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January 2022
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Building and nurturing an inclusive culture is becoming increasingly important for many companies, whether it’s achieved through attracting and hiring more diverse candidates, or finding ways to make their existing employees feel more supported in bringing their authentic selves to work — wherever that work happens. At Rockwell Automation, we’re also endeavoring to make our workplace more inclusive. However, we’ve also been looking outside the proverbial walls of that workplace, exploring ways in which inclusion is expressed in the industrial products and solutions we design, develop, and bring to market for our diverse users every day.

Inclusive design — or a lack thereof — plays a subtle but key role in how people use and experience products and solutions. And, people are expecting more from those experiences, demanding that they cater to their individuality and abilities. In this article, I’m going to explain what inclusive design is, why it matters, and then describe a few approaches we’re taking at Rockwell to weave inclusion into our industrial product and solution experiences—and how you can do the same—acknowledging that there could be some nuances relating to inclusive design in the industrial-automation domain that could be new to you.

According to the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University,“Inclusive design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.”

Creating designs that consider the full range of human diversity is complex and at times ambiguous, right? But that’s the challenge we must accept every day: Designing for humans who may be unlike us and bring to our products and solutions different cultural perspectives, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences. Note, this doesn’t mean that we can realistically design blanket solutions that meet the needs of everyone. On their Inclusive Design Toolkit website, the University of Cambridge states, “Inclusive design does not suggest that it is always possible (or appropriate) to design one product to address the needs of the entire population.” Rather, its focus is to provide solutions “for the best possible coverage for the population,” all while ensuring that target users are clearly defined.

The industrial-automation domain is more human facing than you might think, and Rockwell’s users can be diverse as populations and groups, but also as individuals. They may differ by age, gender, language or physical or cognitive abilities. Why does inclusive design matter? As author Vale Querini puts it in her CareerFoundry article, “What is Inclusive Design? A Beginner’s Guide,” “If we don’t intentionally include, the risk is to unintentionally exclude.” These risks also impact the bottom line. “Failing to design for inclusion could lead to brand-damaging experiences and cause us to lose market share to competitors who have designed their solutions to be inclusive,” says Jerry Cook, senior manager of Rockwell’s User Experience Design Team. Worst of all, failing to design for inclusion in industrial environments can lead to user errors or unintended actions that could result in dangers to humans and costly incidents — which I’ll get to.

Designing for inclusion is a journey, and we’ve been designing our industrial products and solutions to address the following key aspects of inclusive design:

· Designing for accessibility

· Applying best practices for visualizations

· Supporting localization

According to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) website, “When websites and web tools are properly designed and coded, people with disabilities can use them.” However, this extends beyond what we might consider websites and web tools. All digital products must be accessible, including—and especially—those used in dangerous industrial environments.

“We’ve been designing for different environments, for example by choosing contrast ratios wisely — striving to achieve a WCAG 2.1 AAA level of contrast — and using more than just color to convey information,” says Matthew Shea, a senior user interface designer. “There are an estimated 300 million people in the world who are visually impaired, which includes anyone from legally blind, to those with less than 20/20 vision; and the environments in which our users work often have insufficient, if not dusky lighting—and our users must often wear protective eyewear. But we can’t focus solely on contrast. We must also ensure that interactive elements are identified, and provide clear and consistent cues for those interactive and navigational elements. Our form elements need to provide immediate, appropriate feedback—which is crucial in bustling manufacturing environments—and provide appropriate system controls and alternatives.”

“One of the capabilities users especially need is keyboard support,” adds John McCauley, a lead user interface designer. “Being able to effectively navigate an application is critical for our diverse users, some of whom must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while they perform their work. Imagine interacting with your touch device while wearing thick gloves. Enabling screen readers and other assistive tools to support users is also important, as is being mindful of line length and white space to aid readability.”

“The formatting of dates is another issue I’d like to specifically highlight,” continues McCauley, “because it can be confusing for users—in any context or domain—if those formats aren’t carefully considered. For example, in the United States, we tend to represent dates numerically, with the month preceding the day. November 8 would be written as 11/8. However, users in many other countries are used to seeing the day precede the month. For those users, November 8 would be written as 8/11. While this is a localization consideration, it has accessibility implications too. This is because using numeric formats for dates, in general, could cause users with dyslexia to misinterpret them because numbers are interchangeable and could form incorrect dates that look valid. The solution? Represent the month with letters instead of numbers, which greatly reduces ambiguity and could work in any order. For example, even an abbreviated format, like Nov 8, or 8 Nov, is more comprehensible for users regardless of their locations or contexts, and would be more inclusive of users with dyslexia.”

A visualization refers to a graphical representation of data or information. In industrial automation contexts, this could be a Human-Machine Interface (HMI) or an informational dashboard, which helps users understand the status of their operation.

“Visualizing data (such as using gauges or process data on human-machine interfaces [HMIs] or dashboards) helps users establish an accurate situational awareness, which is critical in making the best decisions and taking the right actions at the most appropriate times,” notes Daniel Zinzow, a senior lead user experience designer. “As an example, refer to Figure 1. What is bad? How can you tell? A visualization needs to be inclusive in its design to ensure that all users in all usage environments can quickly interpret the data correctly, without ambiguity or confusion, to prevent costly errors, incidents and accidents.”

