Are Your Digital Plant Tools Helping Employees?

The digital plant will never be successful without user research.

We’ve said it many times and we’ll continue to say it, implementing digital tools without user research is like walking blindly onto a street—it’s very risky. Minimize that risk and maximize your investment by being open to taking the time for user research. Why? Well, chances are that YOU are considering a couple of digital solutions/tools that YOU think will solve a problem that YOU think is a bottleneck or cause of inefficiency. See the problem here?

If you’re not on the plant or factory floor every day, you probably have made assumptions about the digital tools that are needed. User research cuts through the assumptions and gives you the data you need to deploy a solution that is used and delivers real ROI. It can also help measure the success of your digital plant initiatives.

Here are some insights that user research could unearth within the digital plant:

  1. Environmental concerns. Let’s say that you thought an iPad tool would be perfect for monitoring and managing equipment on the ground. Did you consider the heavy equipment and machinery that workers interact with day-to-day? What about the safety procedures and additional protocols they need to obey? Would trying to pull up information on an iPad around heavy machinery be safe? User research takes all of this and more into account. Research findings might suggest that deploying a hands-free wearable would be a better technology fit for this user environment. Or it could be that you didn’t account for certain variables, like if your workers are wearing gloves the majority of the day. Employing a touch screen that doesn’t read through heavy gloves means that workers will be constantly taking on and off their gloves, increasing frustration and decreasing productivity.
  2. Familiarity with technology. In industries like utilities and manufacturing, the most skilled workers are usually older, meaning that they don’t always have the familiarity and expertise with technology that your younger workers may have. Deploying a solution that has an extremely fancy UI may look good but there’s a good likelihood that your older workforce will find it too complicated or overwhelming and toss it to the side. Researchers will report on issues like these and even conduct field interviews that reveal attitudes towards technology, inefficiencies that they see day-to-day and much more.
  3. Relativity. Maybe you’re thinking that pulling multiple data sources across different systems into one application would be perfect for all plant workers. But—what if users from different departments are overwhelmed by the navigation they must perform to find the data that’s relevant to their job? Designing a solution that gives users the right information at the right time is what will deliver your business an excellent ROI.

Investing in user research from the get-go helps you align business goals and objectives with user needs PRIOR to deploying a technology solution. It’s important that you don’t get attached to what YOU think might be the best solution for your users… You might be wrong.

Get qualified researchers on the plant floor to observe users in their environment, collect data and identify important considerations or even bottlenecks that your solution will need to consider.


Two Major Ways to Determine Success of Digital Plant Initiatives— Before You Launch

1. When you created the user and business requirements for the solution, you had a goal in mind for how this will change behavior, either reducing errors or improving time-on-task. How does the new situation with the digital tool compare to the old one? How much data do you have to compare? Do you have plant-appropriate KPI’s?

We've seen many IT departments launch digital and mobile products to the industrial workforce, without any concrete data validating the problem you're solving is a real problem. It’s important that you iron out the measurement of success prior to deployment and even design, as it will determine the path and approach for your digital initiative. How do you expect to get where you’re going if you don’t even know where you’re going?

This is especially important if you are mandating that all employees use the tool. This does not guarantee that the tool will meet KPIs. Employees, like the rest of us, will find workarounds if the tool does not enable them to do their job in an efficient and timely manner.
Some examples of questions to ask before launch: Is it to make better, quicker decisions based on real-time information? Improve visibility across the manufacturing process? A more connected production line? Eliminate a bottleneck? Cut a certain amount of cost?

2. Are people using the solution?

This may seem like an obvious metric to most of you but you’d be surprise how many companies roll out an initiative and call it good. If you were brave enough to implement a technology without user research, don’t assume that everyone is going to love and use it. If you want to do things right, be prepared to continuously be investing in improvements and additional user research to make sure your solution is delivering the changes and improvements you want.

Your main takeaway here is that user research is worth your investment because it eliminates assumptions to find the data and insights you need for designing and deploying a successful digital initiative. Lastly, choose a partner that has qualified and experienced user researchers in house that know what they are doing and can synthesize data and findings into meaningful applications for your initiatives.

Discover more "lessons learned" from the digital plant by taking a look at our latest research report, The Digital Transformation Roadmap for the Manufacturing Industry.

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