About applied ergonomics and convergent design – interview

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In two weeks Sweden’s top UX conference, From Business to Buttons, will be held. And this gave us the great opportunity to do an interview with one of the speaking teams. We talked to them about the importance of ergonomics and the challenges of convergent design.

Jeroen van Geel: For those who don’t know you yet. Could you shortly introduce yourself?

Lennart Andersson: I’m Lennart Andersson, director of interaction design and partner at Ergonomidesign. I started my professional design career in a company I started with a few friends after I graduated as industrial designer 1999. We played around a lot and quickly realized the importance of converging product design and interaction design to create good products, not very common back then. Since we merged with Ergonomidesign in 2004 I have continued this work, but now in collaboration with our great human factors team, designers and strategists. I’m happy to say I learn new things every day!

Thomas Nilsson: My name is Thomas Nilsson and I am the director of human factors and design research at Ergonomidesign. I’ve been with the company since 1994, became a partner in 1998 and have, to be perfectly honest, lost count of all products that I’ve been involved with. I’m a curious guy and truly passionate about making stuff better for people to use.

JVG: How did you get into product design?

TN: Well, I started with LEGO and then it kind of accelerated into more advanced products and interactions… While at technical college I quickly noticed that I did best at the “non-technical” courses such as physiology, cognitive science etc. So, for me, combining technical and human skills was the best compromise. During my last year we made a study visit to Ergonomidesign, I was stunned by the creativity flowing and inspired by their focus on the user. I convinced them to let me do my thesis work there and the rest is history.
I still enjoy LEGO.

LA: Being a construction engineer at an architect office I realized that the architects got to do all the fun stuff, so I decided to become an architect. But during my time at art school I met an industrial designer and realized that was exactly what I wanted to do. Endless freedom of doing any creative stuff I wanted to. Then at the end of my industrial design education at Konstfack I was seduced by interaction design. The importance of how products behave, what to expect from them and how people actually use them. Mixing the physical and digital worlds fits to my way of thinking.

JVG: Thomas, you are one of Sweden’s leading experts in the field of applied ergonomics. What does a designer with a background in ergonomic design bring to the table?

TN: When people ask me what kinds of products I work with I tell them that I don’t work with products. I work with people. Being an ergonomist you are trained in the human being’s capabilities and limitations and methods how to collect and analyse user needs and behavior. I call this user insight. Insight in the sense that you have understood, not only collected data. This is what ‘we’ bring to the table.

Doro Care Electronics, designed by Ergonomidesign

Doro Care Electronics

JVG: There seem to be different fields within applied ergonomics. What are they and what are the differences?

TN: let me introduce them one by one:
Physical: By understanding the constraints and capabilities of the human body we can design products, services and environments that are effective, reliable, safe and comfortable to use. Mastering physical ergonomics is fundamental if you want to create products that people are able to use and enjoy using. And of course to avoid strain injuries and minimise the risk for accidents.
Cognitive: By understanding how people perceive, interpret and understand the world around them, we know how to develop solutions that are easy to understand and use. Mastering cognitive ergonomics is extremely important in digital solutions, particularly with the development of complex, high-technological and automated systems.
Emotional: By understanding the end-users emotional relations to different brands, and their products and services, we know how to develop design solutions that are engaging, rewarding, aesthetically pleasing, and fun to use. Mastering emotional ergonomics is crucial in brand building and to increase customer loyalty.

JVG: What kind of firm is Ergonomidesign? What makes it stand out?

LA: We are ranked as one of the top design consultancies in the world, considering the facts that we are quite small (55 people) and with our head office located in the northern corner of Europe this is really an achievement that we are proud of. Our 40 years in the business have made us confident in saying that, through our people-centred approach, we believe that we can develop more profitable and higher quality design solutions than most other design agencies. One of the main reasons is that our knowledge about ergonomics is second to none. We always look at the whole picture of the human being in our search for people-driven innovation. And our knowledge within ergonomics³; physical, cognitive and emotional ergonomics that Thomas explained, are crucial when designing something that have the power to shift paradigms.

Maquet Servo-i, designed by Ergonomidesign

Maquet Servo-i, designed by Ergonomidesign

JVG: In some of the products Ergonomidesign makes the physical and digital ‘interfaces’ come together. How do you manage this in the design process?

