The digital twin is a powerful tool for working with complex, intelligent systems without which digitalization can barely function. Its most basic strength is that it can digitally represent even entire manufacturing plants, building complexes, and factories in all their complexity and simulate their behavior. For example, as a simulation model, the digital twin makes it possible to virtually simulate new ideas under different framework conditions before they’re implemented in reality. Or it can be used to observe system behavior in previous situations in order to test potential actions. All this makes the digital twin the ideal user interface – not just for operating the system but also for analyses and conceptualizations.
In the case of power grids, digital twins model all the grid’s mechanisms, from generation and distribution to electricity consumption. One way that grid operators use it today is to simulate scenarios of future demands on the power grid. In the future, these digital twins could become a virtual space where the stakeholders – or rather, their avatars – could meet and could plan and process their transactions while making the effects of these transactions on the grid completely transparent.
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Good UX: Not simpler, but more experienceable
Humans and digital twins can’t fully exploit their shared potential if they’re in a situation where people are feeling powerless in the face of a powerful tool, its gigantic wealth of data notwithstanding. “People get frustrated working with a complex system when they’re feeling simultaneously talked down to and overburdened, “says Axel Platz, a designer at Siemens Technology. “The best results are achieved only when people maintain control over their work with the digital twin, and the two complement one another.”
The key is a good user experience. Visualizations play the most important role, according to Axel Platz: “Vision is the dominant channel in the human brain.” It isn’t explicitly a matter of simplified, easy-to-understand representations. On the contrary, it’s about presenting the system in all its complexity, with nothing hidden, in ways that make it easy for people to get their bearings. “People don’t necessarily need a reduction of things they see, but they need transparency about the complexity so that they understand what they see,” says Axel Platz. “Think about computer games: Things aren’t simplified, they’re richer and more experienceable.”
How these visualizations actually look depends on the specific task. The focus is on people’s need for the things they deal with to have meaning for them. How a thing is visualized also determines the way that users comprehend it. So the point isn’t just to model the digital twin but also to anticipate how a situation that’s presented in a certain way will be seen.So the user experience is somewhat nebulous: It depends on the situation, the context, and the users themselves. A good, meaningful UX must reflect the things that are significant to people in terms of their work situation and the exact nature of that significance. Ultimately, UX design does not model a system, rather it aims at the activity itself and models it in an optimal way for the user.
Good UX gives things the right meaning
This becomes clear if we take the example of a paint shop project in which Axel Platz participated. It was about suspending vehicle bodies in the paint shop at an automotive plant. Correct positioning is critical for painting robots, and the company was looking for a solution that would signal imminent deviations ahead of time in such a way that personnel could see whether they needed to intervene. “Paradoxically, extensive videos were available from production as along with countless evaluations in the form of diagrams,” recalls Axel Platz, “but the users were saying, ‘We don’t see anything.’” The user experience approach – first understand the task itself and then find an appropriately meaningful form for representing it – provided the remedy. It turned out that the employees were finding faults by conducting a sort of detective work based on their experience. They examined specific combinations of influencing variables in the digital simulation. The meaningful form was the one that implemented this detective work in a way that allowed them to determine at a glance which combinations move similarly. These are the signs that enable employees to make an informed determination of the cause of the fault. “That’s exactly what it’s all about,” says Axel Platz, “good UX helping people have control over their work.”
An invitation to the digital world
The ways that good UX can be implemented for a specific application are practically limitless. In the future, digital twins won’t necessarily have to communicate with humans through technical representations like CAD drawings, diagrams, or figures. Instead, people will be invited to enter a digital world, along the lines of “stepping into the Internet.” Maybe work will feel more like a computer game. Regardless of how we deal with virtual images in the future, the important thing is the sense of purpose and the meaningfulness that we experience through good UX. If people feel in control in their dealings with a complex system, they’ll use the system profitably. If they feel uncertain, they’ll avoid dealing with it. This also illustrates how important good UX is for a company, because the same feeling of control significantly influences the extent to which a machine, a system, or an entire factory contributes to a company’s success, whether it’s our company or those of our customers.
Christine Rüth, July 2022