Over the past decade or two, we as a society have lost our collective tolerance for software being unusable. We’ve seen what great user experiences feel like in the apps we use in our daily lives as consumers, and we no longer put up with mediocre experiences at work.

If I can do things efficiently in an app on my phone at home, why shouldn’t I be able to do a similar task efficiently at work? After all, it’s often even clearer to see the impact of that lack of efficiency in this setting. Whether it’s time to onboard a new employee in a difficult labor market, time asking another person to explain things to you, or time you could be using on more crucial tasks, a business can quantify the annoyances with software being difficult. In fact, one hour a day of inefficiency for 200 operators can equal up to 25 full-time employees’ worth of work wasted every year.

Simple user experience errors can cost massive business value. Think about the business impact of a person writing the wrong digit in a form, missing a step in a process, looking up inaccurate information, or having to start a crucial inventory count all over again because of a mistake. On your shop floor, there are likely moments in which data is entered incorrectly, there’s confusion around non-linear steps, or operators have to start over because of one mistake.

Two frontline operators looking at a document

One way to improve these experiences and drive new, time-saving efficiencies is to design software with frontline workers in mind. Thankfully, manufacturers are better positioned than most to think like designers do by using similar processes as in kaizen — looking for opportunities, going to gemba, and experimenting to see the impact.

Here are some tips and best practices on how to design with frontline workers in mind:

1. Look for Opportunities to Improve Processes

You know your processes best, and as you pay attention to the specific tasks, you’ll catch moments that seem off.

As you’re evaluating processes or walking through your shop floor, look for the following:

  • Pauses: Moments when an operator might be trying to remember something from the back of their heads or looking around for where to find specific information. How could the app fill in information for them so they don’t have to look?

  • Repetitive tasks: Moments when an operator is doing the same thing over and over again (such as handing their supervisor a piece of paper) and it’s not adding value. How could that task be made more efficient?

  • Manual tasks: Moments when an operator is, for example, taking time to write things down. How could you prevent data entry errors?

  • Tasks involving multiple people: Moments when another person needs to answer a question or there’s a physical handoff between two tasks. How can you ensure each person has the information they need?

  • Tasks involving different devices: Moments when information may not be flowing as freely as possible between two different digital systems. How could these be integrated to share a single source of truth?

  • Tasks requiring significant training: Moments when operators have to be taught how to find particular information or what to do next. How could you reduce training time?

  • Times when a task was too difficult or too easy compared to the risk potential: Users should face friction when it’s most effective — confirming things that would be dangerous if unchecked, and easily flying through without bureaucracy for things that are low impact. How could you help streamline the right tasks?

  • Times when the user’s hands are full: Moments when an operator is juggling too much and can’t interact with the things around them as easily as they’d like to. How could you make it easier for them to continue progress without having to put down their work?

These are just a handful of examples, but by evaluating why the above moments might be happening in the first place, you can determine how to streamline these processes via designing optimized digital work instructions and other applications. In doing so, you’ll improve the user experience.

2. Keep the Intricacies of the Physical Work Environment in Mind

One of the most interesting things about software in the manufacturing context is that it’s almost never drawing someone’s full attention. After all, your operators are focused specifically on the main task at hand, like assembling or inspecting. Software is often in their peripheral view, and that changes how they interact with it.

Frontline operator working at a bench with the Tulip app in the background

Consider the following questions and how to adapt your software accordingly:

  • What side are the interfaces typically on?: If, for example, the interfaces are typically to an operator’s left, it makes sense to have the button for the next action live in the bottom right of the screen. Designing the app in this way makes it easier for the user to hit the button in their peripheral vision without needing to change focus to directly look at the app.

  • Is the user wearing goggles or a face shield?: In these cases, you might need to adjust the colors or the boldness of the app text so that the frontline workers can read the words properly.

  • Are the user’s hands in a glove box?: In these cases, you’ll need to determine how operators can interact with the application without their hands. For instance, you could set it up so that tasks progress via a timer or a foot pedal.

  • Is there a constant hum of noisy machines?: In these cases, an audio ding notification may not catch an operator’s attention. Instead, you’ll need to set up alerts that are written in bold colors and large enough so that they can be seen out of the corner of someone’s eye.

  • How and where is the user viewing the information?: If, for example, the operator is walking around with a tablet while working on big machinery, the text needs to be concise enough so that it can be read on the move without making them trip.

These are things that don’t often show up in a functional requirements doc for software, but they’re things you can learn pretty quickly walking around the shop floor — and adjustments you can make pretty easily with a flexible frontline operations platform.

3. Test Usability in the Real World

Once you have a prototype of your new experience, bring it to your operators and go to gemba. Head to the shop floor (bring a partner to help take notes!) and observe how people interact with your software, but be sure to approach this process with curiosity as opposed to correction. Keep in mind that you’re looking for opportunities to improve your interface.

Frontline operator referring to an app while around large machinery.

Prepare clear tasks for the operators to complete and stay silent at first when you’re observing. Then, probe where you need to by asking unbiased questions about past behavior, not future potential. Here are some tips on how to do that effectively:

  • Get specific: Provide the necessary timeframe context to get the most accurate responses. Ask questions like: “How many times in the past few weeks have you had to do this task?”

  • Be neutral: Make sure your word choice is not leading an operator to respond in a certain way. Ask questions like: “What did you expect would happen when you hit that button?”

  • Don’t assume: Give the operator the opportunity to name their own feelings about undergoing a certain process. Ask questions like: “What was easy or difficult about completing that task?”

  • Don’t name interface elements: Keep in mind that operators may have their own unique terminology for different pieces of the app experience. Ask questions like: “This area on the side of the screen — what is that?”

  • Match your language to your participant’s language: Once you have a handle on the operator’s preferred terminology, use that language throughout the rest of the conversation. Ask questions like: “You mentioned the picture…?”

  • Stay open-ended: Avoid asking questions that will have a simple yes or no answer. Instead, ask questions like: “How would you normally perform this task, without this tool?”

  • Follow up: Encourage operators to tell you more about the experiences they’re describing. Ask questions like: “Can you show me what that’s like?”

After going through this process, continue to iterate and refine your software to meet your operators’ latest needs.

Drive Scalability by Designing With Intention

As your processes change over time, and new use cases come up, you’ll find new opportunities to provide value. Armed with your knowledge of your operators’ needs and environment, consider how you can create consistency across those many new experiences.

Just as we all look for website logos in the upper-left corner because the majority of the internet has logos in the upper-left corner, you can help set expectations and improve efficiency for your operators by making consistent design decisions. Leverage standardized layouts, basic rules on shapes and colors of buttons, and consistent font sizes to make your app building simpler and improve the operator experience in the process. The Design Template in the Tulip Library is one example of this, and can be customized to meet your specific company’s needs.

Your operators are impacted by design decisions every day, whether that’s the design of software or a paper-based process. Make better design decisions by designing intentionally for the frontline worker.

Turn Your Workforce Into Your Competitive Advantage

Read our ebook for insights on how a shift from a process-centric to a human-centric mindset to manufacturing can help you solve your most pressing operational challenges.

A leader and an operator looking and gesturing at a monitor at their workstation