Start by watching this video about the Aeryon Scout robot (kudos Kareem):
I think what sets this aerial robot apart, as Kareem says, is the intuitive user interface. When I look at the state of automation today, I can see that good user interfaces are typically an after-thought. Custom solutions are sometimes so cobbled together that there isn’t enough bandwidth between one black box and the HMI, or the HMI is just a simple two line text display that ends up saying FAULT 53 (the manual with the list of faults, of course, is stuck inside the door of the panel, and it’s the only thing in the area that isn’t covered in grease because nobody bothers to look at it).
People frequently blame engineers for this mess, which I find a bit silly. Certainly user interfaces are a critical component of any system, but why do you hire an electrical designer to do the electrical design, hire a programmer to write the software, but expect one of these people to magically become a usability expert, which is a field unto itself?
I think there used to be an idea that there was no payback on usability. Certainly if you’re selling something like a VCR, you can only print features on the box (you can’t accurately represent the experience of using it) and people only buy one. However, as items become more social (think iPhone), we’re starting to see great user interfaces create viral marketing for products. I think I first saw this with the TiVo – once you saw what it could do, and how easy it was, you were hooked. Apple’s technology seems to be the same way, and I can see how the Aeryon Scout probably has the same “shock and awe” effect when you demo it.
Where does that leave us with industrial automation interfaces? Automation is always purchased based on a cost-benefit analysis because of the high capital cost. The operators typically don’t participate in the purchasing decision at all. I don’t think effort put into a better user interface is wasted; in fact I’m certain there’s a long term payback. But it’s not a selling feature and it takes more time to do right.
Still, when I programmed a machine recently, it was nice to overhear someone say, “it’s pretty intuitive, isn’t it?” So I guess I’ll keep trying, even if it’s not in my own best interest. Engineers are weird that way.
If you’re interested in making better user interfaces, first I recommend reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. I also recommend this video called the least you can do about usability by Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition.