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Author's profile photo Esther Blankenship

Superpowers for the Industrial Worker

Imagine a worker tethered to the tower of a wind turbine 65 meters (212 feet) above the sea. The temperature is close to freezing. Three soccer-field-sized blades stand eerily still in front of him. Ocean gusts roar in his ears as he tries to evaluate the problem.

Now let’s switch from cold to hot. Imagine a humming machine room in a steam-generation plant. A business-critical, 40-year-old gas turbine is malfunctioning. A 24-year-old new hire slithers down a narrow shaft inside the turbine itself. She will be there for six hours trying to service a machine that was commissioned long before she was born, and the last engineer who knows it inside and out retired a month ago.

Designing for industrial use cases like these are what Chief Experience Officer, Greg Petroff, and the designers, engineers and developers at General Electric (GE) do. So if you think making software for office workers is hard, imagine designing for lots of dirt, grease, water, heat, and cold. Then add to this mix variable light conditions, uncertain Internet connectivity and blinking, buzzing distractions.


Speaking at the 5th SAP Design Talk, Petroff addressed an audience of some 700 SAP employees not only about these challenges, but also how GE uses design methods and technology to gain empathy for industrial workers. The teams then build solutions that not only support industrial workers, but give them “superhuman” powers.

But how?

The first step is to understand the context of the worker. After a site visit, user researchers rely on virtual reality and a 360° video room to tell their stories in a powerful, visceral way to developers and engineers back at the office. This way, everyone can experience the working conditions on a freighter ship at the North Pole or on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. That builds empathy, a key factor in good design.


The next step is to get the team into a workshop and build a prototype right away. This is where the thinking about augmented reality, IoT, and wearable computing come into play. Through gesture, voice and touch controlled devices, which are deeply integrated into a contextualized network of human and machine knowledge, industrial workers can do their jobs almost like a superhero with x-ray vision, telepathy or the ability to travel through time.

Comic hero comparisons aside, getting context-aware, rich information to workers in often harsh conditions adds immense value to industrial work. In Greg Petroff’s words, “It gives people everything they need, but nothing else, to make them more productive.”

And so, a well-designed scenario could connect our young repairwoman with a pool of retired engineers who are happy to pitch in occasionally with their expertise. Allowing her to finish her task more quickly… and more safely. Our wind turbine serviceman could get suggestions for needed repairs through smart glasses by collaboratively exchanging images of the breakdown with engineers back at the office six time zones away. And do so without having to fumble with a mobile phone or shout over the roar of the high seas.

Hear more from Greg Petroff in this video interview:

This article was originally published on the SAP User Experience Community, public platform dedicated to the exchange of knowledge and information about design and user experience.

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