LA: First of all you need to make sure you talk to the right people at your client. They often have different teams for software and hardware development. Coordination of these teams is essential, either by us or by them. At Ergonomidesign we start with people from all necessary competences already from sales and work tightly as a team during the whole project. The earlier in the process, the more we work together; research, insights and early ideas. Then as the project moves on through the phases we gradually do more individual work, but always with regular workshops and meetings with our team and the client.

We do not have any specialists in convergent design. It is a way of thinking and with a few exceptions, most of the processes and methods we use are well known. The trick is to have experience from various fields, so you can wrap your head around complicated projects and think outside your own box. The project leader also needs to be perceptive to a wider scope and being able to communicate with a more differentiated team.

JVG: More and more interaction designers without a background in ergonomic design are designing physical interactions. What do you think of this? What are the challenges?

TN: I think it is good. However, one must be aware of the difficulties that are linked to anything that has to do with the human body and brain. I spend my entire day dealing with this but I’m still amazed regarding the complexity of even simple interactions. What I mean is that it is difficult. In my experience the tangible physical interaction between a user and a product or a service can be just as difficult to deal with as the more intangible cognitive processes that go on inside the users head. I think that often interaction designers have a better understanding of these cognitive processes but sometimes lack knowledge about the human body’s physical capabilities. This is the challenge.

JVG: During From Business to Buttons you will give a talk. Could you tell us what this talk will be about?

TN: At From Business to Buttons Lennart and I will share our view on how to work with convergent design and how to bring the “natural” into user interfaces. One of the cornerstones of anything ergonomic is that it is natural for the user. Physically natural, cognitive natural and emotionally natural.

LA: We will also talk about how insights about human behaviour affects the design work. This is a knowledge you do not find in questionnaires, you need to be on site to watch people in their natural environment, let it be a workplace, at a cafe or at home.

JVG: Isn’t there a danger in making it natural on all parts (physically, cognitive, emotionally)? How do you find the balance often referred to as ‘most advanced yet acceptable’? Or is that not important?

TN: Yes I agree to some extent. Exploring new technology, ways of working and interacting will mean that this is new and unfamiliar to the users. However, just because it is new it does not have to be unnatural (in a negative way).

LA: Some companies rely heavily on new technology in the early phases of a product life. It’s working as long as they have a unique and desirable product and customers are willing to sacrifice things like ease-of-use. But competitors can quickly ‘copy’ and sweep away customers when they come with a similar product. Wii, iPhone and Microsoft Surface are three good examples of new technology that brings new natural interaction with new technology. Not instantly natural for all people but very natural when you understand the shift from traditional (but often) awkward user interfaces. I believe this is a major shift in how we perceive technology and what we will expect new products to do for us. We develop new expectations and products get new affordances, even old products.

JVG: What methods do you use to research what the users want, don’t want, need, expect, etc? How do you integrate this in the design process?

TN: We use a mix of generative (collecting insights to spark the design process) and evaluative methods during our process. Often we engage in co-creation activities in order to explore latent needs of the end-users. As all good researchers we rely on both subjective and objective tools. At Ergonomidesign the designer is an integrated part of the research process, often the research is entirely handled by the creative team. This means that all insights are in a good way translated into solutions. Let me finally say that I really do like the word “Insight”, what this word means is that you have UNDERSTOOD what it is all about. Too often the researchers are just collecting information, not trying to understand.

JVG: Earlier you mentioned convergent design? Could you tell us what this is?

LA: Convergent design is merging the design processes of product design and interaction design, recently also incorporating service design. The borders between the physical and the digital world are being increasingly blurred. One example is writing with Anoto’s digital ballpoint pen we designed several years ago. By just grasping the pen and writing as you were taught as a child, you also interact with digital functions and services, e.g. filling out forms digitally and receiving confirmations as MMS to your mobile phone. Another example is a system of wearable medical devices we designed. The users live with these devices 24-7 and interacting with these devices sometimes means using a screen, other times blindfolding through your clothes. The user experience and results are very much depending on how well the hardware and software works together in everything from mapping of buttons, remote control functionality to audiovisual and tactile feedback.

Some companies are actually great at this today, but I would claim that most companies still have problems in coordinating product design and interaction design. 9 out of 10 of our clients do not have a synchronized process (other than a few common milestones) when we meet them. It is a challenge to change established processes and sometimes half the R&D organization to achieve a true convergent design process. We believe this is a key to be innovative and create desirable products for people.

JVG: Thank you very much for the interview.

About From Business to Buttons – Held in lovely Malmö in southern Sweden, From Business to Buttons is the meeting place in Europe for interaction designers, business strategist and usability experts. This year it will be held on June 11-12.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

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