It was Acceptable in the Noughties

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If, given the recent upheavals in the world, the term "political correctness" still has any meaning, then we all know how the interaction that we have as a society has evolved substantially in recent years. So, too, have the ways in which we interact with computer systems.

The vast majority of people who use computers today are not "techies" or "nerds," but regular people who just want to get on and do their jobs more easily. The software user-interface, however, has in most cases not kept up. It is not just about making a pretty picture, but more about the whole user interaction experience and the value that people can, in practice, get from the interaction. Depending on the computer software design, the value from different solutions with similar specifications can be radically different.

For many years, the focus of computer systems was "data driven." Computers have always been naturally suited to data management, evidenced by the not so humble spreadsheet being one of the earliest and most widely utilized software tools ever conceived. Software created in the eighties, nineties and noughties were also very much oriented towards displays of sheets of data, powered by standard databases, aided by common software components from companies such as Microsoft. In many software products for manufacturing, the common approach was to show as many as possible, if not all, of the various data elements about products, machines and processes to engineers, who liked to feel totally in control of what they were doing. The need, however, to manage complex databases, to have detailed views of values and attributes of anything in the digital domain, rapidly became a major distraction to people performing their designated roles. Even production managers would pore over seemingly endless reports of events in manufacturing, trying to find and assess patterns and trends.

Many software packages even today, especially those that provide generic solutions for ERP, MES etc., still at their core look and feel like “slightly more intelligent” spreadsheets. Different pieces of software are often indistinguishable from each other from a distance, each hiding literally hundreds of functions hidden in myriads of different menu trees. Navigating through the various options and functions requires an experienced, if not brave, engineer. It has all led to a high degree of specialization based on extensive experience. With pretty much any software tool in a manufacturing operation today, there is a critical dependency developing on a single user who has invested a significant part of their lives to learn, understand and hopefully remember how to do something that is required probably only once or twice a year.

The cost of bank-rolling this distraction from the intended role of each key person has been grudgingly accepted by management, as they saw the benefits from the various systems. Unfortunately, the dependencies on individuals in the organization inevitably carries significant risk. Manufacturing companies do not have resources to invest in a pipeline of skills to sustain long-term engineering knowledge. In Western countries, where volume manufacturing itself has long since moved to lower cost areas of the world, meager budgets remain. Many companies are left with aging engineers who carry the full experience and knowledge of their respective operations. To consider their replacements, or even to consider additional resource as opportunities for on-shoring or re-shoring appear, brings the acute realization of skills shortages, with almost no flexibility for change.

The vast majority of manufacturing software packages still expose their simple data-driven interfaces, due to the difficulty of changing existing complex software. Some software providers have "bolted on" some eye-catching visual displays, for example, 3D graphical models of the process, line or factory, showing cartoon characters walking around like a 1980s video game. The real justification for such elements is likely more for differentiation at trade shows rather than adding significant engineering value, as in real use, these tools simply continue to be used in the way they always have been.

To make a real paradigm change requires a completely new approach in the way that software itself is constructed. Development has to be driven by the user experience and the values to be gained from using the software on a daily basis, rather than simply data manipulation.

When considering a new purchase of software, or an upgrade of an existing software product, it is important to understand the impact that software interaction technology has on the business. Key people in the organization are going to spend most of their professional time interacting with the software. A critical part of their ability to be productive and efficient, as well as to actually enjoy what they are doing, is dependent on the way that the interaction with the software works.


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