Human-Centered Design in Action

by | Aug 29, 2011 | Technologies | 0 comments

BayCHI, the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the ACM [Association for Computing Machinery] Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) held a BOF (birds of a feather) session on usability engineering. This session featured a presentation, Human-Centered Design in Action, by LUMA Institute’s Pete Maher and Emerson’s Jay Elkerton. Pete is the chief operating officer for LUMA Institute and Jay is the director of Human Centered Design at Emerson Process Management.

Here’s a few of the highlights from their presentation. For those not familiar with LUMA Institute, it is an educational institute that helps organizations innovate through human-centered design. They do this through workshops, both public and private, coaching and facilitation, curriculum design and licensing, and collaboration tools and spaces. LUMA Institute spun out of MAYA Design, a Pittsburgh-based design firm and technology lab, a little over a year ago.

Pete defined human centered design (HCD) as:

…the discipline of generating solutions to problems and opportunities through the act of making “something” new, where the activity is driven by the needs, desires and context of the people for whom you design.

Those skilled in the art of HCD are skilled at methods for observing human experience (looking), methods for analyzing challenges and opportunities (understanding), and methods for envisioning future possibilities (making). When I saw this part of the presentation, my mind immediately leaped to the news of Steve Jobs departure from Apple. My perception is that his leadership infused these skills deeply throughout the Apple culture.

In each of these areas, looking, understanding, and making, they share specific methods to advance the HCD process. For example, the looking phase can involve ethnographic research, participatory research, and evaluative research. In each of these areas, specific actions can be applied. In ethnographic research, actions may include interviewing, contextual inquiry, “walk-a-mile” immersion, and “fly-on-the wall” observation to name a few.

Pete walked through each of the areas with appropriate actions to uncover the needs, desires, and context required to advance the design process.

He shared how Emerson Process Management is applying these principles in their Human Centered Design Institute. The objective is to infuse these practices into the Emerson culture to make a significant improvement in ease-of-use and productivity for automation professionals who work with these technologies.

Some of the key process changes involve:

  • an interdisciplinary design and development team
  • a discovery-driven, iterative, prototyping process with an emphasis on speedy iterations
  • engagement with users and stakeholders throughout the process

Here is what the HCD process is not. It is not a one-size-fits-all set process. Rather, it’s an exploratory, iterative process that relies on a set of methods for observing and understanding users, analyzing data, generating ideas, and evaluating prototypes. It’s not something you do once on a project. Rather, it’s a process—a way to design and develop interactive systems.

And it’s not entirely new; nor is it unique to LUMA. There’s a history to it – ergonomics, human factors engineering, military standards, like MIL-STD-1472—DoD Design Criteria Standard, and MIL-HDBK-46855A—DoD Human Engineering Program Process and Procedures, and international standards, like ISO 13407—Human-Centered Design Processes for Interactive Systems and ISO TR 18529—Human-Centered Lifecycle Process Descriptions are all part of the HCD body of knowledge.

Following this HCD process, Jay shared several examples of how products are being made to be more intuitive and usable without training. Here’s a before and after look at the AMS Device Manager software. It was important to be easy for anyone to use, show at a glance if a field device is good or bad, provide common tasks highlighted to aid infrequent or inexperienced users, and provide the same user experience regardless of the device’s digital communications protocol.
AMS Device Manager - Before and After

Working with LUMA Institute’s team, Jay continues to infuse the skills required for a human centered design approach and culture shift throughout the Emerson Process Management organization. This involves continuous focus on the users via the Emerson Process stakeholder maps and persona profiles, systematic, heuristic usability inspections of products, and iterative development and feedback with usability testing.


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The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the authors. Content published here is not read or approved by Emerson before it is posted and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Emerson.

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