Next Gen measurment
How Red Meters are using Human Centered Design principles to create modern software products for the industrial world.
Hardware + Software = System
Most people would consider Red Meters to be an instrumentation company – and that is indeed true – our core product is a density measurement instrument which we manufacture. However, you may be surprised to learn that our software and development teams are equally as critical to our products as our engineering and production colleagues. You see, our measurement system is made up of three fundamental components: hardware (mechanical and software) software (front and back end) and finally the algorithms which are created by our data scientists.
In this article, we’ll discuss our approach to creating software for industrials, and how we introduced human centered design principles to create modern, easy to use interfaces that make the jobs of process engineers easier.
“Good Human Centered Design is not about designing what customers say they want. It’s about empathetically observing the problems they face when trying to get their work done.”
The Status Quo
If I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said “faster horses”.
The quote is attributed to Henry Ford (although it may be an apocryphal one). Nevertheless, those involved in gathering design requirements from end-users understand the dead-on accuracy of this sentiment. While customer feedback is absolutely critical to the design process, it’s the customer problems that should be carefully considered, not the solutions the customers offer.
The natural place for users to gravitate when dealing with a problem is typically a slight variation on existing solutions. If we’d asked end users what they wanted out of a density gauge, they likely would have responded with just another form of intramedia measurement (i.e. ultrasonic) with a simplistic LED digital readout providing a single number for density.
Before drafting the very first mockup, we spent many months meeting and speaking with end users from a variety of industries about the problems they face in their day-to-day operations, and what limitations they must currently work around to meet their goals. We heard again and again that the existing solutions for monitoring density were difficult to install, required frequent maintenance and calibration, and did not consistently provide accurate measurements. Most outrageously, equipment used for density measurement required commissioning engineers from the OEM to fly around the world just to install the system. These practices are so deeply ingrained in the industrial world that companies consider this a completely normal cost of doing business, and are willing to pay for the travel, expenses, and time of installation professionals on top of the cost of the equipment itself. It’s hard to believe that companies have profit centers around how obtuse their technology is. The difficulty is pitched as a feature, not a bug!
Beyond what we heard, we could also plainly see that the interfaces of the current offerings had not been reconceptualized for many decades. Even 40 years after the invention of the microprocessor, the industry was settling for sixteen-segment LCD displays with a single value. These solutions just aren’t good enough for the critical work engineers execute out in the field.
From there, the team not only designed a truly innovative, physics-based principle of operation using bleeding edge materials science, but also onboarded Product Specialists and Software Developers passionate about human-centered design with a mission to create a human-machine interface that continues that seminal thread of innovation.
Design Values & Process
Our HCD approach is based on a core set of principles regarding the creation of solutions through a focus on needs, behaviors, and context of those whom the solutions serve. We embrace the following values, from which every design decision flows:
The best decisions about design do not come from our personal inclinations, but instead from a willingness to adopt the perspective of our users. What are their goals and frustrations? How will they feel the first time they interact with a Red Meter? What sort of knowledge and background are they bringing with them to this experience?
Our next step in the process was to create Personas, which are archetypal models of different types of users. A Persona might contain demographic information like gender, age, and geographic location, as well as more granular personality details like hobbies, interests, and the types of technology they use daily. This model helps paint a picture of the users’ goals and frustrations, which point the way to design opportunities. For example – what working conditions are engineers under when they operate our instruments? In many cases, boots on the ground are dealing with rough conditions ranging from extreme sun and glare to frigid winds – operating a small, fiddly interface makes their job more difficult rather than easier.
Personas are important as we have more than one type of user with different sets of goals. As an example, an Operator is likely to be interested in live process data, alerts and data visualizations. Whereas a Foreman may be more interested in historical data logs. In each instance, we want the users to be able to get directly to the interface views they need without having to click through loads of buttons.
Using Personas, as well as our understanding of each users’ goals and frustrations, we created journey maps for key users. Journey maps help us build a smooth experience for each user type which helps to deliver a natural user experience (rather than having to keep returning to the home menu or consult the user manual.)
Design decisions made in a vacuum always bring with them an entire universe of assumptions. Actually observing user behavior short-circuits these assumptions, instead allowing natural workflows to inform the architecture of the product rather than the other way around. We watch, record, ask questions, and verify that our understanding of the user workflow is correct before concluding a user observation session.
These sessions are then played back, and meticulously picked apart to ensure we capture every detail of the interaction. What was the first feature they tried to use? What confused them, and what delighted them? Why did they press that button, and what did they expect to happen when they did? These questions and answers are mapped out to create a list of additional design opportunities that weren’t captured during the process of establishing Personas.
After we’ve learned what works and what requires tweaking, we build the required modifications around the user’s flow. Sometimes the answer is that the label for a button needs to be changed because it’s confusing. Other times we find that an entire module is based on a flawed understanding of the real problem, and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. User trials are a must for us, and no system ever gets everything right on the first try.
Conclusion – Innovation or Bust
The Red Meters team is assembled from a group of forward-looking, innovative, and energetic people from a variety of cultural and educational backgrounds. Our diverse mix of perspectives is the active ingredient in our ability to find out-of-the box solutions and avoid the stagnation of groupthink. As we grow, we’re committed to maintaining our approach, using empathy, observation, and iteration as the foundations of all future design efforts.
Stay tuned as we begin releasing sneak previews of our forthcoming software release, which will be available to new and current customers. This update will not be incremental, but will be an entirely new platform, and the bridge to a new order of process intelligence.