The shift to digital solutions (digitalization) and networking of products (smart connectivity) are opening innumerable doors to match product use to individual customers. But such individualization is also leading to a huge rise in the complexity of smart products. The challenge is therefore to design complex products in such a way that they can still by used by all customers. Understanding the issues raised not just by usability but also by user experience criteria, and covering this during the product development process, is one of the key goals of a German research project called PUMa (abbreviation for “project usability in SME applications”). The Stuttgart-based Steinbeis Innovation Center for Innovation Engineering is working as a partner on a project backed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (abbreviated: BMWi).
A typical example of a smart production/Industry 4.0 solution in a manufacturing environment is replacing an operating panel on a machine with a mobile device like a tablet. The operator taps on a screen to control the machine. Such human-machine interfaces (HMIs) create a vast number of options to develop products and make customer-based adaptations. But HMIs also mean that developers have to define products in more detail than in the past, so that users can operate machinery properly. Deliberately including aspects such as usability (and with this: software) when analyzing requirements and developing solutions can help determine the extent to which users will be able to carry out tasks effectively and efficiently with the finished product.
As mobile end devices with touch-based inputs continue to enter more and more areas, even companies involved in “traditional” areas of engineering and machine building are being forced to look more closely at software issues to stay in the market, especially with respect to interface design and interaction options. Despite this, customer surveys point to the fact that many products fail to address their requirements properly. Usability aspects typically enter the equation too late in the product development process, and many developers are unaware of the full potential of usability factors to captivate customers.
It is against this backdrop that the PUMa project aimed to set up a know-how platform to promote networking among software developers and experts at SMEs involved in the aspects of usability and user experience. The scheme is part of a support initiative called “Simply intuitive – usability for the Mittelstand [SMEs],” which is part of the focal subtopic of “Digital Mittelstand – ICT Applications in Industry” and is backed by the BMWi. The platform provides examples of projects and usability methods, showing how simply and efficiently these can be integrated into an SME’s own product development processes. This makes it possible for SMEs interested in the techniques to tap into the systematical methods knowledge of experts, or draw on example projects and lay foundations for target group-oriented software development. A data model at the heart of the web-based know-how platform links information on experts, their fields of expertise, different methods, successful projects, and external concept maps.
The know-how platform is mainly targeted at SMEs working in IT and usability experts, with a separate open area and an area for members. The open area contains a comprehensive selection of networking options and information. There is a matchmaking function to offer suggestions to firms with a limited understanding of usability, pointing to suitable experts or one of the usability methods in the database (matchmaking). Users can also search specifically for experts or usability methods. The members area provides a large choice of project management tools and there are virtual project rooms for conducting, organizing, and managing projects. There are also plans to start offering tools to support user-centric development processes.
The know-how platform is underpinned by three regional centers of competence to provide a port of call in the real world. These centers act as local hubs for regional networks and business clusters and there are regular series of events and meetings to promote the networks. “The big idea is also to share this new approach to implementing product and process innovations as part of product development. For lots of SMEs, systematically integrating design – along the lines of user functions and contextual functionality, instead of the thinking that’s often still dominant, which focuses on the technology – is a major shift in perspective,” explains Prof. Dr.-Ing. Günther Würtz. As director of the Steinbeis Innovation Center of Innovation Engineering, Wurtz has developed a variety of business models for the PUMa project to help run the know-how platform at the individual centers of competence. His business models will also help the platform users – such as companies, associations, and business clusters – to keep the online platform going even when the project draws to a close.
The activities Steinbeis is involved in will be continued after project PUMa has finished as part of an initiative called Digitalization – Networking – Convergence. The aim of this initiative is to adapt both existing business models and models that are still under development to the needs of companies involved in development and production. This will be done by making full use of the technical and organizational possibilities offered by digital technology, thus offering companies tangible support in mastering the transformation to a digital economy.