Usability and user experience as a competitive advantage
The comparison between a high-performance Formula 1 car and a highly efficient logistics center is obvious: the decisive factor for success is the overall package. In motorsports, for example, you need not only the frame, engine, and tires, but also a driver who makes optimum use of the vehicle and the technology. The same applies to the logistics center: it needs the right balance between material flow, mechanics, IT, and the people who work with the technology in order to optimally exploit all potential in the internal and external supply chain. Good usability, user experience, and connectivity do not only support the employees “driving” the system but are increasingly becoming a competitive advantage in intralogistics.
Transparent machine user interfaces have become decisive factors. They save time, create process reliability, and are important when it comes to attracting employees. Dominik Simbeck and his team at WITRON are thinking through and mapping demanding logistics processes in such a way that the workers in the logistics centers can work efficiently on the basis of easily understandable dialogs.
The right balance leads to success
“For decades, WITRON has been setting benchmarks in distribution logistics, especially in food retail, with its automated solutions. It is crucial that we look at a project from end-to-end”, explains Dominik Simbeck, Head of the Competence Center - Basic Project Support. “The machines, the processes, the system service, and, of course, the people who work in the logistics center. A project can only be successful if you have all dimensions in mind and when the balance is right. Or to put it simple: Usability is just as important as physics - and vice versa. Both must always get due consideration.”
This view of WITRON and Dominik Simbeck is also being shared by the users. In addition to core factors such as cost-efficiency, availability, and performance, customers particularly demand optimal ergonomics in terms of processes and workstations, which also includes good usability and user experience”, explains Dominik Simbeck who is responsible for the new generation of user interfaces with his team.
New requirements for the user interfaces
In her podcast interview, Franziska Müller from Migros Verteilbetrieb Neuendorf AG, a leading Swiss food retailer, worded clear requirements, some of which are new, for WITRON’s user interfaces. “Simple screens as we know them from apps would be good for many users. They would help us define simple operating steps that can be learned quickly.” The message got through to the experts from Parkstein. “Our priorities used to be more on other areas such as the function of our systems. But as already mentioned before: the balance in the solution must be right. That is why we pursue the topics of usability, user experience, and connectivity with just as much passion for innovation as the core factors mentioned above. In 2021, Franziska Müller and her colleagues will be presented with several new developments from WITRON.
Good usability - the successes are measurable
In the past, WMS developers at WITRON were responsible for the design of the user interfaces, which was definitely evident in the complexity of some dialogs”, Simbeck smiles. “Today, employees from the process management take care of this, who are deliberately no technicians. The development of function and design was actively separated from each other”, according to the trained IT specialist.
“We are simplifying interfaces, focusing on processes, and on the user.” Because the customers’ employees have also changed. “On the one hand, we are dealing less with tech-savvy people and, at the same time, with a generation that is growing up with smart phones. They demand that the picking app runs basically the same way as the weather app. But still, more important than chasing trends is that the development works and benefits the user.”
Before developing dialogs, Dominik Simbeck and his team are therefore frequently on site at the logistics centers, observing the users, their behavior, talking to them about their needs, and analyzing habits. “After all, the user should click as little as possible to fill a shipping tote with goods.” In Parkstein, the developers then model the processes and design the first click dummies, which they take back to the users to test for practical feasibility together with them.
Can the success of a user interface be measured? “Franziska Müller’s post shows how. The customer demands change because the processes must not be complex, and training new employees should be quick and easy. In the past, this was hard to measure, but now we use tools that can analyze how well employees can work with the interface. We save time, create high acceptance, and process reliability. User interfaces can create a positive work and machine feeling. This is an argument for both the efficiency of a system and the competition for specialists.”
Is the warehouse standard on the way?
Is that why customers pay for good usability and user experience? Simbeck is ambivalent. “On the one hand - especially for new projects - they take it for granted, but especially for retrofit projects, customers are also willing to invest money in new user interfaces.” However, he is certain that good user interfaces are now an important decision criterion in project negotiations. “Customers want a highly available system. Equally important are leading-edge workstations. Therefore, if we can also present state-of-the-art interfaces in negotiations, many customers will immediately verify whether the designs fit their individual requirements.”
But not every customer implements a logistics center with the same supplier. Do we therefore need standards for user interfaces to allow employees to switch flexibly from a frozen goods warehouse of supplier A to a dry goods warehouse of supplier B in the future? “There is no standard, but there are initial voluntary approaches. Material design is a guideline that we have internalized. And many other manufacturers use it as well. That means: Menu icons no longer differ from each other.” But too much standard would not make sense from his point of view either; after all, usability and UX are competitive factors.
Gestures and voice?
Simbeck is convinced that the importance of usability and UX will continue to grow. “We think modularly in our interfaces. The logistics manager needs different visualizations and operations than the person responsible for the control center or the picker - and yet the interface must be all in one piece. Then, in principle, we could also react quickly and flexibly to technical trends such as gesture controls or voice requirements.” Or to return to our previous comparison with motorsports: The overall package is decisive, and the car must fit the driver - and vice versa.