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Last week at the Emerson Global Users Exchange in Anaheim, Calif., I had the opportunity to talk a little shop with Steve Sonnenberg, president of Emerson Process Management, and Peter Zornio, the company’s chief strategic officer. During our conversation, Mr. Sonnenberg and Mr. Zornio shed some light on Emerson’s recent initiatives in the areas of usability, industrial wireless, and broad-based trends within the world of process automation and instrumentation. Over the next week, I will be posting transcripts of my Q&A with Mr. Sonnenberg and Mr. Zornio. The following is the first in this series of posts. It concentrates on Emerson’s recent focus on product usability and its Human Centered Design program.

MM: Usability has been a central theme at recent Emerson Exchanges. Can you talk about this usability focus and what the genesis of it is?

SS: It’s like what we were talking about yesterday [in the keynote address], the workforce is changing so much. Expertise and knowledge workers are walking out the door. Old Joe who was in the plant for all those years, he knew what button to push, and that guy’s not there anymore. So we have to be at the center of all that and try to proactively think about how the product is going to be used and how it best can be used.

Steve Sonnenberg, President, Emerson Process Management
Steve Sonnenberg
President, Emerson Process Management

And so like Peter [Zornio] was giving the example with our analytical product he was talking about yesterday; we’re trying to anticipate what some of the issues are for somebody who hasn’t used that product before. And the other thing is, we’re trying to come up with common interfaces as much as possible. If you pick up a pressure transmitter or a flowmeter or whatever; that the way you address that and interact with that, as much as possible, we want that to be common. So once you know how to use one product, you can more easily use the other products. 

It’s like the iPhone versus iPad, the interfaces are the same. I don’t want to use that as an overused analogy, but in a way that is … So much of what Apple has done is making [the technology] easier to use. We have great technology, so we want to make sure that we have easy-to-use technology. And the whole genesis of that is that the knowledge workers are walking out the door. And in the emerging markets, they’ve never been there. So if we can make our products easier to use, it just helps [the end-user] that much more. So that’s the basis for [our focus on usability]. 



MM: As far as the Human Centered Design initiative, which is kind of tied to the usability focus, can you talk about where that came from, how it has evolved over the years, and what, exactly, it involves?

PZ: The best way I can describe it is typically when a product was built, we would have targets around quality and performance. We want to have a whole other quality parameter, which is usability. That’s historically not received the same level of attention that quality and performance do. 

When you tell an engineer ‘go build a product,’ they want to see hard specs, they want to say, ‘OK, this is going to read at this level of accuracy, or process this many points per second, or communicate at whatever rate, and we’re going to manufacture at high quality, and they’ll say, ‘Well OK, I’m done.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, no, you’re not done until we can also show that its usability is very high, and it won’t take three months worth of study and training to be able to use and get something out of it.’

Peter Zornio, Chief Strategic Officer, Emerson Process Management
Peter Zornio
Chief Strategic Officer, Emerson Process Management

So what we’ve done is—fundamentally it boils down to— bringing in new talent into our product development organization that comes from the discipline of Human Centered Design. We have a team of guys that are across all of Emerson Process Management that sort of lead the effort and lead some of the programs that we do in different business units, but every one of our product areas or business units hires a couple of these human centered design experts, and they embed in their development processes usability reviews. In addition to the product quality and software code reviews that we do, we now add useabiltiy reviews that bring out things that are not quality issues, but they’re things that make the product easier to use. So in a nutshell, that’s how you do it. 

There’s a big science as to how you do the usability reviews. You identify what are called personas, you draw a profile of the person you expect to be the user, you walk through what their education level is, and then you sit down and do some more traditional stuff, like for software blind usability testing, where somebody’s in there and you watch them try to use the product and you see where they get stuck, but, you know, it’s work. But you go in there with people who have a knowledge of this discipline and you apply that during the course of the development program.

MM: Do you have a feel for products that have come onto the market since the usability focus has been in place, since that metric has been in place and how its kind of impacted how the end-users interact with the products?

PZ: Sure. Absolutely. One of the first programs we did across the whole group is what we call Device Dashboards. Basically, that’s the software that’s used for the configuration and setup for all of our instruments and valves, and we did a complete overhaul and rewrote all of that into a consistent format. We did a lot of research on what things people would want to see first. And quite frankly we have won some projects—the Rosemount pressure guys would say they’ve won projects because they will go in now and a lot of times instead of talking about the performance features of a product they start now by showing how easy it will be to configure and use the product, and they get a lot of traction out of that. And I think they would say, ‘Yeah this has made the difference for us in terms of some customers.’

SS: Yeah, you know it’s interesting, because I come from the Rosemount background. And at Rosemount when you’re engineering and building a product, you think, ‘OK, it’s this product, this blue pressure transmitter here, this lovely beautiful thing.’ And from the customer’s point of view, they don’t even see the pressure transmitter! All they see is what comes up on the screen. So to them the pressure transmitter is what comes up on the screen. And our engineers, they used to have these screens that were like all just data to the fifth digit.

PZ: Because they sleep with that blue thing under their pillow at night—that’s their baby, OK, and they expect every customer knows that thing inside and out the way they do, right, and he’s gonna’ want to know all those pieces of data, and it’s like, ‘Well, no, that customers touches that product once a week, maybe, right.’ So that’s a hurdle to get over. 

Engineers are lousy human interface designers because they know too much about what they’re building an interface for is really the bottom line. So they don’t think about how to build one coming at it from somebody who has got hundreds of products like that that they have to deal with every day, because their whole life revolves around that think that they’re working on.

SS: So the whole part of this customer interface is that we try to put 80 percent of the information they need on the first screen. And it’s very easy to read. So rather than a long digit or cryptic description, we have simple gauges—like your car is overheating or whatever—so you can see ‘Oh, we’ve got a problem here.’ Snap on that, then it goes to the next level, then it goes to the next level, then it goes to the next level. But only once you’ve known that it’s out of limits. We’ve received a lot of great customer feedback on that, and we’re doing it across the board.

PZ: And it’s interesting to watch the Rosemount marketing guys now pitch it—they’re believers now. You know what it was like, right, it would be all about the materials of construction and that sort of thing. Now all of the sudden, they’re like, ‘oh well, people really like that.’ Yeah, well exactly, that’s what [the end-users] see.