ABB Product Architecture Supports Usability

Designing automation products for better usability can produce obvious benefits for users.

But it can also lead to savings for automation vendors. One example can be seen in work done recently by Pia Stoll, an industrial software systems researcher at ABB Corporate Research, in Vasteras, Sweden, in conjunction with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), in Pittsburgh.

During the early stages of architectural design for a new product line from an ABB automation business unit, Stoll worked with CMU researchers to apply an approach developed at the school to ensure that usability features were built into the architecture from the beginning. The approach relied on what CMU calls usability-supporting architectural patterns, or USAPs, which use generic usability scenarios common in complex systems from which to construct generic software architectural responsibilities.

Typically, in a multi-year architectural design project, the user interface is developed quite late in the process, often years after the architecture itself has been fixed, says Stoll. This means that usability issues discovered later in user tests of an actual version of the product could require costly architectural redesigns, she notes. And if certain architectural components are missing, achieving a product meeting all desired usability needs might even be impossible.

But by using a Web-based USAP tool developed jointly with CMU, ABB design architects were able to ensure that the components needed to support usability were included in the architectural design long before the user interface was built, Stoll says. The tool provides a "check list" of architectural responsibilities that must be satisfied to support usability needs. The product architects reported that simply using the tool enabled them to better see the architecture from the perspective of users. And by identifying some usability issues early, they estimated that the tool saved them a minimum of five weeks of effort later in the project.

As a result of this work, the ABB business unit plans to begin using the USAP methodology for future architectural designs. "This is a tool that should increase the chances of developing user interfaces for really high usability that won't be hindered by the architecture," says Stoll. "That's our goal."

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