A Plan for Integrating Hardware and Software

(This post is adapted from Keith’s chapter in the new book, Design Thinking: New Product Development Essentials from the PDMA.)

When user interfaces (UIs) were predominantly physical – driven by physical buttons, switches and dials – the industrial design (ID) discipline was more directly involved in their development. Over time, though, hardware and user interface software development became separated.

Today, the physical, hardware components of a product are often designed by ID teams closely coupled with mechanical engineers. The digital interfaces are often designed separately by UI designers, who work closely with software developers.

integrated design

Merged UI and ID product development timelines. [Click to enlarge]

More often than not, though, designing the hardware and digital interface components separately detracts from the final product. To build better products, development teams need to integrate the hardware and software development processes. The Design Thinking mindset could provide the means to enable this reunification.

Two Major Shifts in Process Thinking

To get the best mix of hardware and on-screen, digital controls, product developers need to reunite UI design with engineering and industrial design processes — ideally within the Design Thinking framework. This requires two major shifts in process thinking:

Merge Development Timelines. Bridging the agile development process of UI and the linear stage-gate process of hardware design is challenging, but it can be done by forcing a more iterative process.

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A blended process plan for prototyping in parallel. [Click to enlarge]

Product developers can commit to a series of sprints that are set in time. In each sprint, the hardware team must deliver a physical prototype, but the expectations for those prototypes can be lowered. They do not need to be perfect because their primary function is to test hardware and software together and to generate user feedback. Teams develop simple prototypes, and then, armed with feedback, iterate for the next round. The result is a better, faster, more efficient process and a more cohesive final product.

integrated design

An integrated prototype being tested.

Prototype in Parallel. It’s important to integrate software and hardware during the early, iterative prototyping to really understand the capabilities and limitations of particular display hardware. Will the font in the specified size be readable on the display hardware? Do the planned hardware controls map appropriately to the on-screen actions? Can the display processor handle planned animations and screen transitions? Does the display support the color palette needed for the color choices? These are the types of questions a holistic development process will draw out.

Seven Questions To Guide Your Development Project

For project managers looking to integrate hardware and UI development, these seven questions or decision points can help guide a project team. They’re drawn from the collective experience of me and my colleagues, with the caveat that each project differs based on goals and circumstances.

#1 Who is leading the process? Is the software team or hardware team taking the lead, or are the two working together?
Best Practice: Create conditions for collaboration by forming one team with representatives from hardware and software engineering, marketing/product planning, and UX (UI or ID or both). Tight collaboration at this point will minimize any surprises later on regarding the inability to develop design features.
Tip: Co-locate team members, if possible. When people are in close proximity, communication and collaboration is easier.

Human Factors 101

Human factors sits in the intersection of products, tasks, users, and environment. [Click to enlarge.]

#2 What are the user’s tasks and needs?
Best Practice: Determine early on, the relationship between users, their tasks, the product, and the environment(s) in which the product will be used—and the demands placed on the user by all of the above.
Tip: Often, some early contextual inquiry will allow the design/development team to empathize with and better understand the end user.

#3 Which functions are digital and which are physical?
Best Practice: Many considerations factor into divvying up functions among on-screen and physical controls. Begin exploring alternatives by sketching storyboards that illustrate how you envision the system working.
Tip: Start with the happy path—the most common functions when things are working normally. Save the edge cases such as error conditions or less frequently used functions until later.

visual brand language

The UI is part of the visual brand language of this line of air purifiers.

#4 What are the hardware characteristics? Define the display and other UI elements.
Best Practice: Be realistic about the hardware constraints. Get guidance from your Marketing or Product Planning teammates to get a sense of cost constraints.
Tip: There is no use specking-out a high resolution, color OLED screen with capacitive touch input if the product is expected to retail for a fraction of the cost of the components.

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Part of a storyboard from a Bresslergroup project.

#5 How can UI and industrial designers best work together?
Best Practice: Be creative. Form a multidisciplinary team instead of dividing along expertise lines. Storyboard together. Design in parallel.
Tip: Design the visual brand language (VBL) with both the hardware and the user interface software in mind – and make sure this design language is cohesive across all products in a product line.

#6 What kind of prototyping does this product need?
Best Practice: Test early and often, and make plenty of prototypes.
Tip: Make sure you are creating prototypes with the appropriate level of fidelity at each juncture. (Read The Six Prototypes Every Startup Needs To Make to learn about prototyping’s major benefits.)

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Testing in progress for a handheld medical device.

#7 How will you specify the integrated design?
Best Practice: The amount of energy you need to put into specs depends on how closely integrated you are with the software and hardware development teams. If they’re remote or off-shore, you need to put a lot of detail into both hardware and software specifications. (Read our advice on How To Make Offshore Manufacturing Work.) If they’re co-located, minimal specifications may be necessary. Hallway conversations can suffice.
Tip: Use only as much documentation as necessary to communicate the design intent clearly. Sometimes brief face-to-face meetings—web-conferencing, if your development team is overseas—can pay off by saving a lot of time in specification writing (or worse, in poor implementation of your design).

For much more on how to create richer product experiences through design thinking practices that merge user interface and industrial design development, read Keith’s chapter in Design Thinking.