PTC ThingWorx :: Enhancing the Usability of an IoT Authoring Platform
Use design thinking practices to improve the usability of an industrial IoT application authoring platform.
PTC's ThingWorx product is a platform that helps people in industry and manufacturing realize value from the Internet of Things. It contains a variety of tools and sub-applications that have grown over time, and as such, are not always unified in experience. Soon after starting my time at PTC, I was asked to participate in an effort to bring the Mashup Builder functionality of ThingWorx together in a single interface with the augmented reality tools in its Studio (now Vuforia) application in a way that would serve multiple user types in their journeys to build IoT applications.
I co-facilitated a design thinking workshop that assembled team members from both products for a week of understanding our users and their journeys, and envisioning what their new unified journey could be. I led storyboarding and wireframing exercises with the group as we turned ideas into clarified concepts. At the completion of the workshop, I gelled the results into a set of polished wireframes and a storyboard video that were used as stimuli in a round of concept validation tests with user participants. As a broad platform, ThingWorx needs to support a variety of user skill-levels and tasks-to-be-done. The key strength of our concept was that it allowed these different users to each work with the tools and models with which they were most comfortable.
Smart Connected Operations:
As we completed the first phase of our Unified Builder work--with positive reactions to the concept from our test participants--I was asked to join a project team in trouble. The user experience team working on the Smart Connected Operations applications had hit a roadblock trying to balance business requirements, technical constraints, and experience needs following their own design thinking workshop.
The Smart Connected Operations applications, also known to customers as the ThingWorx Manufacturing Applications, are a suite of role-oriented apps and app accelerators, built with ThingWorx, that provide a concrete starting point for businesses looking to use the platform to power their industrial IoT operations. The design thinking workshop the team had recently completed focused on applying a new try-before-you-buy business model, and specifically zeroed in on the key user problem of initial configuration. Unfortunately, the concept under discussion wasn't bearing out as a solution for that need. My colleagues and I pulled together a micro-workshop to revisit the learnings. As it turned out, the key user challenge revolved around the fact that the business model required a particular user, the Controls Engineer, to engage in a series of configuration steps that would not ordinarily be part of their day-to-day job. The Controls Engineer was, however, the user most likely to be in first contact with ThingWorx as a solution, and thus most likely to see its value to their entire organization.
With this knowledge in hand, I designed a new holistic workflow for first configuration that included more guided support and better mapping to the user's likely mental models, so that they wouldn't have to study to become a ThingWorx expert before trying out the software for the first time. I worked directly with our product owners, developers, and business colleagues to refine the holistic and sub-task workflows, and built multiple interactive prototypes for user research. I worked hand-in-hand with our user research specialists to plan and run our tests, and iterated on the design. Together with our design strategist, I also engaged with the PO team and Product Managers to break up the design implementation across sprints and releases. Results from our testing showed that the concepts and usability improvements drove significantly higher rates of success as well as a measurably more streamlined workflow that was easier for users to follow.
As our work on the SCO apps took shape, our UX organization was also beginning to craft a design system that would inform the interaction and visual design of all our products. Early internal promotion of the effort had driven strong interest from our colleagues on the business teams, including in the SCO segment. With PTC's annual LiveWorx conference approaching, the decision was made to use it as a stage to showcase the design system across all the ThingWorx application segments. I had already been engaged with the design system team, partnering with one of our other UX designers to ideate and refine a core UI framework that represented our UX tenets and principles. Overall, however, the design system was still at a very early stage, and much work would be needed in short order to realize something interactive that could be shown at LiveWorx.
I became one of the core team of UX and visual designers charged with both building out the design system and implementing it into the SCO app configuration design. We leveraged a lean-agile approach to design the atomic components of our system in concert with the framework I'd previously helped design, and I carried these through into a new interactive prototype that we would use for user research at LiveWorx. The design system was overwhelmingly positively received by both internal stakeholders and users at the conference.
Building Applications in ThingWorx:
Due to continuing top-down efforts to improve the efficiency and efficacy of the entire business, a number of organizations--including our UX design group--were reorganized shortly after LiveWorx. The prevailing model was one of focused multi-function teams, so while a kernel of our UX team remained centralized (to continue evolving the design system and to provide shared research resources), the rest of us were distributed into the business segments. I was brought back to the "core" ThingWorx project, joining a small team that would drive forward user-centered improvements in the platform experience.
We expanded on the knowledge and concepts we had built up over our work on the Unified Builder and SCO projects through another pair of workshops that I co-facilitated, bringing together members of the platform and various segment teams. The result was a single experience journey concept that described the total narrative of creating and modifying apps with ThingWorx, both from scratch and leveraging "starter apps" like some of the SCO offerings we had worked on. I created another storyboard video that our team put in front of users to gauge their response to the proposed workflow and improvements. We're still assessing the results at this time.
Mashup Builder 2.0:
While we began our work on the app building experience, I was also called in to support active design concepting and execution on the upcoming version release of the ThingWorx product. A number of new features were slated for the release, and although the development teams had been expanded, the design team had not. I worked on a number of features leading up to the launch in January 2019, but one of the largest, and key to both the release and to the integration of our new design system, was the introduction of a theming engine that would allow users to quickly and easily apply consistent visual styles to an entire application.
I engaged in direct collaboration with our development and product management colleagues, as well as participating in user research activities, to identify the right balance of flexibility and simiplicity in the theming system. I designed the theme editor, the default style theme, granular styling controls, and the mapping system that worked under the hood to connect editor selections to style values across the large set of impacted widgets and components. Work is currently ongoing to continue refining the experience and add additional feature functionality.
In addition, I helped the team take advantage of a PTC user conference to generate feedback about some of the other UX improvements we designed for the release. I planned and ran usability testing on a suite of features that allow users to personalize the Mashup Builder interface. The testing revealed great value in the feature design and delight in the functionality, with refinement opportunities backed by data that I hope to realize soon.
With findings like these in hand, I and my team are already at work on the next ThingWorx product release. Together with my colleagues across functions, I'm carrying forward a roadmap of UX improvements built around our previous discoveries and concepts.