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 electronic device or instrument, only to discover the battery was dead after turning it on on-site? A considered approach to tool design includes understanding where and when a user is likely to want to know a piece of information.

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.

Product Designers and Instrument Techs Both Want Precision

The calibration industry is all too familiar with the adage that, “if you can not measure it, you can not improve it” (Peter Drucker). Whether it’s process control, predictive maintenance, or commissioning, instrumentation specialists provide critical visibility into the causes and effects of industrial parameters so that infrastructures can be tuned to perform at optimal levels… assuming the right tools are on hand to do this important work. Having the wrong tool for any job is frustrating; having a tool that does too many things—but none of them well—ends up creating work rather than saving work.

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. For example, an architect approaches the design of a school very differently than that of a hospital because the activities, workflow, and requirements of those institutions are so different. A fisherman carefully selects his gear (rod, reel, line, bait) and adjusts his fishing technique for whatever he intends to catch. Similarly, researchers and designers approach the development of hand-held instruments for each application in a focused way because each application can vary.

Seeing the Dirt

Industrial designers are not calibration experts; calibration experts are not industrial designers. But if these groups work together, with a shared understanding of the goals of calibration procedures, and identify the ways those goals can best be supported, this collaboration will lead not only to better tools and instruments, but also to happier plant managers, and ultimately, higher performing infrastructures.

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 calibration personnel actually do, how they feel about their current process, and what could make their work more satisfying, is a great place to start.

GE has been supporting this sort of research, working with Essential Design, to help its engineers working on new product design 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.

Industrial designers are often better at learning by example rather than by abstract theories: they are hands-on people willing to experiment. And experienced instrumentation technicians are inventive people, developing their own shortcuts for certain situations. Often referred to as workarounds, these examples are reactions either to suboptimal tools, or to technicians having more work to do in less time, with fewer people. Many have seen others, or created their own fixtures for holding tools, instruments, or fittings where they can most easily reach them in the field. Our team has observed custom welded tables and homemade magnetic straps, to name a few.

Homegrown solutions, and the people who create them, are best understood when seen ‘in the wild,’ in the context of activities and job functions. Seeing workarounds, and being immersed in the situations that spawned them, help product designers to better understand the functional requirements for an instrument so that it can better support the preferred workflows of more technicians. Our team noticed the way work orders are distributed to technicians and how calibration results are fed back to various databases. This has prompted the design team to realize that instruments can do more than accurately gauge various metrics; they could also streamline data management.

Goal-directed Design for the Real World

For an instrument manufacturer to offer solutions in search of a need would not do anyone any good (it’s sort of like bringing the knife to the gunfight). 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’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 on the market, like the new TransPort® PT900 Portable Flow Meter, and others currently on the table, reflect the contributions of user-centered design to successful instruments.

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 Innovation Strategy. He is an expert in ethnography and co-creation; his user-centered design contributions have inspired innovations in a range of industries.

Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.