An example of an HMI that uses too much color, which diminishes a user’s ability to be situationally aware.

An example of an HMI that uses too much color, which diminishes a user’s ability to be situationally aware.

Figure 1—An example of an HMI that diminishes a user’s ability to be situationally aware. What is bad? Image source: ISA

Unfortunately, accidents do happen, like the Texas City oil refinery disaster of 2005, during which operators were ill-equipped for having proper situational awareness of a dangerous running process, which resulted in a major explosion. Inadequate operator training is often blamed for many industrial accidents. However, human error can be mitigated through responsible design that considers human diversity as well as human limitation. Poorly designed systems fail humans, not the other way around.

An HMI example showing a responsible, more restrained use of color.

An HMI example showing a responsible, more restrained use of color.

Figure 2—An example of an HMI that enhances a user’s ability to be situationally aware through proper use of color. Image source: ISA

So, how do we design industrial visualizations and process objects to be inclusive and foster better situational awareness? Consider Figure 3, which depicts how we’ve reduced unnecessary information in a common process object. The “Bad” example uses unnecessary skeuomorphism, a gradient, and a color fill. We improved its utility by emphasizing the information that matters most, not allowing aesthetics to get in the way of creating the most usable experience. As shown in the “Best” example, the unnecessary affordances were completely removed, replaced by a well-afforded coolant flow indicator, an associated numeric value, and additional visual information to convey whether the flow level was in a good or bad state — as expressed redundantly through color, a status icon, and an outline. Together, these improvements increase the obviousness of an object’s current state. And, obvious always wins, as Luke Wroblewski has pointed out.

An example that shows a progression from bad, to better, to best, for an industrial visualization.

An example that shows a progression from bad, to better, to best, for an industrial visualization.

Figure 3—An example showing different variations of a process object. Image created by Emily Smith and Matthew Shea.

Emily Smith, a senior user interface designer, offers these tips for designing inclusive visualizations:

· Understand users, their job roles, locations, backgrounds, and education

· Consider the environment in which a visualization will be used, including the lighting conditions, noise level, technology, and workstation layout

· Prioritize the information to display to avoid information overload. Workers often work long shifts, and issues with eye fatigue and inattention are exacerbated when workers must monitor screens that are densely packed with unnecessary graphics, colors, and affordances

· Select the format for the visualization based on users and their environment

· Redundantly code elements in a visualization, since relying on color alone alienates color blind or color deficient users, and even those in different cultures, since color can connote different meanings

Localization means adapting documents and products for their target markets. As stated on the Design+Code website, localization is “not simply translating the text elements into said language but also reflecting the local culture in your website.” In addition to being mindful of how we format dates, here are some of methods we’ve used for localizing our designs at Rockwell, making them more inclusive for our target users:

· Placing labels above fields to better accommodate translation

· Making containers responsive and minimizing the use of bounding boxes with fixed dimensions

· Avoiding setting fixed positions to ensure that content flows naturally

· Making text elements easy to extract for translation, including alt-text, titles, toolbar labels and menus

· Avoiding specifying units in the user interface so that they can be easily adapted for a region or for user preference

· Localizing keyboard shortcuts and access keys

· Taking care when using images and videos to avoid showing symbolism or language related to the human body that might be offensive or confusing to users in other cultures

Many of the workers in industrial domains monitor multibillion-dollar operations that involve dangerous equipment, materials, and processes. With high stakes such as these, manufacturing companies cannot afford to make assumptions based on what they think will foster the safety and productivity of their increasingly diverse workforce. While the products or solutions you design may not be laden with such potentially severe ramifications, understanding these factors may spur innovations that are no less valuable to your users, in any context.

Designing solutions for underrepresented users can often derive breakthroughs that would benefit everyone, as Don Norman astutely points out in this excellent video on design for the elderly. Consider the products and solutions you’ve designed and are planning to bring to market. Has a representative group of users — perhaps including those with limited physical or cognitive abilities — been given opportunities to influence those products? On their Inclusive Design website, the Microsoft Design Team aptly sums this up by saying, “Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally.” It’s insufficient to wait until a solution has been created for an assumed, common persona, and then solicit underrepresented users when meaningful change cannot be achieved. This is something we continually work on at Rockwell. We’re expanding our user research panel of software users to reflect their true diversity and taking the steps I described above to make the experiences of underrepresented users serve as a key input for our design decisions.

It’s up to us as designers to be mindful of the barriers we remove, influence, or potentially impose on our users if we’re not vigilant. As Neha Dhoundiyal eloquently states in her UXmatters article, “Inclusive Design: An Overview of Current Thinking,” “Every design decision you make either raises or lowers barriers for the people who are using the product, service, environment, or experience you’re creating. Take responsibility for lowering these barriers by creating inclusive products. Identify cases of exclusion and embrace them as opportunities to drive new ideas and create inclusive designs.”

Please share in the comments if you have tips or examples of how you’ve woven inclusive principles into the products and solutions you’ve designed!


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