The human side of digitalization

User experience (UX) means much more than just a fancy design and a clear user menu. Especially in the complex context of the digital transformation, UX can be the factor that determines whether a system is outstanding or unusable.

We all probably have a few products around the house that occasionally drive us crazy because they don’t always function the way we want them to – like the GPS in our car that consistently avoids highways simply for the sake of energy efficiency, or a program on our PC that’s too complicated to use. “Our goal is products that give users what they really want and focus on the needs of the people interacting with them,” explains Sabine Berghaus from Siemens Technology. “This is generally known as user experience and its one of the core fields of research at Siemens.”

User experience – important right from the start

“Many people think of user experience as just a pretty user interface,” says Berghaus, “but there’s a lot more involved. One essential aspect is usability, a system or device’s ability to do what’s actually needed. For example, when we develop a monitoring dashboard for an IoT system, we have to find out exactly which data users need for their workflows during the early design phases. Building managers in hospitals need data on power consumption and carbon emissions that’s carefully broken down by area or hospital bed. They’re less interested in overall consumption. And then we have to think about the fact that these users also spend a lot of time on the move. This means that the dashboard has to function perfectly on mobile devices as well. Often, the technical specifications don’t cover the requirements that are most important to users. The absolutely essential challenges that good products must overcome are usability and an understanding of what the people who use our products actually want and need.”

“But user experience goes far beyond usability,” adds Axel Platz, a designer at Technology. “It isn’t just a matter of systems and programs offering the right functionalities. It’s also how they do it. We conducted a study and learned that people are more resilient – meaning they’re better able to handle frustration – if we offer them systems that adapt more to their needs, systems that give them a sense of having a meaningful place in the process.”

Significance for the digital transformation

The latest technological developments in industry involve innovative software technologies like artificial intelligence and the digital twin and are drivers of the digital transformation. With these technologies, we’re able to build reliable systems and machines that can make complex decisions, learn from experiences, and adapt their behavior. An example of this would be autonomous vehicles that are able to find their way in unknown environments without external control. These products, known as smart systems, range from the digital twin and factory control to driverless vehicles. They often have to perform extremely complex tasks, normally while interacting with people. UX can make the difference between whether users find a system to be helpful and useful or regard a basically good system as unusable.

It’s also a question of psychology

“When it comes to smart systems, it’s always challenging to decide how much freedom we should grant them for making decisions without human monitoring – both for ethical reasons and from a user experience point of view. The idea behind UX is that machines adapt to the needs of humans and not the other way around. Psychology is important in this context. For example, people don’t want to feel that they’re at the mercy of a machine, they want to be able to make important decisions themselves. At the same time, they become stressed and overwhelmed if they’re responsible for monitoring too many things simultaneously and for intervening in an emergency,” says Berghaus. “Usefulness depends on the specific use case, based on factors like the user’s qualifications or the consequences of a wrong decision.”

Focus on the end user

So how do we achieve a good user experience? As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This also applies to user experience. Even though the focus is on the user, much more is involved than just asking customers what they want. “We need contact with end users, meaning the people who work with our systems and machines. We have to get to know their workflows and everyday challenges,” says Berghaus. “We can then use this as a basis for developing optimal UX solutions. We can also be creative and explore new territory – for example, in the area of visualization.”

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Visualization – a window to the digital world

People are very bad at understanding data flows – which are what the digital world consists of – but they’re pretty good at apprehending even complex content quickly when it’s suitably visualized. Visualization techniques like virtual reality and augmented reality can use data to create a visible and walkable world in which people can intuitively orient themselves, almost like in a computer game.

UX – meaningful representations

Axel Platz explains: “Visualization holds many possibilities for UX that extend far beyond usability. The way we display content determines how it will be perceived by users. Our goal is to find a visual representation that’s meaningful to the observer. For example, some time ago we developed the user interface for a smart grid controller. It was important that the users of this controller be able to quickly identify the direction of current flow and whether the lines were overloaded at a given point in time. Our challenge was to make current visible – something that’s impossible in the real world – and do it in such a way that users would intuitively understand what was being represented. We decided to represent electrical current as yellow balls flowing through the conductor. When the balls are bigger than the thickness of the line displayed, it means that the line is currently overloaded. The users reported that they were able to work much more efficiently and comfortably with this abstract reality than they could with traditional circuit diagrams.”

From product management to the core research field

“Obviously, a lot of what we’re calling UX is not new,” says Berghaus. “Nevertheless, the systems are becoming increasingly complex, especially when they’re used to link the digital world to the real world. At one end are the masses of data and the smart systems and at the other end are the users who are supposed to control them. In the exchange between business requirements and technological framework conditions, UX designers serve as the users’ advocates, making sure that they have a prominent voice in the discussion. Ultimately, user experience is a differentiating feature, and thus plays a key role in the digital transformation.”

Aenne Barnard, May 2022