‘Increase Your Probability of Success’ – Human-Centered Design for Robotics

Mar 8, 2022 | News

No longer locked away in cages, robots are becoming more user-centered and collaborative. To make this possible, a strategic approach to the design process is becoming increasingly important. This was one of the takeaways from a webinar titled “Human-Computer Interaction Design for Robotics,” which was recently hosted by the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.

As these robots become more collaborative, more people are interacting with them.

“You needed a PhD in robotics or a high degree and then you were able to touch the robot,” says Juan Arapicio, Vice President of Product at READY Robotics and a panelist at the event. “The result of that is that a lot of people were left out. The same happened with computers at the beginning. We are on the same journey. If you look at how computers were in the 80’s, only a few people knew how to program, and then you realize computers can enter the home.”

Arapicio is making sure that no one is left out this time. His company, READY Robotics, has created a universal no-code interface that enables anyone to easily program robots. However, functionality is only a part of the battle, and human-centered design is required to make sure that the robots aren’t intimidating to would-be users.

According to Doug Descalzi, a fellow panelist and Vice President of Robotics & Automation at Omnicell, robots need to be designed with approachability in mind so that non-expert users have the confidence to interact. “It has to be much more intuitive. You have to be able to approach it and not be like, ‘Whoa, I don’t want to go anywhere near that thing.’ You have to make it more like products that other people have seen before. Everyone knows how an iPhone or an Android phone works. You wouldn’t believe how many people say, ‘Doug, just make it look like a phone.’”

This approachability is critical considering that the technology created by Omnicell, a global pharmacy automation company that calls Western Pennsylvania the home of it’s largest office, is used not by expert roboticists and technologists but by a diverse group of healthcare professionals including nurses and pharmacy techs. “You’re trying to design for everybody, no matter what their backgrounds are,” Doug adds.

Omnicell’s automation technology is capable of reducing medication errors and improving patient safety. With so much on the line, dedication to design is a responsibility, not an afterthought. This is true whether your company is worth billions of dollars, like Omnicell is, or if it’s a startup.

Jacob Guggenheim, Vice President of Engineering at VistaPath Biosystems, which is also in the healthcare space, understands the importance of design for a smaller company. “It’s a very expensive process to redo if you mess it up and, and perhaps for a startup my size it’s actually like an existential threat… It’s one of those things where if you make a mistake early on it could be fairly catastrophic for your company.”

Ultimately, he says, robots are a human augmentation device, and this necessitates keeping both humans and machines in mind during the design process. “You really need to think of both of them together as a partnership attempting to solve the problem rather than, ‘Oh, this is a machine that solves the problem.’”

The panel was moderated by Bally Design President and CEO Julie Gulick, who’s Pittsburgh-based industrial design firm has been helping innovative robotics companies master human-centered design since the 1980s. This process, she says, comes down to one thing. “Design, human-centered design, HCI, human-computer interaction, UX, user experience, usability – so many words, all with different meanings, but all pointing to one thing: market adoption. This is the bottom line – who will use your product and why?”

Other key takeaways from the event include:

  • Design is a process, not an event. Start iterating. Start small, and start immediately (and map the journey).
  • Take your big swings with software. You can often fix hardware shortcomings with software.
  • Understand your personas – the different types of user that will be interacting with your product – and design with their needs and experiences in mind.
  • Ego is the enemy. Don’t skip validation and testing.
  • Design is the responsibility of everyone.

This event, which was part of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network’s Industry Spotlight series, was made possible by Bally Design. You can view the full event on the Pittsburgh Robotics Network YouTube channel.