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Human Centered Design Captures Experience

It’s no longer enough for automation products to include the features users want. It’s not even enough for those features to be easy to use.  Automation suppliers must thoroughly understand how users do their jobs -- and design products that make those jobs easier.  This concept is at the heart of a product-development approach called Human Centered Design.

The importance of this approach is driven by the challenges that automation users face – especially changing workforce demographics.  

Particularly in North America and Western Europe, an unprecedented number of process industry workers will soon reach retirement age and take their expertise “out the door” with them.  Many companies are also streamlining workforces and increasing the use of unmanned facilities, especially in remote locations or hazardous areas.  The result is that fewer workers – with less in-depth knowledge -- are being stretched to cover more and more.

Plants in emerging markets may not face these labor shortages, but the workers who are available do not have the training and experience needed.  It can take as much as seven years for a new worker to achieve a level of competence to make or recommend risk decisions. 

At the same time, process units and plants are becoming much larger– sometimes two and three times the size of those constructed just a few years ago. Managing such extensive operations calls for technology that is more advanced but also more complex, requiring the knowledge of experts for optimum results. These are the same experts who have retired or simply don’t exist in today’s plants.

In addition, automation project schedules are being compressed as management is pressured to speed return on capital – but the sequential and interdependent engineering processes used to build these plants have remained virtually unchanged for decades and don’t allow the flexibility demanded by today’s projects.

In short, process plants are being squeezed from many directions.  People are asked to build larger and more complex plants, and then run them with fewer and less experienced workers.

Enter Human Centered Design

Human Centered Design offers a way for automation suppliers to develop products and solutions that can help their customers meet these challenges.

The traditional approach to product design is to spend a lot of time making sure that a product is robust and reliable. The problem is that too often the resulting feature-laden products require specialized training and expertise.   Human Centered Design helps product developers avoid this problem by focusing on how users work and what they need to accomplish.

Some traditional product design techniques still apply. For example, customers still need to be interviewed about product needs and features. However, Human Centered Design extends this traditional process and focuses on how workers would use a product as they interact with other workers during a typical day. By understanding these needs, for example, developers can ensure the product shows users the information they actually require – and doesn’t burden them with what they don’t need.

A key tool for uncovering these needs is called  “contextual inquiry,” which includes watching workers use a technology or complete a given task and having them describe what they are thinking during the exercise.  Contextual inquiry uncovers the user’s intent and enables a designer to better match the user’s “mental model” of how a given technology would actually be used.

Similarly, understanding the flow of information between workers helps product developers design technology not only to perform a specific function for an individual worker, but also to improve communication and workflow between people.

It’s important to note that Human Centered Design is not a one-time event. Rather, it is an iterative process that continues throughout the product development process – and the lifecycle of the product.

Emerson’s Human Centered Design Institute

Several years ago, Emerson identified usability as a strategic imperative that could bring significant incremental value to the process industry.  The company began a relationship with a global leader in the arena of usability, Carnegie Mellon University. CMU’s Human Computer Interaction Institute originated in the university’s Computer Sciences program but has grown to encompass disciplines of humanities and social science, industrial design, business and technology. 

As an outgrowth of its work with CMU, Emerson formed its own Human Centered Design Institute to instill a pervasive knowledge about Human Centered Design throughout the company’s design teams.  The goal was not only to make products easier to use, but to make users’ jobs easier to do.

The result is a fundamental shift in the way the company develops technology to meet user needs. Building on Emerson’s heritage of developing innovative technology, the designs the company develops will deliver three specific business benefits targeted at the challenges those users face today:

1.    Eliminate unnecessary work caused by outdated process automation work practices.

2.    Remove unnecessary complexity from technology and work practices.

3.    Embed the knowledge of experienced workers in technology so that plant knowledge is institutionalized and less-experienced workers can be more effective, sooner.

The ultimate goal of the design efforts for Emerson’s Human Centered Design Institute is to help customers build and run process plants that are safer, more reliable and more productive.