The case of a relevant UX problem

This is not about a Sherlock Holmes mystery and no engineer lost a thumb over it. Even though the machinery involved could easily achieve the latter. It is about industrial robots and tons of machinery to fold metal sheets into origami swans. But mainly it is about a case where creating the right user experience solved the relevant problem.

Programming an industrial robot as a computer game?

Lets go to the world of machinery, metal sheet bending to be more precise. Our client produces machines to bend metal sheets. With this, a clever operator folds intricate objects almost like an origami artist. This image search gives you a better impression about what it all is about.

For several reasons, it can be interesting to automate the whole bending process using an industrial robot. This robot takes flat sheets, holds them into the bending machine like an operator would and then places the folded objects into an out tray.

Sounds simple and straight forward, but it isn’t. The industrial robot has an intelligence level slightly higher than a dumb rock. You have to tell the robot every movement it needs to do and make sure it doesn’t collide with the machinery.

Thus software is needed. And it needs to have robot simulation, 3D visualisation and collision detection. Because customers do not want their machinery to stand still while they setup another order and they want to see that the robot will do proper work. In short, there is a really neat piece of software to build.

So where does UX get into all this? Besides the obvious I mean?

The situation: sales number are okeyish.

This specific machine is bought by companies that provide their customers with bended objects for many different purposes. Orders are quite small. Maybe a hundred or a thousand pieces. There were already solutions with robots and software on the market. The general feedback was: setting up the whole thing for one order takes too much time and it is too hard to learn. The obvious conclusion: the return of investment is too low, I don’t like it anyways, and our old machines bend very nicely, thank your for the information.

Takes too much time? Too hard to learn? We’re talking about usability and user experience here!

The situation in short:

–> UX of the current solution is not good enough
–> solution does not fit customers’ business model
–> client does not sell the solution

A new software to turn it around

Having understood this, the client decided to turn it around and start developing a new software with a specific focus on UX. The vision: the software does it all. Just press a button and go. We quickly agreed that we should not aim that high in the first step. The software should do a good start. It should take over the boring and tedious steps, it should hide away some of the complexity of how robots work and it should give users feedback on what they already achieved and what needs to be done still.

The plan sounds simple. It wasn’t. It needed a team with product strategists, software engineers, robotics experts, user experience professionals, QA experts. It also needed invention, creativity, conflict resolution, and hard work. And it needed all of the team working towards a great user experience.

Did we create a game?

There was a defining moment early in development. When we first tested with potential users, we observed something most surprising. The test was long over and participants did not want to stop. They enjoyed the challenge. Did we create a game? So it seems. Game objectives were to get all to “green”, to reduce the time the robot needed per piece, to make a more intricate piece work, and to create elegant and efficient robot movements. Our conclusion: wherever something is not fun – e.g. boring or too difficult – we have to fix it.

Good enough is where it works for customers

The result surprised us all. The software is by no means perfect. We know of many points we would love to improve: more comfort, more intelligent algorithms, glitches in the look and feel, technical improvements and much more. Still, customers “flipped”. Suddendly, investing into robots doesn’t look like a bad idea.

Customers started to order robots for their machines. And they ordered new machines with robots. And even new customers started to order the machines with robots. The story “automate production with robots pays off for small orders” is finally believable, thanks to the effort we all made to create a compelling user experience.

Thus the new situation reads like this:

–> Software is great and fun to use
–> story is believable to potential customers
–> client sells solution

Invest into understanding the relevant problem

One could conclude that all you need to do is to invest into UX to sell more products. That is probably true, at least in some cases. One could also conclude that you have to hire UX designers to create the perfect look for developers to implement. That in most cases, will not work.

I suggest to take it a step further. It in fact is all about understanding the relevant problem of the customers and act on solving this, just like our client did.

In this case the relevant problem was how customers operate and make a living. Automatisation is a good option for many of them, however the costs per order were far too high. The user experience of the robot automatisation was the key to solve it. Making it easy to learn, fast to get to the desired result and fun to do made the difference.

What makes the difference in your situation?