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Is Technology Changing Us? Evolution of the Human Machine Interface

By Tim Ingold, Jr. Director of Technology & Innovation, Jabil

Jul 02, 2015

There is something about the smooth lines and that cool-to-the-touch feel of polished not-too-heavy aluminum. As though anticipating my touch, three images come to life before the glow of another world from just behind the glass. It's a vast universe of information, relevant to me in every way - based on who I am and what I like and it’s keenly aware of my surroundings. With a few small movements, my finger gains the power to access vast amounts of information; the power to control things, to manipulate my environment. And with that, all of my power is whisked away to be replaced with an ill-timed Facebook "selfie" of my sister. "Hello... Yeah... I'm just playing with my new phone, but I can meet you at the movies."

The way we interact with objects in our world has come quite a long way since the cogs and dials of steam engines. The industrial revolution gave way to countless electronic devices that needed new switches and other electro-mechanical controls. The computing era introduced software that can quickly make thousands of decisions based on a myriad of input. Then, the mobile internet era turned interfaces upside down again with innovation that combined active displays with capacitive multi-touch surfaces and expanded voice recognition into millions of homes. Now, the era of sensors and sophisticated software combines input from all of these sources with the reach of the internet to interpret changes to the device's environment, predict what needs to happen and adjust accordingly.

To develop the next great product in an increasingly competitive and often consumerized world, should equipment manufacturing skip the arcane mechanisms of the past and jump directly to invisible design, an idea that interfaces should be minimally intrusive - one where automated decision making reigns supreme? Absolutely not. Human Interface is an evolution seeded deeply in the culture and values of its users.

A successful product strategy hinges on understanding its users and how they are evolving. Too often, products are rushed to market with the latest and greatest features but little attention to human factors that gate adoption. New products often fail to capitalize on innovative technologies that could disrupt entire markets in favor of incremental adjustments to the time-tested way it's always been done.

As an example, my smartphone delicately balances human factors and ergonomics with increased display sizes and extended capabilities into already tight quarters. The position of each tactile surface is no accident. I interact with electro-mechanical buttons, with discreet capacitive buttons, and with a capacitive multi-touch display. It packs high quality stereo speakers and a high fidelity microphone, as well as two high resolution cameras. The software takes advantage of an always-on wireless internet connection to adjust to the weather based on GPS-satellite coordinates.

The smartphone product strategy doesn't look only to the future. It combines the best ideas from the past century of human interface technology to give me a natural-feeling way to interact with it. And at the same time, it's teaching me new skills: evolving the way I interact with other devices both at home and at work.

Standing in line at the movie concession, I'm fiddling with my phone again when I noticed a clear plastic cover placed over each of their new registers' large multimedia displays. It struck me that after paying so much for devices that are clearly meant to enhance their brand image, someone had fashioned a low-rent plastic cover. I questioned the clerk as she poured me an $8 barrel of Diet Coke. It turns out that people were touching the displays; they didn’t understand why it didn't work. The public's interface skills had been upgraded by the technology around them. If my 10-inch tablet display is a touchscreen, certainly this 10-inch display would have touch capability as well.

Your product strategy can leverage the evolution of your users to your advantage. Healthcare, industrial and capital equipment brands face unique challenges ensuring that the interfaces to their products are impervious to liquid and dust, easy to clean and sterilize, and last much longer than the average consumer device. By replacing most the electro-mechanical switches, they can improve the product’s long-term reliability and at the same time introduce discrete capacitive buttons and sealed touchscreens with no mechanical gaps. Flat, contiguous surfaces are easier to clean and have no points of entry for particulates. Best of all, end users already understand them.

Interface technologies will continue to evolve, and so will the users that interact with them. The most successful products will balance the changing needs of their users by adopting the best mix of innovative technologies rather than just the latest.

Watching Tony Stark talk to his virtual assistant and gesture through a virtual library of Iron Man schematics, I can't help but wonder how these technologies will impact us beyond the silver screen. It's easy to think of how, with today's technology, voice recognition could allow a doctor to adjust surgical equipment mid-surgery and motion in the air to turn the page of a projected MRI scan.

Tim Ingold, Jr. Director of Technology & Innovation

Tim Ingold is Jabil’s Director of Technology & Innovation, collaborating with technology development teams around the world on trends that impact the future of innovation strategy and pioneering new ways to leverage our extensive capabilities.

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