter. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.
UX design encapsulates a vast breadth of subjects in which designers may be specialized and have expertise. User research, interaction design, UX architecture, user interface specialist, product design, information architecture, UX strategy…just to name a few. As a designer, having a full-stack profile is a plus, but as general practitioners, a full-stack of skills provides understanding of the common principles, but doesn’t makes you an “expert.” Research and practice in a specific domain are the only ways to achieve expertise at that skill, so long as you are part of a team that complements your expertise in other areas.
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