User experience is changing forklift truck design

By Mark Nicholson

September 2015

User experience in forklift development

User experience in product development

When developing your company’s products or services, how much attention do you pay to the feelings of the people who will actually use them?

Mark Nicholson investigates the science of  ‘user experience’, which is challenging traditional attitudes to the forklift design process and increasing the competitiveness of those who embrace it.

Perhaps the simplest definition of user experience is ‘the way a user feels about using a product, service or system’. Researchers at FIMECC (Finnish Metals and Engineering Competence Cluster) are at the forefront of this field. Partly funded by Finland’s government, FIMECC’s research programmes include one on User Experience and Usability in complex Systems (UXUS) which aims to make businesses in Finland more competitive through radical transformation of their practices.

UXUS brings together experts from a range of disciplines, including psychology, human-computer interaction, economics and design, and involves deep co-operation between participating companies and the academic world.

Leading the programme is Maaria Nuutinen, who is also a Research Manager at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Maaria holds a PhD in psychology and believes strongly in the value of viewing products and processes from a psychological perspective.

“In general we trust too much in rational logic and numbers – and  put too little emphasis on emotions, feelings, insights and empathetic understanding of human beings in the business world. User-experience-driven design and thinking is a way to explore this unutilised potential and turn it into innovation and renewal – and competitiveness.”

“As a driving force of R&D, pursuing the best user experience really challenges the way of thinking and working – and through it a manufacturer can achieve innovative leaps in its products and services.”

Maaria Nuutinen, Research Manager

A new way of thinking and working

At the heart of the user experience approach is a focus on seeking the opinions and involvement of users at all stages in the research and development of products and services.

Customer input is important too, but it should be remembered that the customer or buyer is not always the person who will use the product or service. Essentially, the manufacturer wants to know how it makes the user feel.

“Close collaboration between the partners in UXUS has given both the manufacturers and the research organisations new insights. I’d like to think that we have learned together, developing – for example – new ways to study and demonstrate user experience, to realise its benefits
and to convince people of its business value, both within the participating companies and in discussion with dealers and customers.”

Success all round

Having created a product or service that delivers a better user experience, companies must ensure that buyers understand why this will benefit them. “I would urge buyers to look beneath the surface and put themselves in the user’s shoes when evaluating a product or service,” says Maaria.

“They should consider, for instance, that if it makes users happier, their motivation will be boosted and this will lead to better performance in terms of efficiency and quality. Dealing with a company that makes user experience a priority gives the buyer confidence that his or her interests, and those of his or her business, employees and customers, are close to the supplier’s heart. It also gives a positive message to existing and potential staff that the business cares about them and is forward thinking.”

For Maaria Nuutinen and her research partners, it is clear that user experience and customer experience matter and will drive future success. “They are the keys to differentiation, to radical innovation, to renewal and agility – and to lasting competitive advantage,” she concludes.

Designing experiences’ at Cat® Lift Trucks

The Cat Lift Trucks production facility in Järvenpää, Finland, has been a participant in the UXUS programme for three years now, but before that its teams were already pioneers in human-centred design and in the use of advanced methods for understanding and measuring user experience.

Design Manager Kero Uusitalo says: “User experience is our main strategic goal in R&D and we build it into every product we design. As a result, when a customer or operator tries our truck for the first time he or she feels amazed at how good it is to drive and handle. To achieve this requires that everyone connected to the design project must understand how vital this approach is to us. We are not just designing forklifts – we are designing experiences.”

The same attitude is found throughout the staff at Järvenpää, where the marketing and communications team as well as R&D has been very active in the UXUS programme. Its effect on the success of the business is very obvious, according to Kero Uusitalo, who reports that users testing the latest models say they are the best in the market. As a result, the company is having to work very hard to satisfy the huge demand for its new 80 volt electric in particular.

So how does Cat Lift Trucks gather information on user experience? Kero explains: “We need to work with drivers from the various customer segments, covering many different applications, and we also invite customers to drive. In total we involve about 50 to 100 drivers in the process. We go out to customer sites to observe what happens in drivers’ daily lives and we ask them about their needs and wishes. We also bring some of them to our site to test prototypes. To gain other useful perspectives, our R&D staff, our in-house professional drivers and a group of inexperienced first-time drivers also test and comment on the trucks.”

He adds: “Our design engineers build trusting and equal relationships with the drivers, in which they feel comfortable about giving their honest opinions and describing their feelings. Videos shot during tests are an important additional tool. Often we can tell whether drivers like something or not by the expressions on their faces.”

EU_user experience_content_images_750x400_1

Drivers are encouraged to give honest opinions and describe their feelings.

Reach truck in focus

A good example of how the user experience process has benefited Cat products can be seen in the NR-N2 reach truck. Recent upgrades offered on this range have included a cold store cabin option and a 13 metre mast, but  Kero Uusitalo has gained most satisfaction from the fine tuning of its Anti Sway Control (ASC) system.

“When we fitted the new ASC to a customer’s reach truck for the first time, the reaction was overwhelming. The driver was greatly impressed to find that we had made the handling of loads at high lifts even more comfortable as well as controlled. The customer, who had already chosen our reach trucks over those of the major competitors because of their superior user experience, said he would definitely take trucks with the new system if given the chance.”

Reflecting on this response, Kero says: “These are the moments when you know your work has paid off. The many hours we spent at a testing site with the software engineer, making adjustments to achieve the feeling that drivers wanted, were all worthwhile. I recently had a similarly rewarding experience when a driver using our reach truck for the first time instantly said, ‘It fits like a glove.’”

Cat NR-N2 reach truck

Cat NR-N2 reach truck. “It fi ts like a glove,” was the feeling expressed by one driver using it for the fi rst time.

“I would urge buyers to look beneath the surface and put themselves in the user’s shoes when evaluating a product or service.”

Kero Uusitalo, Design Manager

Red Dot Design Award

Excellent user experience and clever design were the main attributes cited by the judges this year when presenting Cat Lift Trucks with the prestigious Red Dot Design Award for the Cat EP25-35(C)N 80 volt electric counterbalance truck.

A thorough user experience study was the starting point for the development of this product, which resulted in a number of major innovations. They include the Responsive Drive System, which responds to the operator’s movements to ensure that ‘take-off’, driving and load handling are always smooth and safe. The system seems to ‘know’ how the operator wants the truck to behave at any moment.

Design Manager Kero Uusitalo says: “Differentiating our products from those of the competition requires constant development. As this product demonstrates, by concentrating on improving the user experience we are able to take great leaps forward in every area.”

Cat EP25-35(C)N 80 volt electric counterbalance truck

The Red Dot Design Award judges praised the Cat EP25-35(C)N 80 volt electric counterbalance truck for its excellent user experience. This truck seems to ‘know’ how the driver wants it to behave at any time.



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