Industrial Software—What It Should Look Like

Dec. 25, 2017
You can’t judge a book by its cover? Think again. Presentation is just as important as the content inside. It might be time to update your user interface.

What if iPhone X were sent folded in ugly ruined boxes? Would customer satisfaction and loyalty be the same? Whoever says, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is usually wrong (or at least not completely correct).

Presentation is just as important as content. Any major company follows trends to present the best image for themselves, putting effort into keeping that image aligned with what clients expect. Web designers keep their websites up to date with the latest user experience trends, graphical designers redraw companies’ logos to adapt them to new styles (have you noticed the Audi logo is now flat?), commercials continuously adapt their language to one of social media. A company that can’t be found on Facebook or on Google Maps looks like an old-fashioned company and is less attractive to young people.

The same is true for industrial software interfaces. When a company develops industrial software, the interface not only determines how the user will interact with the system, but also reflects on the image of the system integrator.

When you think of industrial software for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems or human-machine interfaces (HMIs), for example, you usually think about tanks and pipes drawn in gray, green and red engines and valves, a lot of analog values shown in a single page, and 3D buttons and switches. Though this is the way that industrial software has evolved from the first applications, this kind of user interface is no longer very appealing to users. Worse, it’s boring and not intuitive for the new young users.

Today, everyone has a smartphone, sometimes even two. People are used to tablets, smartwatches and touch interfaces that can be operated using complex, but intuitive, gestures. You have been able to order a Big Mac using a touchscreen for years—why can’t you start a production order or batch in the same way?

Why shouldn’t users be able to operate machines using a smartphone, smartwatch or tablet, or at least a modern interface on a PC? We are not very far from widely using virtual and augmented reality on the shop floor. In some plants, these types of solutions are already being implemented side by side with old-style SCADAs. System integrators must adapt their products to users’ expectations while also leading customers toward new trends, teaching them new philosophies and preparing them for what’s coming next.

When developing an application, they way it looks should be your first thought as much as its functionalities and its stability. Many developers can write good code, but how many system integrators have a graphical designer on staff to draw interfaces and provide guidelines? The gap from a bad-looking application and a good-looking one can be very small, but can make a big difference in customers’ experience and satisfaction.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of doing big things, but only of paying attention to small, inexpensive details. Let’s think about our smartphones again: I wouldn’t appreciate if app icons were of varying sizes, weren’t aligned in a grid or had different resolution images. This happens in many industrial applications I’ve seen installed in plants. Why wouldn’t customers care about that or feel a sense of frustration using it?

If you want to start restyling your apps, consider first that the most updated interfaces you can find are on websites or smartphone apps. Studying them is typically a good starting point when you start to develop a new industrial app. It’s not because you need to follow fancy trends, but because trends in websites and apps often determine pretty quickly user expectation. For example, consider where menus and navigation bars are placed and how they are structured because that will be the first thing a user will interact with in any application.

Try to think what you might do if you had to design your application for a website or mobile device. You might not have all the right tools to develop a web-like application, but you can try to make it look similar, nonetheless. Take into consideration the color schemas. Just replacing the standard SCADA gray with a light color like white today makes an application more modern. The same is true if you replace 3D buttons with bi-dimensional plain buttons and if you hide all non-critical analog values and show them only when a user needs or requests them. All these are just some hints that are valid today. Graphic style is continuously changing and adapting, so the style of industrial applications needs to as well.

A good exercise to practice and experience the impact of changing style is taking an existing, old-looking industrial application and try to imagine it as a web application. Reconsider where you would expect to find each function, how you would expect to navigate through it, how data and information would be presented, etc.

Don’t be scared—this change of approach will probably be less painful for the users than for the developer. Users are already used to interacting with this kind of interface; if you provide them a similar graphical environment, you will simplify their training, maintenance and adaption to the new system and, also important, you will probably differentiate yourself from many of your competitors.

The industrial environment is usually slower to adopt new trends. But the need to adapt tools to modern expectations is pretty urgent. If you can convince customers that the logic behind your system is the same even when the graphic is updated, they will have a very short payback in terms of user satisfaction and quality.

Elisa Costa is a software engineer at Autoware, a certified Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) member based in Vicenza, Italy. Luigi De Bernardini is CEO at Autoware and president of Autoware Digital. For more information about Autoware, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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