Embedded Software Design

Embedded Software Design More Challenging than Web and Mobile

For a user experience (UX) professional, designing for the embedded device environment is an opportunity to tap some of the skills that in web and mobile typically get streamlined right out of the process. Here, those skills are not only welcome but essential to delivering a state-of-the-art interface.

Here’s what I mean. Advances in design software, adoption of tight device-specific best practices and establishment of common interaction patterns have made it much easier to design web and mobile apps. These changes have improved the UX design process and enhanced collaboration with team members, clients and other stakeholders.

In turn, these advancements have made designers like me realize that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel on every project since most web and mobile design projects share extensive commonality (or at least significant overlap) of problems. So we've streamlined the design process by adopting best practices aimed at solving the most common and pressing web and mobile design challenges. 

Studies in user behavior and habits based on these commonalities led to the development of design patterns documented as best practices — valuable information any designer can easily reference with the click of a mouse. Today, the design process is more compact, where an array of options has (probably for good reason) been taken off the table so that the solution is one that is familiar to the user, and very much dictated by the deployment platform.

Websites and apps — especially social and productivity apps — today are routinely copied in terms of flow and interaction. And sometimes even formal design elements such as layout, typography and color scheme are copied. That’s why modern websites and many apps feel familiar upon first viewing. There’s commonality of look and feel, as well as flow.

The Trap of Templatization 

For the most part, UX professionals and their customers have benefited from this reliance on templates. It speeds the design process and reduces risk. Certainly templatization makes a designer’s job easier, and it leads to web and mobile sites as comfortable as a pair of fuzzy slippers.

But — and this is important — templatization can be a trap in the realm of embedded software design. Sure, there’s a place for them. But overreliance can be problematic in this arena, where projects involve designing defibrillators and self-driving vehicles, for instance, rather than mobile apps. The design challenges are more arduous.

Typically, the constraints relative to the target hardware are unique and not universally documented the way they are for web and mobile apps, making the designer’s job more difficult. Functional and workflow requirements are also usually quite complex so designers must immerse themselves in the subject matter even though they have extensive experience in the client’s industry. That means the design team must make a significant investment to get up to speed up at the outset of any embedded software design project.

In addition, designers must explore areas that are typically absent from mobile design, such as ergonomics and human factors, since the context of use for an embedded device is generally particular to that device — and understanding it completely is crucial to the outcome.

As creatives, we all like to stay on top of the design and interaction trends, but that can be a challenge when talking about embedded devices. The luxury of the feedback loop and regular updates aren’t always available. In fact, embedded-software designers often find themselves designing for a deployment that may be a year away. And designing a device that may then stay in the field for another few years — sometimes longer.

For this reason, it’s essential for UX designers working on embedded software to separate current trends — what mobile app designers live for — from best practices. It’s the only way to ensure their design solutions will have the necessary longevity.

The Benefits of Pure UX

As much as it’s fun to flex all our creative and UX muscles, it would be hard to justify to a customer all the extra hours if the time isn’t absolutely needed or if there are solid libraries to draw upon in order to speed up the project. At ICS and Boston UX, we solve this problem by identifying any commonalities — beyond just best practices for touch interfaces — so that we can be most efficient when picking up new tech or understanding a complex set of requirements. (While there will never be as many commonalities as are found in web or mobile design, often some do exist in embedded.) And we work hard to create our own guidelines for the devices we’re designing, which we can call upon in the future.

By engaging in "pure UX" we’re able to deliver solutions that not only benefit our clients’ businesses, but have longevity and real potential to positively impact society. That’s the reason my colleagues and I got into this line of work in the first place.

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