When people talk about UX research, UX design or UX engineering, the underlining context is always software. But that's not the only context!
Hardware user experience can be challenging and ambiguous at times. There are some obvious disadvantages of working in hardware UX, for example:
One year is a reasonably short development cycle for hardware, in comparison to nightly builds, monthly releases and quarterly updates in software.
Getting prototypes to customers for testing can be a real pain, not to mention a costly and time-consuming process, versus the click of a button in software.
But it's also fun and exciting for the same reasons! So what does a hardware user experience engineer do?
Microsoft 4K Wireless Display Adapter
I. Like software UX, I start with user research to guide persona and user scenario definition.
When I worked on the Microsoft 4K Wireless Display Adapter, I started by interviewing customers, gathering feedback from Microsoft Store sales and listening on support calls, in order to better understand who our customers are and how they use our product.
I learned that there are three main types of user:
Frequent business travelers whose main activity is presenting
Small to medium sized companies that look for an affordable and simple conferencing solution
Teachers that need an easier way of integrating and interacting with students and their devices
This helps with prioritizing features of the new iteration. It also later helped marketing and sales understand how to reach these customers and what other product it should be bundled with.
Read about the complete research, design and development of the Microsoft 4K Wireless Display Adapter here.
Surface Hub 2S
Then, I use personas and scenarios to inform engineering needs.
The Surface Hub 2S is designed for team collaboration in a modern workspace. It can rotate into portrait mode or landscape; it can also be used in tiles. Each mode accommodates different workspaces and work dynamics, which in turn puts different requirements for the camera’s field of view and focus range.
These are the scenarios 👇 where we imagined people will be using the device.
Based on the different scenarios (Huddle, Landscape Tiled, etc), the field of view (FOV) of the camera needs to change. To optimize for image quality and accurate proportions, we drafted a camera spec 👇 on what the field of view should be under each scenario.
Surface Hub 2S Camera - VFOV & HFOV under Landscape Tiled Scenario
Also, user experience needs to be described with an engineering vocabulary.
Take a keyboard ⌨ for example.
Microsoft Bluetooth Keyboard
First, experience goals are set. A keyboard should offer:
Efficiency: keyboard should provide prompt and sufficient feedback for key actuation
Accuracy: user can easily navigate the keyboard
Satisfaction: typing should have a pleasant audible and sensory experience
Comfort: keyboard should have an ergonomic form factor to minimize fatigue
Second, objective measurable product specifications are derived based on experience goals.
Prompt & Sufficient feedback => The force displacement curve needs to be smooth with an optimal snap ratio. Long enough key travel is also critical to provide prompt and sufficient feedback.
Easy navigation => Key spacing and key dish are both essential to ensuring typing confidence.
Pleasant sound => Key sound needs to be audible, crisp but low profile so as not to be an annoyance.
Ergonomics => Keyboard tilt angle needs to consider the natural position of the wrist.
Microsoft USB-C® Travel Hub
I sometimes co-design reliability testing cases with reliability engineers based on user habits.
For the Microsoft USB-C Travel Hub, I investigated the frequency of each port's usage and defined testing cycles with the reliability engineers, as well as pass/fail criteria.
Microsoft Mobile Mouse
I also "spy" on other people for ethnographic purposes, build prototypes, run usability testing.
Unfortunately, I cannot reveal any of the on-going products, but I am happy to chat in person about my role as a user experience engineer.
All products mentioned in this article have been launched or announced.
I have worked on all the products mentioned above.