Fostering Inclusive Design in Industrial Automation, Part 1

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

December 18, 2023

For anyone who designs user interfaces, accessibility and its associated value and impacts are important design considerations. However, accessibility best practices alone do not adequately address all aspects of human capabilities and people’s differences—whether physical or cognitive or a combination of the two. Individuals’ backgrounds, cultures, and other geographical and socioeconomic variables play a part as well.

Moreover, breaking down barriers and empowering humans of all capabilities becomes more fraught and challenging within the context of industrial automation, where a modernization lag and inertia regarding digital transformation to maximize the latest technologies and innovations still exist—which has negative impacts on fostering inclusivity. At Rockwell Automation, we’re making progress in cultivating inclusive-design practices that enable industrial workers in some of the most challenging contexts on the planet and uncovering best practices that could benefit any organization.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

In this column, which is Part 1 of a two-part series, Jon Walter and Amber Westlund, who is a UX designer and inclusive design leader at Rockwell, will cover the following topics:

  • defining inclusive design and acknowledging its impact
  • understanding the importance of inclusive design in industrial automation
  • enumerating inclusive-design challenges in industrial automation
  • previewing how we solve inclusive-design challenges in industrial automation

In Part 2, we’ll delve deeper into solutions and best practices.

Defining Inclusive Design and Acknowledging Its Impact

Who does inclusive design impact? Everyone and the definition of inclusive design bears out the pervasiveness of its impact. According to the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University, “Inclusive design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.”

Creating designs that consider the full range of human diversity is complex and, at times, can be ambiguous. This is a challenge we must accept every day: designing for human beings who may be unlike us and bring different cultural perspectives, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences to our products and solutions. However, this doesn’t mean that we can realistically design solutions that would meet the needs of literally everyone. On its Inclusive Design Toolkit Web site, the University of Cambridge acknowledges, “Inclusive design does not suggest that it is always possible—or appropriate—to design one product to address the needs of the entire population.” Rather, its focus is to provide solutions that deliver “the best possible coverage for the population”—all while ensuring that we clearly define our target users.

Understanding the Importance of Inclusive Design in the Industrial Environment

The industrial-automation domain is more human-facing than you might think, and Rockwell’s users represent diverse populations, groups, and individuals. These users may differ by age, gender, language, and physical or cognitive abilities.

The financial impacts of failing to design for inclusion affect all industries and result in brand-damaging experiences that cause companies to lose market share to competitors who have designed their solutions to be inclusive. But, within the context of industrial automation, a key exacerbating factor of inclusive design’s impact is the sizable potential risk to human safety. Consider the interdependencies between hardware and software, frequent movement of large machinery and materials, and a host of other factors, and it’s easy to see how such environments impact humans’ safety and well-being. Worst of all, in industrial environments, failing to design for inclusion can directly impact human safety by leading to user errors or unintended actions that cause costly accidents.

Unfortunately, accidents do happen. For example, in the Texas City oil-refinery disaster of 2005, the refinery’s operators were unable to achieve proper situational awareness during a dangerous running process that resulted in a major explosion. Inadequate operator training often takes the blame for industrial accidents. However, responsible design that considers human diversity, as well as human limitations, can mitigate human error. Poorly designed systems fail humans, not the other way around.

Enumerating Inclusive Design Challenges in Industrial Automation

Some factors that impact UX designers’ ability to be effective in designing for inclusion in the industrial domain include the following:

  • historically robust hardware lifecycles
  • an aging, globally distributed workforce
  • cost and downtime aversion and implications
  • custom legacy solutions
  • a history of free accessibility
  • difficult-to-access users
  • personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • distracting working environments
  • the growing digital footprint

Historically Robust Hardware Lifecycles

Many of Rockwell’s Allen-Bradley product-line hardware devices, such as their programmable logic controllers (PLCs)—the PLC-3 (1982) and PLC-5 (1985), which is shown in Figure 1—have been in continuous use since their invention! The extraordinarily long lifespan of hardware products such as these PLCs in industrial environments has obvious upsides: customers can enjoy their reliability and the cost savings of not needing to purchase replacement products. But, looking at these long lifecycles from an inclusive-design perspective, we cannot hop into a Flux-Capacitor-equipped Dolorean and time travel back to 1985 to make improvements that would satisfy the needs of today’s increasingly diverse users. The principles of more inclusive, accessible design can generally benefit only the users of newer devices—although it is sometimes possible to introduce them in large-revision product releases. This reality contributes to more extreme accessibility gaps between legacy and modern solutions in the manufacturing domain.

Figure 1—The PLC-5, which has been in use since 1985
The PLC-5, which has been in use since 1985

Image source: Rockwell Automation

An Aging, Globally Distributed Workforce

Industrial manufacturing has an aging and increasingly diversified workforce. While the increase in diversity is a positive development, losing experienced workers and their deep knowledge puts pressure on companies such as Rockwell to develop solutions that less experienced workers would find easy to learn and use, regardless of their background, capabilities, or contexts. We are in a unique position to rise to the challenge of engaging new types of audiences with products that we’ve developed with inclusive design as a main priority. Tools, processes, and solutions are factors in people’s choosing where to work and whether to remain in this industry.

Moreover, Rockwell’s products, solutions, and services are in use across the globe and, thus, are available in many different languages, and we must translate all of the supported languages correctly, both in products’ user interfaces, as well as their Help documentation. We’ll delve further into some localization best practices in Part 2.

