The user is king: User experience makes for differentiation

The user is king: User experience makes for differentiation

March 2015

 

In the field of mechanical and plant engineering, the way in which users experience products and their manufacturers is an important differentiating feature, especially when products’ technical details are quite similar. Inducing enthusiasm among customers is a major key to success.

The actual substance behind the phrase “The Customer is King” is currently being expanded. Its meaning is becoming significantly more comprehensive. The customer – as a user – is no longer satisfied with just being satisfied. He wants his many expectations and needs to be understood. He wants to be ‘wowed’. And these expectations exceed the pure functionality of the machine. Customer satisfaction was yesterday; customer enthusiasm is becoming a decisive factor in success.

Addressing personal needs

“User Experience” (UX) is the approach with which information technology companies have pursued this aspiration for years now. A prime example of this continues to be Apple’s iPhone: a “super-device”, head and shoulders above the rest, one that understands the user (and not vice versa) and is part of an all-embracing range of experiences. The core of the UX approach is systematically implementing in the product itself the positive experiences resulting from using the device. These then address basic human needs such as security, competence, popularity or personal fulfillment. The user takes a so-called “customer journey” – a tour along the touchpoints with the vendor – to the destination. Here holistic observation includes not only the pure functionality of a product; it also takes account of product information channels, the purchasing experience, and after-sales support (see the illustration).

Now also the industry is picking up on this approach. “Interest is huge, especially among machine manufacturers. There is growing awareness that UX can be a great competitive advantage,” that is how Matthias Peissner describes the current situation. He is the manager of the Competence Center for Human-Computer Interaction at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart, Germany, and characterizes this period as the “beginning of a new era”. “Distinguishing one’s own company from the competition essentially on the basis of the technology being offered is becoming ever more difficult for the market leaders. Industrial design is becoming ever more important – and this also adds value for the user.”

Who is the correct addressee?

The challenge here is first to identify the correct addressee. In the consumer sector the user, customer and purchaser are, as a rule, all the same person. The situation in the B2B sector is not so simple, since companies have direct contact with the final users only in regard to a few products. In the field of mechanical engineering, too, there are users who have to integrate components into systems or program their own controls. These individuals usually, however, exert only an indirect influence on the purchasing decision. “We usually talk with the purchasing officer, not with the user,” explains Klaus Reymann. At Bosch Rexroth he is responsible for coordinating the subject of user experience. But B2B products also have to address certain needs, he adds. “If you obtain a component that is attractively designed, then you will be predisposed to feel that its functional qualities are high.”

“Anyone striving for success today will have to draw upon learning that is not taught in the standard technical curriculum,” is how Reymann highlights the problem. This is why Bosch Rexroth is currently training its own UX coach, who will provide backup for all all the projects relevant to UX. In addition, the company is also active internationally – in India, for example. A project aligned with the user experience has already been successfully implemented in that country, creating an electro-hydraulic hitch control. Other projects, including further development of the IndraWorks software engineering tool, are currently being pursued (see “Greater transparency!”).

Customer journey

The “customer journey” depicts the holistic perspective adopted in the UX approach: The user has many touchpoints with the product.

 

Technology versus psychology

One challenge to technology-oriented companies in general is to make an effective link between technical and user-driven innovations. If you ask users, then you will hear only about experiences with current machines – but no direct suggestions for the future. “It is difficult to obtain input for user-driven innovations,” Matthias Peissner emphasizes. The Fraunhofer IAO uses its interdisciplinary team – made up of engineers, computer scientists, economists, designers and psychologists – to follow a systematic approach. Peissner refers to this as “user experience engineering”. The starting points are user surveys and observations in practice, both aimed at understanding the context within which the products are used: Who are the users? What are their tasks and targets? In what environment do they perform their work? The basic requirements are derived from this information. They are then cast into concepts and made up as prototypes which are placed at users’ disposal for evaluation purposes.

Engineers sometimes have difficulties in dealing with the psychological side of the subject. “These mental blockades are being broken down to an ever greater extent,” Peissner recognizes. “The engineers certainly realize that they can profit greatly from this approach.” It is necessary, however, for these approaches, psychological in nature, to first be packaged so that they appeal to the target group – the engineers in this case. It is necessary to ensure that those approaches culminate directly in useable results that make good sense. In the past ten years the subject has gained significance tremendously. “Awareness has risen that it is no longer a question of what the technology can accomplish but instead how the technology can best benefit persons.” This makes Matthias Peissner confident: “This return to human needs will not wane.”

Greater transparency!

How Bosch Rexroth has made the complex software engineering tool – IndraWorks – even more user-friendly.

An extensive user survey centering on IndraWorks, conducted by the Bosch staff department for Corporate Research on behalf of Bosch Rexroth, yielded responses on functional potentials – but also on the fundamental operating concept. It quickly became clear that the classic development process alone would not do here. Consequently, a simultaneous engineering activity was launched and here the Competence Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Fraunhofer IAO was involved. In addition, the project was supported by co-workers: product management experts, in-house industry specialists, and service technicians.

Expectation: Operating confidence

In the first phase, in-depth surveys were carried out among users in many different sectors: including programmers, installers and operators and right on to service engineers. All of them have differing expectations of the engineering software. In the second phase, the IAO team and users take an example drawn from practice and watch the existing user interface to see how operators actually work. This gives them direct feedback.

One major problem revealed by the surveys is that differing software updates were sometimes present on the machine and on the service computer and that the technician could not sort this out. “Over and above this, the operating concept for the software tool apparently resulted from a series of successive developments. In the traditional bit-by-bit approach, individual technical requirements were implemented but the system as a whole was not re-thought,” is the opinion expressed by Doris Janssen of Fraunhofer IAO.

The users’ need for consistency could thus be satisfied only by optimizing the entire tool, aiming for full confidence. Taken together, this boiled down to the actual focus of the project – increasing the transparency of both the data and the system,” explains Wolfgang Hefner, project manager at Bosch Rexroth.

Solution: Intuitive use

Working together, the team developed a basic concept and turned it over to users for evaluation at a very early phase. Paper prototypes were used here. The results then became part of a detailed concept. It was on this basis that a user interface prototype was created. The users could test the new control concept, interactively, in the evaluation that followed. Finally, the software development section transformed the optimized system into the real-world software tool. Now both transparent data comparisons with expanded functionality and optimized operations are possible, using a uniform control interface.

“We initially concentrated on making existing functions more intuitive for the user,” Hefner notes. These improvements are made available to the users in updates. With each additional release, the product gradually comes closer and closer to the new concept. Here the developers profit from an interactive documentation model using Wiki programs. This model will help keep the focus on the concept at all times during future development work.