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Consistently intuitive – success factors for your HMI

What characterizes a modern HMI? What benefits does a cross-product, cross-device HMI have? Which technologies can be used to implement cutting-edge HMIs efficiently? Franz Koller is UID’s Managing Director and board member of the VDMA division "Software and Digitalization". Drawing on 30 years of experience, he now describes the current challenges, trends and technologies in HMI development, sharing his expertise about how machine building companies can impress users with a modern, consistent HMI.

Why is a modern HMI so important today?

Quality and appeal of a product are reflected in the HMI: A machine with innovative functionality requires a modern HMI – otherwise, technical progress and appearance don’t go together. Moreover, people are used to simple, well laid-out and appealing interaction from using smartphones, web services etc. day by day, and they expect the same from HMIs of investment goods. Therefore, usability and user experience are important factors for satisfied customers and strong brand loyalty. In addition, they have clear economic benefits: An intuitive HMI prevents unnecessary operating errors and reduces familiarization phases and support costs while making the machine operation safer and more productive.

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How have the requirements for HMIs changed in recent years?

In recent years, we have witnessed a clear shift from individual machines to cross-machine and cross-device ecosystems supplemented by additional services. Today, machine builders need to have a holistic overview of all touch points of the user groups with the product, the brand and the company. How can the operation be standardized across all machines? How can additional devices, such as smartphones and tablets, be integrated into a coherent overall concept? What services will offer the user added value? These are the questions that have become increasingly important for market success in recent years. Digital services, above all, open up new opportunities here: They allow for long-lasting hardware products to remain flexible and upgradable. At the same time, this creates new, up-to-date business models. In the course of the digital transformation, they transform machine builders from mere hardware manufacturers to digital service providers.

What are the resulting challenges that have to be considered when developing new HMI concepts?

It goes without saying that standardizing an HMI concept for all machines and devices presents new challenges. Interaction and design should always follow the same principles, irrespective of the question who interacts where with which device. At the same time, different information needs to be displayed depending on the target groups’ requirements. Somebody processing orders, for example, needs an overview of the production and a quick drill-down while a machine operator is mainly interested in his machine’s productivity in a broader context. The users’ differing qualifications, too, need to be considered: Lower-skilled users are increasingly deployed in the production. A good HMI concept supports them when they reach their limits – e.g. through automated video support – while ensuring that highly-qualified experts aren’t annoyed by it.

How can these challenges be mastered best?

In order to develop human-centered concepts, machine builders need to know what information the different target groups need in what form. A human-centered design process helps to achieve this as it analyzes the context of use and the user groups with all their requirements and goals. In addition, the implementation requires a modular concept in which individual modules, such as alarm handling, trend overviews or recipe management, can be reused for all machines and devices.

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Why is the standardization of HMI concepts across product lines and families increasingly important?

The standardization improves the user experience. Consistent interaction and design across entire product families and different devices simplify the familiarization. That way, users can transfer their practical operating knowledge from one machine to another. When machines or devices are exchanged, they can quickly find their bearings and learn how to use the machine. And of course, using individual modules, such as the alarm handling or recipe management, on all machines also reduces development and maintenance costs.

Have you got examples of what the standardization of HMI concepts may look like?

As a provider of UX services, we have supported many companies in standardizing and modernizing their HMIs, for example TRUMPF’s mobile app world. Before our cooperation, TRUMPF had numerous insular solutions. Therefore, a homogenous design world was created to allow for more consistency. From the localization app to the digital production assistant – design and operation follow the same principles. The consistent UI items convey a common brand identity, bringing the TRUMPF brand to life at all times. The individual UI components are documented on an HTML basis. And the style guide creates synergies, allowing for efficient app development.

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For Dürr, we also standardized the look&feel of the user interface in the robot, process and assembly technology. The cross-machine user interface guarantees a consistent and safe operation – across all production steps and operating levels.

Learn more!

What trends and technologies are relevant for HMI development?

In general, I see a clear trend towards multi-experience platforms with multi-modal interaction using different input and output channels. And even though the classic touch display will not be replaced, it will be complemented by additional interaction modes such as RFID, voice and gesture control. I can also imagine RFID tags, for example, which transfer the parameters for the configuration of a machine tool haptically with one movement. In this case, the HMI concept developers need to design the optimal interplay between the individual forms of interaction: How are the strengths of the individual input and output modes used best for different tasks? Where do they create added value? These questions are answered best using a human-centered design process.

Why do companies increasingly use modern web technologies for their HMI?

By design, web technologies such as HTML have a client-server structure. This makes it easy to use web HMIs in browsers on different devices – from smartphones to tablets, industrial PCs or entire control centers. In addition, web technologies offer great leeway when it comes to usability and design: They offer the possibility of developing complex and highly customizable web HMIs that can also be upgraded easily. Animations and transitions, for example, bring UIs to life and offer a unique user experience. Separating markup and styling makes the development more efficient.

What does a good HMI concept need? What should machine builders bear in mind?

A good HMI concept optimally supports the individual user groups in their workflows. The better a product is tailored to their requirements, tasks and working environment, the safer and more efficient the users will work. It also offers users a quick overview of and access to all relevant information and functions. Therefore, machine builders need to involve the users into the development process from the start. This pays off in the long term – through better customer satisfaction, higher productivity and lower costs.

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