Late last year, I was given the opportunity to look at some of the devices the connected technology company Honeywell is producing for its industrial clients and partners. What I found was that although the company had clearly been making great strides with voice control, most of what I saw is best described as fat versions of the kinds of consumer products that have become pretty run-of-the-mill (what I call fat Honeywell would probably call ruggedised). A fat phone took pride of place alongside a fat tablet and a fat laptop.

Leaving the event, I have to say I was a little disappointed with what I saw. Sure it’s great that you can now get Android and iOS devices to work in industrial settings, but there must be more to designing for industry than simply making devices that can stand up to wear-and-tear on the factory floor.

Nevertheless, that introduction to the world of industrial devices got me thinking, what do tastemakers in industrial design think the future holds? Steve Jobs famously said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”, but does this same rationale apply to the industrial sector, and can those in the industrial space afford to take risks and be innovative?

The devices we use at home and the devices we use at work have become more-or-less the same, but on the surface at least there doesn’t appear to be the same consideration placed on razzmatazz in the industrial sector. Obviously, having a product that works as it should is paramount, but nowadays why aren’t people demanding the devices they use at work be attractive as those they use in their own time, or are people happy using fat versions of the devices they know?

To find out what designing for industry involves right now and what it could involve in the future, I spoke to Hari Thiruvengada, strategic design director at Honeywell.

Why can’t devices look good while they’re working?

If I’m at work and my equipment doesn’t perform as I expect it to, or even if the devices I use don’t work in an intuitive way, then it doesn’t really matter how attractive they are; they’re useless. Given that Honeywell works in fields as critical as aerospace, oil and gas and manufacturing, it’s even more important that partners are supplied with products that work as the should, but, that being said, is there space within Honeywell’s remit to design products that place as much emphasis on style as well as substance? Of course products have to work, but there’s no reason why they can’t look good while they’re working.

“The first thing is it has to be useful; it has to work functionally,” says Thiruvengada. “You can't compromise that because we play in spaces that are critically important, so if the thing doesn't work then there's no purpose for it, so that's fundamentally important that we don't compromise experience on that.”

“On top of that...the desirability aspect comes into play,” explains Thiruvengada. “Is it desirable enough for you to actually put it in your home or in your office? If it's in an industrial setting there's a certain amount of human desire that comes with everything, there's a reason why consumer electronics companies pay so much attention to attractiveness and desirability. It's more than the look and feel; it's actually how the product works. Steve Jobs said it really great, 'the user experience is not just how it looks and feels it has to have a fundamental experience behind how it works as well', and that's what we've tried to focus on.” 

“The first thing is it has to be useful; it has to work functionally. You can't compromise that because we play in spaces that are critically important”

Rather than just a binary choice between form and function, Thiruvengada talks about user experience and desirability – as opposed to attractiveness – as qualities that are important in the design process. To make sure that it’s making products that are capable of meeting these criteria, Honeywell has assembled a design team that not only includes people whose job it is to conceive of and build the products, but also psychologists and user experience experts whose job it is to make sure that devices are built with the user in mind.

“Within our team there are people who come from different walks of life,” says Thiruvengada. “There are people who are user experience researchers and cognitive psychologists, we have people who are architects, people who are craftsmen, people who are prototypers and builders.

“When you build a lot of these cross-functional teams and combine them with marketing and technology it really allows us to bring a very cross-functional perspective to bear, and at the end of the day they take those cross-functional experiences and apply their own empathy to build and provide empathy for the users.”

How the industrial sector is adding value to its devices

As Thiruvengada explains, people don't switch off their brain and say "ok, I'm in work now, and I expect a completely different experience", so the lines between products designed for the consumer market and the industrial sector have had to blur as users’ expectations have shifted. That isn’t to say that industrial designers couldn’t learn a thing or two from designers working to bring bigger and better products to consumers.

“When I first got my Fitbit, I used it primarily as a step counter, but now I find that they've been able to add more and more functionality to it, and one of the functionalities is around how well am I sleeping. Now they're able to take your physiological data and they're able to combine that with your context and produce more value added stuff and that allows me to modify my behaviour because now I know what insights there are about my sleeping habits,” says Thiruvengada.

“That's how human behaviour changes and I think there's a certain power in doing that, and I think there's a lot less of that happening today in the industrial world than in the commercial world, and we need to take a page from the consumer world and be able to build on those experiences.”

“There's a lot less of that happening today in the industrial world than in the commercial world, and we need to take a page from the consumer world and be able to build on those experiences”

One way in which the industrial sector could be said to be attempting to add value to its products is by incorporating voice controls to its devices. This technology is commonplace in the consumer world, with the consultancy company Capgemini claiming 51% of consumers are already happily using voice assistants. Arguably, a technology like voice control makes more sense in an industrial setting – if you’re hands are busy then you can use your voice to get the information you need.

“People are expecting those consumer-like experiences to be available to them in a very pervasive manner, so the thing that we produce, whether it's an android tablet or an iOS-based device, everything has to work in a very contemporary form,” says Thiruvengada.

“People are not expecting just forms and tables anymore; people are expecting more natural user interfaces. Voice is being integrated into more and more applications. There's a purpose for voice and it has to be used very cautiously, but these are things that people have come to expect and I do believe that it is going to fundamentally change the way that we actually interact and use these systems.”

Designing by committee 

If the fanfare around Google Glass’ Enterprise Edition proves anything then it’s that there is an appetite for new and innovative devices in industry. Less convincing, though, is industry’s desire to take a risk and create them. Thiruvengada says that his team is open to taking risks, but they have to educated and grounded in a proper hypothesis testing.

“When I say hypothesis testing it should be things like: what is the fundamental use principal for this thing. With Google Glass, the hypothesis could be as simple as: are consumers willing to use this every day? Then you could break that down into are other people using it, what context are they using it, what jobs are they trying to do and is it overcoming the limitations that they currently have? If you test those hypotheses it allows you to really see if it will work in the first place, before taking any risks,” says Thiruvengada.

“It's not about just risk taking for the purpose of risk taking. It's intelligent risk taking where you are able to either prove, or disprove, or dispel a hypothesis and you're able to pursue or kill the idea before you move on, I think that's fundamentally required in any kind of setting, whether it's consumer or industrial.”

“It's not about just risk taking for the purpose of risk taking. It's intelligent risk taking where you are able to either prove, or disprove, or dispel a hypothesis”

Honeywell currently practises outcome-driven design, which means during the design process it asks four key questions: what problems are you trying to solve; why are these problems important and not others; how do you know that these problems are being solved and finally, by solving these problems, what outcomes are you trying to achieve? Honeywell also employs tools like customer journey maps, experience maps and empathy maps to really understand what the users’ needs are and which problems are reoccurring.

When Steve Jobs said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he prefaced it by saying, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups.” For the moment, Honeywell’s design philosophy, when it comes to devices at least, appears reactionary rather than proactive.

An interesting thought experiment is imagining what a customer journey map, or an experience map, or an empathy map would have said about Google Glass, a product that failed when launched as a consumer product, and only made sense once it was used in a business environment.

The approach adopted by Honeywell calls its ability to be innovative into question. That doesn’t mean the products it makes aren’t vital and of high quality; it just means that if there is a Jony Ive lurking in its Strategic Design department, they’re probably too busy plotting experience maps to really revolutionise any of the numerous industries Honeywell is part of.

Images courtesy of Honeywell

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