The development of IT seems to be accelerating so fast that it risks bewildering the user. With electronic items sprouting extra functions like the mythological hydra, learning to use — or just select — a new function can be a Herculean task. That is why IT companies are devoting time and resources to ensuring their products are usable.
At Japanese computing, telecomms and semiconductors giant Fujitsu, these efforts fall to Kimitaka Kato, the general manager of the the company’s design centre. Competing directly with IBM and NEC, Fujitsu is the third largest computer supplier in the world; its joint venture with Siemens (Fujitsu-Siemens) make it Europe’s largest IT supplier, and products range from large-scale industrial and commercial computing networks to mobile phones.
However, like many large companies, Fujitsu considers its main task is ‘delivering solutions’ — not only supplying products but also the means to carry out tasks and solve problems.
According to Kato, the way people interact with IT is as, if not more, important than the IT itself and this dominates his work at the centre. ‘We’re concerned with design solutions and that means solving the problems of society through design,’ he said. The societal need comes first, he said; once that has been identified, technology is designed to fit it.
Fujitsu established its design centre in the early 1960s and began looking at environmental design — design with an eye towards usability — towards the end of the 1970s. Over the next decades, it turned increasingly towards ergonomics and graphical user interface design.
Kato joined the centre in 1977 after graduating from the Kyushu Institute of Design. He has always been involved with the ergonomic and human-machine interface side of design. Since taking on the leadership of the centre in 2000 he has focused its work on universal design.
Best described as a system for ensuring that technology can be used easily by the widest variety of people, universal design works by finding out what might make technology difficult to use, then eliminating it. ‘In terms of designing a product, you always consider the benefit to the customer, whoever he or she is,’ he said. ‘What that means is you have to consider the way the customer will react to the product and how they will use it. That’s why we use the term “design solution”.’
A good example is designing for disabled people. ‘We don’t specifically design for disabled people,’ Kato explained, ‘but they are always part of the demographic group we design for. One thing we have to be careful about is that people without disabilities can often make mistakes in their designs, because they don’t fully understand the difficulties that the disabled can have. So our approach is to consult all the groups who might use one of our designs and observe as fully as possible what they do.’
While designing an ATM machine in the late 1990s Kato’s team noticed wheelchair users had difficulty with existing designs. ‘People don’t realise how difficult it can be to hold the upper body upright when you’re in a wheelchair,’ he said. ‘We noticed that people would quite often hook one of their arms around the back of the chair to hold themselves upright when using an ATM and that made some of the other movements needed to use the machine very difficult.’
In particular, the machines’ money-dispensing slot was placed so that the best way to remove the money was to reach out with the palm upwards, grasping the money with the thumb pushing down against the fingers, and pulling it out horizontally. ‘If you’re holding yourself up, then the angle of the body makes that move very difficult and awkward,’ said Kato.
Working with groups of disabled people, Kato’s team devised a different configuration for the dispensing slot, so the cash popped up through an angled slot. To take the money, the ATM user grasps the money with the palm down and the thumb pushing upwards, then pulls it out upwards. ‘It’s a much easier movement,’ Kato said. The FACT-V ATM took three years to develop and won the Japanese Good Design Gold Prize in 1998.
The FACT-V project, with its extensive use of focus groups, illustrates the collaborative nature of Fujitsu’s design process, said Kato. ‘First of all, we share the concept for a particular design among all the groups that will be involved.’ This includes IT hardware and software designers, product designers, interface specialists and, crucially, user groups. ‘Then, we go into a self-assessment of the concept from a universal design point of view, to find the targets for improvements of usability. That’s where we talk about the sorts of things that have gone wrong with previous designs and invite in user groups, which could be disabled people, older people, children, young adults — all sorts of groups, depending on the product.’
These first stages are mainly concerned with the product concept rather than the physical design, although engineers create prototypes and submit them for testing throughout the project. ‘All the feedback must be reflected into production development,’ said Kato. ‘It’s a necessary process for us, before going into product design.’
Kato sees accessibility as the most important factor in Fujitsu’s design operations and it is becoming increasingly important. ‘The trend is to explore new possibilities in providing information by using IT hardware and systems,’ he said. For example, blind people are thought not to make extensive use of mobile phone handsets because so much of the newer functionality of mobiles depends on their display screens. ‘But we can bring in a voice-reading function to read out text messages, for example. We’re using systems like that to get groups using our products who might previously have been unable, or unwilling, to make the best use of them.’
A growing trend in Fujitsu’s design work is the combination of RFID chips and display technologies to make more useful information available. One example of this is multi-language displays. ‘Subway maps and directions signs in Japan are usually only in Japanese and that makes navigation very difficult for foreign visitors,’ he said. ‘But a French visitor, for example, would have a French passport and all of these will soon contain RFID chips. We could make an electronic map display that could detect the RFID and switch to a French language display.’
Similar technology could help foreign visitors in shops. Product labels can be incomprehensible to foreigners, wherever they are. ‘We can embed an invisible RFID tag in the label. The customer takes a photo of the label with his mobile phone and that signals the information on the RFID to download information to the phone, which can be displayed as a text message in the customer’s own language.’
This technology can also be used in museums. Fujitsu is developing handheld display screens that will receive signals from RFID chips embedded in exhibit display cabinets. Before entering the museum, visitors would input personal information into these devices, such as preferred language and age. When they approach the exhibits, their displays will show them information about what they are seeing tailored to their needs.
In the case of multifunctional products, Fujitsu’s approach is to use the physical design of the product to select the function and to enable their use. Fujitsu’s prototype ‘turntable laptop’ is designed for people who tend to use their laptops for entertainment. The keyboard is illuminated but when a DVD is placed in the slot, the illumination is switched off, making the huge 19in screen easier to see. Glowing concentric circles on the top of the lid indicate the turntable function, allowing budding DJs to ‘scratch’ CDs or MP3 files and select music for sampling.
A prototype mobile phone can also be used as a camera, games console and music/video player. The phone, a smoothly-curved oblong pebble shape, is configured so that its top half slides in four directions, each direction enabling the function and uncovering a section on the upper surface of its bottom half that holds the controls for that function. ‘Whichever way you slide it, the display automatically changes and the controls for that mode are the only controls you’ll be able to use,’ Kato said. ‘It makes it less confusing and more elegant.’
He said: ‘There’s so much technology now and there’s so many things it can do. We have to prioritise which technologies are the best match for our customers and we do that by balancing design expertise with the technological knowledge.’