The concept of human-centered design (HCD) is a philosophy that puts the user at the forefront of the product development cycle. Whereas a traditional product design process generally focuses on building features into a solution, a human-centered approach hones in on the needs, wants and limitations of the end-user and tailors the product along those lines. This user-first design process aims to enable end-users to more efficiently accomplish those tasks that are most important to them in their day-to-day interaction with a given technology.

The International Standards Organization has developed a specification (ISO 9241-210:2010) that outlines the core characteristics of human-centered design. According to ISO, this standard is intended to be used by those managing design processes, and is concerned with ways in which both hardware and software components of interactive systems can enhance human–system interaction.

Emerson Takes On Human-Centered Design

Emerson Process Management’s Device Dashboards employ human-centered design principles to improve ease of use. At-a-glance status and one-button shortcuts speed task completion for evaluating, diagnosing and configuring field devices.

Photo courtesy of Emerson Process Management

In 2005, Emerson Process Management began investing in its human-centered design initiative, which was developed in accordance with ISO 9241-210 and is now the foundation of Emerson’s product design process.

However, Duane Toavs, director of Emerson Process Management’s Human Centered Design Institute, says this user-centered culture did not take root without a fair amount of hard work and a change in mindset and approach. “I believe we have the smartest people in the world working on our technology,” says Toavs. “But what seems simple to them, is really complicated to most other people.” Because of this dynamic, Toavs says it has taken some training and effort to get Emerson’s product designers to see the world through the eyes of the end-user. “This is why we created the Human Centered Design Institute,” says Toavs. The institute was formed in 2009 with the aim of training Emerson’s product designers on the principles of human-centered design and enabling the company’s HCD culture.

The motivation behind Emerson’s human-centered design push came from the users themselves. Toavs says Emerson found that while it was building a lot of advanced functionality into its products, much of it was not being utilized. When Emerson asked its users why they weren’t leveraging what on face value seemed to be particularly advantageous features, the typical reply was that while such options may have been helpful, they were often too complicated and/or time-consuming to install. Upon this realization, Toavs says Emerson’s leadership team recognized the company needed to make systems that were more intuitive and easier to use. And so the company began its journey along the human-centered design path, immersing all of its product design associates in user-first design principles.

Features vs. Accomplishing Tasks
At the heart of Emerson’s Human Centered Design initiative is a narrow focus on how end-users accomplish the day-to-day tasks of their job. “Human-centered design is not a feature,” says Toavs. In fact, he says the term “feature” is actually frowned upon by those at Emerson who spend their time thinking about human-centered design. Instead, he says the mantra for describing HCD at Emerson is “designed for purpose.”

David Holmes, public relations manager for Emerson Process Management, says one of the executives at Emerson regularly uses the metaphor of a hotel room alarm clock to explain how product designers can lose sight of what is important to end-users and get too caught up in designing for features. “All you want from a hotel room alarm clock is a sound that will wake you up at the appropriate time in the morning, but it has all of these other features in it,” says Holmes. He points out that the average alarm clock may have a CD player, an iPod dock, a variety of ambient sound settings, an AM/FM tuner, a reading light, etc.

Somewhere along the line, Holmes says the designers of the alarm clock got so wrapped up in building features into their product that they lost sight of the end-user. With its Human Centered Design initiative, Holmes says Emerson is fostering a product design culture that positions the end-user as the focal point of the company’s technology development roadmap.

Emerson’s human-centered design approach is highlighted in its Device Dashboards, which were developed with the aim of streamlining the end-user’s typical interaction with field devices. The Device Dashboards provide, in one glance, a view of everything users need to evaluate, diagnose and configure a field device. Each has embedded expert guidance to streamline the most important and frequent tasks performed by plant operations, engineering, and maintenance personnel. All landing screens follow a similar format, including red-yellow-green device status graphics to alert users and enable a direct link to graphical diagnostic and troubleshooting help. The same screens show graphical display of the primary variable of devices and provide shortcuts to the most frequently used tasks. Guided setup assists with configuring complex devices, and more experienced users can access manual setup data and more detailed information as required.

Toavs says Emerson has conducted extensive research to support the development of its Device Dashboards and to quantify the efficiencies they provide. He says results show the Device Dashboards provide an efficiency improvement on the order of 8-to-1 compared to traditional methods for evaluating, diagnosing and configuring field devices. Nevertheless, he says this efficiency improvement would be for naught if the Device Dashboards weren’t, first and foremost, easy to use.

“If it requires a bunch of effort to get the [return on investment] out of the product, [the end-users] aren’t going to do it,” says Toavs. As such, he says the most critical aspect of Emerson’s Device Dashboards is how easy they make it for the end-user to perform the most important and most common tasks associated with field devices.

The User Is No. 1
Toavs says Emerson’s Human Centered Design approach is about creating a user-first mindset within the company. “Instead of reviewing the products to see if they are meeting requirements, we are training our designers and they have been thoroughly dipped in the goo of HCD and carry it with them every day,” says Toavs.

Emerson has partnered with Luma Institute to conduct research and develop training modules that revolve around human-centered design. And in what Toavs believes is a sign of affirmation, Emerson Process Management’s Human Centered Design program has been adopted by its parent company, Emerson, which recently hired its own HCD director, who is collaborating with Toavs to drive the concept of Human Centered Design on a company-wide scale.

HCD Brain Drain?
As industry faces the retirement of many of its more experienced technical professionals in the years to come and as universities, particularly in the United States, are struggling to generate more Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduates, a trend toward easy-to-use products may seem as though it will further exacerbate the shortfall of technical knowhow many companies now face. The question arises that if the next generation of engineering and technical professionals are interfacing only with products that bring the easiest and most common tasks to the forefront, will this stunt the sort of innovation and creativity that is the product of working with technology in a more traditional “hands-on” fashion?

Emerson sees the issue from a different perspective. Through human-centered design, it believes it is enabling technical professionals to more effectively perform the tasks of their jobs. “[The] workforce is what it is,” says Toavs, “and we have to do what we can to help them do their jobs more efficiently.”

Toavs uses an example from the early stages of his career when he worked in a plant environment to show how technology can change the landscape for the better. He says the plant was upgrading to distributed control systems (DCS), which his supervisor – an old-school veteran engineer – was somewhat skeptical about. As a result, the supervisor, who Toavs says was the type of guy who liked his operators to “feel the vibration in the pipes,” ordered the installation of expensive board-mounted controllers in case the DCS ever went down. “Not one time in the history of the plant did they have to get up to touch those board-mounted controllers after the DCS was installed,” says Toavs. He says the lesson learned from that experience is that while hands-on experience is certainly an asset, technology, when properly designed and employed, can offer a safer and more efficient alternative.

Holmes believes the true value of human-centered design is that it holds the potential to allow end-users to truly shine in their jobs. He says that in his early years working in plant environments, the one thing that frustrated him the most was the amount of time he had to expend just to accomplish routine tasks. Because he was so tied up with such tasks, he had little time to tackle some of the more complicated issues that needed to be addressed. Through human-centered design, Holmes believes Emerson is helping end-users who are in a similar position to be more efficient with everyday tasks so they have more time to work on those more sophisticated problems, which, in turn, will allow them to really stand out at their companies.

Matt Migliore
is Flow Control’s executive director of content. Reach him at