It’s important to understand why design can have a significant impact on the development of the perfect machine – and the perfect user interface.

Many product engineers approach building a new machine or device primarily from a mechanical, functional point of view. They want to make sure the product works and fulfills its intended purpose. They care about design only insofar as it impacts functionality.

However, no machine can be maximally effective in achieving its objectives if it’s not designed in a way that also facilitates success for its human operators. In other words, if its human users aren’t successful in what they’re trying to do with the machine, the machine won’t be successful. Thus, the human-machine interface (HMI) is particularly critical to get right, and every aspect of the design should harmonize the relationship between the machine and its users.

As we’ve written before, “The marriage of design and mechanics yields optimal products.”

What does this mean in the real world? Well, consider some simple scenarios in which poor design choices compromise product function and performance.

  • Buttons aren’t clearly labeled, or are too close together, so that users routinely press the wrong one.
  • Inputs are insufficiently responsive, so that it takes multiple tries to get the machine to perform correctly.
  • The interface is confusing, unclear, hard to read, or hard to interpret, leading users to make mistakes or to unnecessarily slow down their operation of the product, reducing satisfaction and productivity.
  • Users can’t tell if their inputs were accurately captured, so they have to slow down or stop to check.
  • Alerts don’t catch the user’s attention because they’re too quiet or are hard to see, or they don’t trigger the right behavior in the right way (e.g., a fast, correct response in an emergency situation).
  • Design interferes with operation. For example, the batteries or power source can’t be changed without powering down the device, or even taking the device apart.

How can product engineers avoid these kinds of design failures?

Always start by defining strategic goals and work backwards, but make sure the goals address the human user’s needs too. It’s not just about what the machine does; it’s about what its human user needs in order to be successful with the product or machine.

Since almost every design-related choice point will have multiple options available (see our “Design Guide To Your Perfect User-Interface” for a thorough look at all the options available in components and specifications), clearly articulated goals can serve as a compass to guide design decisions. For example, requirements around input responsiveness and tactility might drive the decision between a touchscreen and a membrane switch for the interface. If every option has consequences both functional and aesthetic, then weighing them against the ultimate end-goal can help clarify which option to choose.

We’ll get more into the nitty-gritty of design options in future posts in the series. In our next post, though, we’re going to do a deeper dive into the human element of machine design.

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