At its essence, industrial design is about visual communication. Designers create and deliberately organize the visual elements that make up a product so as to inform the user on a number of levels. Good design:
- Makes the product easy to use by providing visual cues that users understand.
- Visually expresses a positive emotion that users want to identify with.1
Carefully considered industrial design is just as important for laboratory instrumentation as it is for consumer product design or design for any other market. The way people feel about something, their opinion and approach to it, are influenced in large part by the way it appears. The influence is powerful, and affects us in ways that we often are not even aware of. One study found that our impressions are formed within 50 milliseconds, based primarily on appearance. 2
Appearance is also inextricably tied to marketing. How a product looks, and especially the characteristics that make up the design language of a product line, is a powerful contributor to the impression people have of a company’s brand. Many people feel they are immune to marketing messages, but they are not. Studies 3 have been done that prove that visual stimuli have an immediate and subconscious effect on everyone.
With a few exceptions, laboratory instrument designs are unremarkable. A Google image search of spectrometers returned the following:
Can you tell one company’s offering from another? There is little differentiation. And there is little to get excited about here. Searches of other instrument types give similar results. This presents an opportunity for instrumentation companies to distinguish their products through design. It also points to an opportunity for companies to increase revenue by positioning themselves as providers of entire lines of equipment rather than just individual machines. Many labs are populated with a mix of machines from different manufacturers. There is little impression of order or organization, precisely in an environment where there should be. Populating a lab with machines that are visually all part of a family will create the order and organization that is appropriate in a lab setting, and will foster a sense of precision, accuracy and efficiency in the lab’s personnel. Analytical labs can promote that as a differentiating factor in their own marketing. Pointing that out can be used as a selling point by the instrument company. By marketing an entire line of instruments, it will be easier to also sell the automation software that is associated with the instrument line. Sales of automation software is of growing importance to instrumentation companies. Good industrial design of the hardware will make the software sale easier to accomplish.
Lab instrumentation will increasingly rely on robotics for sample preparation and automation for processing. The number of samples that can be analyzed at once is increasing. Microfluidic techniques are enabling many different assays to be performed at the same time upon a single, very small sample.
What this means is that lab environments will increasingly feel like high technology centers, where the scientist is more removed from the sample than ever before. Robotics and automation will reduce the need for lab technicians. Scientists will be able to concentrate on interpreting experimental results, rather than on constructing and carrying out the experiments. This is both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, it will free scientists and techs from many repetitive, routine tasks. On the other hand, there is an aspect of craft to working in an analytical lab. Tools are important. The feel of them. The sound of them. The tactile sensations of them. Experimenters rely on them. Especially in the automated lab of the future, it will be important to employ design to provide that sense of craft. The way to do that is to be very careful with all aspects of an instrument’s touchpoints – the tactile sensations of actuating knobs and buttons, the graphic presentation of displays, etc. In the automobiles we drive, we get a sense of quality in the feeling of the way a door opens and closes, of the sound that it makes. Designers can communicate that same sense of precision and quality in the way they design such things as an instrument’s drawers, compartments and lids.
An instrument that is well-designed will be easy to use. It will be intuitive and will perform its function efficiently. When that is the case, the risks of misuse/mistakes are reduced. A well-designed instrument increases the user’s confidence. It empowers them. A poorly designed instrument that is confusing to operate makes them feel … less than competent. Similar to the power of visual cues in marketing as mentioned above, a person’s emotional response to a product is more important than most realize. Though emotion is hard to understand, to analyze and to explain rationally, it is the strongest driver of human intent and action. Carefully executed industrial design is the route to influencing the emotional response to a product. Promoting the right response enhances usability.
Effective design requires thorough consideration of a host of factors based on user research that allows the designer to understand users’ true needs. The job of the designer is to provide the user with visual information that they understand, organized in a way that makes interacting with the product intuitive, executed in a manner that makes an emotional connection. Taken as whole, an instrument’s design should be unified in every aspect. But special attention needs to be given to the instrument’s touch points – supply access points, service access points, controls, displays, etc.
The layout of components within the instrument can also have a bearing on usability. We were once involved in a project wherein a heavy component was housed inside the instrument’s lid. Users needed to access the interior of the instrument by lifting that lid a number of times each day. By moving the heavy component to a different location within the instrument, we made the user’s job much easier.
Where components are placed constrains the options that are available in establishing an instrument’s aesthetic as well. Different component layouts will yield different options for developing the overall form of the instrument. Keeping component placement fluid as concepts are developed will allow the designers to experiment with different scenarios around which to build the instrument’s form, making it more likely that an appropriate product aesthetic can be achieved.
Service and Maintenance
Good engineering design will make an instrument as durable as possible. Engineering combined with good industrial design will make the instrument quick to repair, should there happen to be a failure. Throughput is the key to profitability for many labs. They cannot afford machine down-time. Careful consideration of service and maintenance factors when the instrument is being designed will keep any potential in-use down-time to a minimum. Are access panels easy to get to? Have system subassemblies been modularized so they can be replaced quickly? Is it easy to replenish any consumables? These and similar things should all be thought through from the perspective of service and maintenance personnel.
Brand is about trust. People who have a positive experience with a company’s products come to place trust in all of the products the company offers. Developing a strong brand makes it easier to attract sales for product line extensions and for newly-developed products coming on the market. Designing a line of instruments to reflect a common brand image is a strategy that will help promote brand loyalty and encourage recurring sales.
There exists an opportunity for companies to differentiate their laboratory instrumentation products by employing carefully thought-out design. Design is important not simply because it influences the emotional response that is core to decision making. Design can also enhance usability, make service and maintenance easier, and provide the visual elements that communicate a trusted brand.
- In fulfilling these two main goals, industrial designers must understand and take into consideration many elements, including: how components will be manufactured, what the material options are vis a vis their performance and aesthetic qualities, how best to arrange components into an efficient architecture, and how the product will be serviced and maintained.
- (Lindgaard, Fernades, Dudek and Brown, “Attention web designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression!”, Behavior and Information Technology, Vol. 25, No. 2, March-April 2006)
- (Fitzsimons, Grainne M., Tanya L Chartrand, and Gavan J Fitzsimons, “Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behavior: How Apple Makes You “Think Different””, Journal Of Consumer Research, Inc., Vol. 35, June 2008.)