Thoughtful Instrument Design Helps Make Technicians' Jobs Easier

Do you have some favorite product that you use at home or in your work? This might include an appliance in your kitchen, a tool in your garage, or a digital device carried in your pocket. What makes that product a favorite? What it does for you? The way it works? How it looks? Consider what went into making that product a reality: someone identifying a particular unmet need, imagining various ways that need could be served, and working toward a manufacturable solution that people would be willing to buy and use.

Researchers and designers create the manufactured world around us by focusing on how people might better achieve particular goals—completing a task more quickly, with a better outcome, or in a more satisfying way—and then developing alternative solutions to better support those goals. Researchers and designers are also mindful of best practices, such as ‘visibility of system status.’ Here’s an example: have you ever borrowed an instrument from your group’s tool crib, only to discover the battery was dead after turning it on at the job site? A considered approach to tool design includes understanding where and when a user is likely to want to know a piece of information.

Product Designers and Instrument Techs Both Want Precision

The development of commercial equipment is best when its design considers the strengths or limitations of the user: the device is so intuitive to use that it improves his or her productivity, doing more work in less time and with less error (or stress), whether that person is experienced or inexperienced. The design also understands and anticipates the preferred workflow of the user. In today’s time- and resource-constrained work environments that often include wide gaps in skills, equipment designed with the user at the center of the process makes an enormous impact. A tool that looks good on paper (competitive specifications and pricing) may actually create work and inefficiency if it causes confusion or does not support preferred workflows.

Instruments that have been cost-reduced to the point of low reliability or usability (negatively affecting productivity) do not survive in the marketplace, and their manufacturer does not do itself any favors. A few bucks saved in production cost are paid back many times over through time, labor, and possibly plant downtime. Instrument manufacturers who take the long view of delighting the users of its products understand the win/win relationship of better tool design for increased productivity and, thusly, recurring sales.

Goal-directed Design for the Real World

The art and science of developing new tools for instrumentation technicians requires understanding (i.e. observing and measuring) the people who will use that tool and its applications for use. Designing great instruments requires understanding the people that will use them before sweating too many technological or manufacturing details. It’s about the people and their work environments. Industrial designers and the manufacturers they work for cannot know what will make tools successful (or not) without working to understand the goals and perspectives of the people who will buy and use these tools. In other words, knowing what technicians actually do, how they feel about their current process, and what could make their work more satisfying, is a great place to start.

User-centered Design Applied to the TransPort PT900 Portable Ultrasonic Flow Meter

For an instrument manufacturer to offer solutions in search of a need would not do anyone any good. Developing instrument concepts and prototypes, which are then tested with users, helps the design team to work toward refined solutions, continuing to focus on the goals of instrument technicians and their managers. GE has been supporting this sort of research, working with Essential Design, to help its engineers designing new portable flow meters and pressure calibrators understand the growing daily challenges of instrument technicians.

The Essential team visited instrumentation groups across a number of industries, infrastructure types, and countries to see how technicians and supervisors deal with today’s realities of reduced resources and a changing workforce with its skills gap. GE’s work with design and innovation firms like Essential leads to technology and design decisions clearly rooted in people, their processes, and their goals. New products, like the TransPort PT900 portable ultrasonic flow meter, reflect the contributions of user-centered design to successful instruments.

About the Authors

Essential Design, located in Boston, Massachusetts, helps companies create innovative solutions across commercial, consumer, and healthcare industries.

Richard Watson is a Founding Partner at Essential. He is a leading advisor helping organizations navigate complex design issues for rapidly changing environments, clarifying their vision for what’s next.

Bill Hartman is Essential’s Director of Research. He is an expert in ethnography and co-creation; his user-centered design contributions have inspired innovations in a range of industries.

 

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