Future workplace: Human-machine interfaces
Future Workplace

"Working with machines has to be enjoyable"

Prof. Michael Burmester explains in an interview why user experience is becoming increasingly important in human-machine interfaces.
What do human-machine interfaces for the future workplace need to look like? An interview with Prof. Michael Burmester from the Stuttgart Media University.

Mr. Burmester, there were times when the focus in the development of human-machine interfaces was purely on functionality. Are users still content with that?

Certainly not. User interfaces need to be fit for purpose and easy to use. Meanwhile, however, the criterion “positive user experience” becomes more and more important. That means that I have positive emotions during and before the application as well as after. This should not devalue usability, but particularly with regard to the future workplace, we must consider: How do we create enjoyable experiences when using technologies?

How can positive user experience be realized in the work environment?

Prof. Dr. Michael Burmester has been working as a professor for ergonomics and usability within the information design study program at Stuttgart Media University. There, the graduated psychologist established the User Experience Research Lab.
In the Design4Xperience project, sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), we found out in numerous interviews what experiences people perceive as positive in their working life – initially leaving the technical aspect completely out of the equation. The results were that they enjoy, for example, facing challenges, and find it very pleasant when they can help someone else. There are also positive experiences that are often underestimated, such as simple feedback on the progress of their own activity, or that they have contributed to a joint goal.

What does that mean for technical interfaces?

Systems are indeed sparingly giving feedback – even though they know a whole lot about the user in the age of digitization. The system could give feedback, for example, on what the user has achieved in a day, or what the user did well.

Can you give us an example?

I was at a conference on Industry 4.0, where a group of researchers presented a system that observes people assembling computers. The system pointed out to the employees, for example, whenever they installed a component too soon. I asked, why don't we use this massive knowledge to give the workers positive feedback? The system could show the people, for example, how many computers they have managed to assemble in a day. For a moment, there was complete silence in the room – until the developers said: You're right, we have not even thought of that.

To what extent is the criterion positive user experience already taken into account in human-machine interfaces?

Through our numerous contacts with companies we know that user experience only plays a superficial role in work contexts – if at all. Yet there are already studies that show that users prefer interfaces that elicit positive experiences. In work contexts, however, the prevalent view continues to be that we must first and foremost be productive and efficient.

What mistakes are made especially often in interface development?

Systems always have an incredible urge to think ahead. There's one example that probably everyone knows: when you are typing, the system suggest words that are directly accepted unless you explicitly reject them. That leads to constant corrections and is far from ideal.

Does that mean people need more freedom of choice again?

Definitely. With regard to user experience it's important that we can decide as we see fit. That also applies to usability: users want to interact according to their own requirements and speed, without the machine prescribing what they should do. This principle is, however, increasingly cancelled out by a high degree of automation.

How do user interfaces differ in the work and consumer environment?

In the consumer domain, usability and user experience are already very important. If users don't like an app, for example, they can simply use a different one. In the work environment, by contrast, users are often forced to work with a specific system. Ultimately, you then take the risk, that people need longer to get used to the system.

Does that mean there needs to be a rethink in the work environment?

"People have more enjoyment through a better user experience and thus work in a more concentrated and creative manner."
Absolutely. Companies achieve greater productivity through better usability. People have more enjoyment through a better user experience and thus work in a more concentrated and creative manner. Through our projects we know that there is often considerable need for action. However, changes are naturally always a matter of setting priorities.

Will new human-machine interfaces such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) help workers?

In working life, the usage context is always critical for using technologies: how can augmented and virtual reality support people in their work? In the field of architecture, benefits can certainly be achieved through virtual reality, since I can capture spaces early on and make design corrections. However, do I really need a 3D simulation of a refinery? It might look cool, but it's not really necessary for controlling or managing a system. I am also wearing these glasses that may be more of a hindrance.

Major companies often have locations all over the world. Must each country be looked at individually when deploying user interfaces?

Anyone who doesn't consider cultural differences may possibly end up paying a high price. This starts with the language that needs to be translated: some languages are longer or shorter and can thus cause major problems in the interface. Entire satellites have already burned up in space because project participants from different cultural groups didn't agree on the units of measurement used. Studies also show that there are different cultural demands on technology. Europeans primarily want interfaces to be functional, effective and efficient. Asians, on the other hand, want them to be enjoyable and fun. Work attitudes also differ: German engineers are big on planning, for example, while American engineers prefer to try things out.

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