In my previous post, I hinted to the five main principles of the Microsoft Chemical Reference Architecture (ChemRA). In this post, I will dive a little deeper into one of these principles, user experience (UX). As I mentioned in my previous post, chemical customers use different applications acquired from different solution providers over the years, or developed in-house, or acquired by mergers and acquisitions. Many end users complain that they have to learn how to use a number of applications that present different user interfaces (UI) and maybe based on different technologies. These users often get confused in complicated interfaces with several layers menus and submenus, toolbars, dialogs, and other UI elements. Not to mention that many applications present too much functionality making it difficult to find the few functions a particular user needs to use as such functions are usually buried in several layers of cascading menus and commands.

Below is an example of a traditional form used to in applications built in the 1990’s. Notice the cluttered fields that the user needs to fill out and the dull grey look and feel of the form. This is typical of applications built in that era, many of which are still in use in the chemical industry.

 

UX is usually based on three main elements: technology (graphical, touch, voice, etc.), people (graphic designers, information architects, interaction designers), and processes (strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, surface). Technology is an enabler that designers use to their advantage as they follow elaborate processes to build their user interfaces. Although technology alone is not enough to guarantee good UX, it is an essential element and will be the focus of this post.

With new UI technologies, like Microsoft SilverLight, it is now possible to create highly interactive, elegant and highly functional applications inside the browser, or stand-alone. The new hypertext markup language (HTML 5) standard is also emerging as a major player in building applications with great interactive UX that adhere to an open industry standard, making it possible to run such applications in multiple browsers and support multiple form factors: personal computers (PCs), smart phones, flat screen devices (such as Microsoft Surface), or tablets.

The figure below shows the power of SilverLight technology in enabling analytical functionality within the browser environment. It also shows the possibility to integrate such technology with other technologies, such as portals, dashboards (e.g. Microsoft SharePoint), communication technologies (such as Microsoft Lync), and other visualization tools. Such integrations are also available on different screens from small smart phones to PCs and large flat screens.

One of the basic principles of good UX design is simplicity and disambiguation. Simple uncluttered screens with easy natural navigation offer a great way for end users to do their work efficiently with little or no confusion or frustration. The inclusion of too many functions on a screen that may not even be accessible based on the users role, and thus may be “greyed out”, is a bad design. A good design shows the few functions a user can perform clearly and with no room for confusion. A good design also allows the user to interact with the screens in any way that fits the situation they are in. If the user happens to be working in an environment that does not lend itself to using a keyboard, the application should allow the user to interact with it through voice or gesture. An example of this would be a worker wearing thick gloves on a production line that make it difficult to type. Such worker should be able to convey her commands to the application using her voice.

Microsoft Kinect technology for the XBOX has a great potential to be used in manufacturing applications, including chemical manufacturing. Kinect SDK for Windows allows developers and software vendors to build applications that can understand and user gestures. Some software providers are already experimenting in using Kinect as an entrance to the application replacing the login screen with facial recognition through the advanced Kinect cameras. Users who, based on their work conditions, cannot touch an instrument or keyboard, nor can they use voice commands due to noise conditions around them, may be able to interact with different commands in the application using such gestures.

It is imperative that the reference architecture take advantage of the new UX technologies and provide guidance on how and when to use it relevant to the chemical industry to create such elegant, interoperable, and interactive applications that help customers do their jobs more efficiently based on their role in the organization.