Both of you spent many years in the computer game industry. Game development is a more exciting activity, surely?
Jörg Niesenhaus: Not at all. Industry poses complex, context-specific issues. Meeting these challenges, in a playful way, is great fun. You are constantly confronted with new problems, and you get to know diverse work contexts.
Roman Rackwitz: I have never understood why playing games – which is universally recognized as a primeval aspect of human behaviour – has been completely excluded from the professional sphere. I am convinced that it will be entirely beneficial if we succeed in harnessing human creativity to solving all the challenges facing humankind ‒ now and in coming years.
What can industrial users learn from gaming applications?
Niesenhaus: Playful approaches offer a potential for motivation which, unfortunately, we seldom use in our working lives. A game-oriented perspective on work processes helps us to respond to user requirements and rethink processes with the aim of making them more attractive. In addition, games are an effective teaching tool. We learn by playing. These insights can be applied to industry. Virtual training modules are ideally suited to complex assignments. Users can get to grips with new material without fear of making critical errors.
What are the implications of gamification for user interfaces – will we soon be playing with industrial machines?
Rackwitz: In contrast to approaches involving “serious games” and simulations, gamification does not aim to develop new games. Instead, it aims to transfer gaming elements to industrial applications – e.g. interaction with machines. This makes it easier to intuitively grasp complex issues. In a gaming context even monotonous and repetitive tasks are viewed positively – as part of the overall solution. Industrial machine interfaces lag years behind those that are successfully deployed in the gaming industry. This is regrettable, yet at the same time represents a huge opportunity. In contrast to pure computer gaming, gamification creates the basis for focused and immersive interaction – for example, with a machine. It is not designed to distract the user.
Who is responsible for integrating user interfaces into the control processes?
Rackwitz: Depending on the specific situation, Centigrade develops the user interfaces in cooperation with the machine manufacturers’ engineers, designers and software teams. When designing a machine control panel we often divide up the work: we take care of the UI logic and support the customer with the integration of the UI into the machine data. For technically oriented readers: we work according to the MVVM Pattern, in which the application’s data model is completely separate from its visualization.
How can you measure the success of a user interface?
Rackwitz: The user interface is always the basis for interactions between humans and machines. In an ideal case the UI should eliminate monotony and repetition – both of which are the main reasons for inattentiveness. In many cases, however, user interfaces are developed according to criteria such as efficiency, CI and simplicity. We do not deny the importance of factors such as efficiency and recognizability. But these factors also incur opportunity costs. Only those who know both sides can find the most efficient solution. There are national and international standards for evaluating user interfaces. These are openly available. This is how we must judge our work.
Are user interfaces relevant in terms of marketing?
Niesenhaus: As we already indicated, user interfaces can achieve various goals – from triggering purchase decisions to boosting efficiency. Of course, there are systems which sell well on account of their user interfaces. However, ease of use is increasingly seen as a “hygiene factor”. When a UI fails to function as the user expects, this creates a negative impression.
Rackwitz: In the best case – i.e. if the UI is really good – this results in a positive emotional experience and a measurable increase in efficiency. The marketing department then has double the motivation to opt for this interface.
Due to the fun factor, won’t employees be seduced into working more?
Niesenhaus: User participation is the key to success. I doubt that user interfaces (either with or without gamification) seduce people into working more. Our goal is to increase job satisfaction. In other words, the user experience is more positive. Employees feel pleasantly challenged, without interpreting this as an additional burden.
Rackwitz: “Seduced into having fun?” I don’t think this is possible – if you interpret “seduced” as persuading someone to do something against his will. Deployed properly, gamification means that employees have more fun at work. However, this functions exclusively on the basis of the emotion “fun”. No-one can be coerced or persuaded to have fun. UI design against the will of the user is not possible. Our goal is not an increased workload, but increased job satisfaction.
Do we need a UI standard?
Niesenhaus: The challenges facing industry are so diverse that a single standard will not function. Software frameworks definitely have their merits. But we are convinced that customized UIs are the sole recipe for success.
Rackwitz: Once again from a user’s viewpoint: what would we lose if we opted for uniformity? Imagine the computer games industry had made the same mistake and, following the success of Space Invaders, had laid down fixed standards for control and visualization. We would have missed out on a lot of good games and their sequels. Diversity and dynamic change appeal to different user groups. Within a given company there are various types of software user. There are major differences between successive versions of the same computer game. This is why people are motivated to buy and play similar games.
What are the latest trends in user interfaces?
Niesenhaus: We are experiencing a strong trend towards web-based frameworks – irrespective of whether a cloud-based or local application is involved. In addition, there is now a shift towards greater detail and spatial representation – following on from a period in which we tried to keep everything as one-dimensional as possible. In general we are witnessing a trend towards real-time 3D visualization in user interfaces.
Will voice control lead to improved user interfaces?
Rackwitz: Firstly, even if everything else is voice-controlled, it will take a long time before voice control systems function properly in a work-related environment. Secondly, it is all a matter of context. There will be areas in which voice control works perfectly; and there will be other areas in which voice control does not function.
Niesenhaus: Multimodal user interfaces already exist. I believe in the practical integration of various interaction paradigms. Voice-based interaction may be useful in some cases (e.g. hands-free operation), but in safety-critical environments (such as those frequently found in industry) voice control is not safe and reliable enough. It could be deployed in a supporting role in specific scenarios.