User Interfaces and Usability for Embedded Systems

Usability for Embedded Systems

Designers of embedded systems face a greater challenge than software engineers developing for the desktop. On the desktop the environment has been defined—whether the platform is based on text, MS-Windows, or X-Windows. An embedded system may be using a piece of hardware for input or output in a way that it has never been used before. Standards of ease of use are also higher. On the desktop, the developer can make the reasonable assumption that the user is familiar with the computer. An embedded system is often making every effort to hide the fact that it contains a computer. A desktop application will be compared to other applications, while an embedded system will be compared to tools—try competing with the ease of use of a hammer. When you need to solve some of those challenging usability problems, some of the links below might provide some inspiration.

My article, Designing User Interfaces: What Does the Customer Really Want? discusses usability issues in the design of embedded products, and also addresses the engineers role in the process of making a product usable.

Postscript copies of much of Ben Sneidermans Sparks of Innovation book are available at: http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/pubs/books/sparks-of-innovation.shtml

Steve Brewester's homepage contains interesting information on the use of audible cues in the user interface. This can often apply in embedded systems that may have a very simple visual interface, or the user may not be constantly looking at the device. These audible cues are called 'earcons'.

A number of usability articles are available at the http://www.ergogero.com page including information about aging, medical errors and liability, digital television and a number of other topics.

I have reviewed some books on usability on my Bookshelf.

There is and interesting storey of the user interface flaws in the cockpit of the plane that John Denver died in: http://www.asktog.com/columns/027InterfacesThatKill.html. Sorry, fans, I do not have any MP3 links! Apart from that article the rest of http://www.asktog.com/ is well worth a read.

The FAA Human Factors Design Standard is .pdf download available from http://acb220.tc.faa.gov/hfds/default.htm. Lots of it is just common sense, but it can be thought provoking to go through lists like this and consider where your design may be failing - simple things like "Help windows should not obscure the task that the user is working on" is obvious, once it has been pointed out.

There is a great set of pictures of bad user interfaces at: http://www.baddesigns.com/. Many are not electronic, so they are not strictly embedded systems, but it still makes for some very educational and interesting browsing. Great site!

There is a set of usability papers available at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/, mostly written by Jacob Nielsen. Many of them are web oriented, but others address PDAs and other embedded devices. Well worth a browse.


Disabled Access

Trace Research and Development Center located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides a vast array of information on design with disabled access in mind. The site covers embedded systems in areas such as information kiosks and consumer electronics products, but it also covers a variety of other areas such as building design and the design of hiking trails and recreation areas. There are also guidelines on designing accessible web sites. Well worth a browse if you are designing a program or a device that is going to have a wide user base, since some of that user base is going to be disabled - unless you have excluded them by not considering them in your design.

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