Cost and Downtime Aversion and Implications

Often, updating software in industrial contexts requires interruptions to production. Just a few minutes of downtime to a single packaging production line could cause a food and beverage or consumer goods manufacturer to lose millions of dollars. Therefore, it’s critical that new solutions be able to easily onboard their ever-diversifying user base, so they can get them up and running smoothly and without disruption to their operations.

Furthermore, because the modern Cloud solutions that we design and deliver as products are often more conducive to inclusivity, we must demonstrate their clear value to customers to entice them to upgrade. Similar to many industrial-hardware products, industrial software could also be in use for decades. Decades-old versions of Rockwell’s flagship software application Studio 5000 Logix Designer® are still in use today, helping automation engineers design their control systems. Just as for hardware products, customers often think, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” So, rather than upgrade, over the years, they incrementally find ways of customizing software and how it interacts with other products in their operations. This can lead to one-off, snowflake solutions.

Custom Legacy Solutions

Many established industrial-software applications have helped accommodate one-off, snowflake customer requests over the past few decades, which has contributed to industrial vendors’ creating code-heavy legacy applications whose features might not offer value to the majority of their other customers. Retroactively updating such user interfaces and their massive code bases to include accessibility and inclusive-design improvements could be tedious and time-consuming unless their designers approach these challenges thoughtfully.

A History of Free Accessibility

Historically, much of the software in industrial environments has been installable desktop software that relies on the Windows operating system for its basic accessibility features. For a time, this was sufficient because this software benefited from robust usability guidelines that assisted the implementation of inclusivity. The adoption of the Cloud and Web-based applications is relatively new in the industrial-automation industry—as are the Web accessibility guidelines that came with this transition and customer expectations that the vendors with whom they partner have completed a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) to demonstrate that their software is compliant with standards such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While our product solutions are becoming increasingly more inclusive, our UX design teams must now shoulder most of the effort to ensure that they are accessible and adhere to evolving Web standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Difficult-to-Access Users

When it comes to big enterprise software, customers and users are not usually the same people. Gaining access to actual users can be an elusive process. It’s really difficult to find people with industry knowledge of industrial manufacturing who also have a wide range of abilities, identify as having a disability, or otherwise use assistive technology in their day-to-day work. Plus, in the industrial space, accessing users often requires stringent security procedures, safety precautions, and privacy requirements, including the signing of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). Getting access to users within their working environment is difficult—even without the additional consideration of finding diverse users who could help us understand how our design solutions are succeeding or failing them.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

In the domain of industrial automation, designing user interfaces that satisfy the needs of diverse users must take into account workers’ need to wear thick gloves, safety glasses, and earplugs to perform their job, as Figure 2 shows. The reality we face in industrial automation is that safety procedures and regulations often affect our users’ abilities to hear, feel, and even see—even before we consider their diversity as individuals.

Figure 2—A worker wearing PPE to perform his job
A worker wearing PPE to perform his job

Image source: Healthy Bean

Moreover, for human-machine interfaces (HMIs), we must industrially harden touch user interfaces, panels, and terminals—and their virtual or physical push buttons—and make them sufficiently resilient to withstand harsh environments. This reality governs how responsive these devices can be to humans’ physical interactions with them. While an iPhone’s touch screen might respond instantly to a gentle graze from a user’s fingertip, given the intentionally robust, industrialized design of an Allen-Bradley PanelView™ 5000 Graphic Terminal, the user might need to apply greater pressure. Plus, in these contexts, we must take into account users with limited motor skills—particularly as our workforce ages. Furthermore, on these terminals and user interfaces, we must right-size buttons and interactive elements to accommodate workers who are wearing thick gloves—while also supporting workers who have limited motor skills. Their user interfaces must follow proper visualization principles to foster users’ quick comprehension within distracting environments.

Distracting Environments

Manufacturing environments are often distracting. Depending on the industry and the materials that a company is producing—and whether they are discrete, process-oriented, or hybrid in nature—manufacturing can be a noisy, grimy, dangerous business. At Rockwell, UX designers endeavor to provide boots-on-the-ground support to customers and users so we can better understand their unique needs, scenarios, and use cases. Over the years, we’ve found that no two plants or industrial environments are the same. Some are brightly lit, cool, spacious, neatly organized, and relatively quiet—aside from the humming and whirring of equipment in the background. Others plants are chaotic, hot, duskily lit, and noisy—to the point that people must shout or raise their voice to be heard. Many are somewhere in between these extremes.

But, no matter how extreme the environment, our software and hardware solutions must run perfectly, anywhere, anytime, and all the time, whether they’re being used on an aircraft carrier, an oil rig, or in an automotive or tire plant. As you can imagine, addressing the needs of diverse users within such unpredictable environments can be especially challenging. All industrial-automation workers start from a position of challenge given that they are competing with sensory-disruptive conditions that can often be dangerous and require their mandated use of PPE, as Figure 3 shows.

Figure 3—People working in distracting, noisy, dangerous environments
People in manufacturing must often work in distracting, noisy, and sometimes dangerous environments

Image source: BusinessDay

The Growing Digital Footprint

Our challenges are not limited to just the plant floor or industrial operations. Other practical challenges come simply from Rockwell being a large company with many products. Most large companies with hardware and software product catalogs have a substantial number of Web pages. Rockwell Automation’s Web site boasts hundreds of thousands of individual pages, which is great for our search-engine optimization (SEO) footprint and provides an all-encompassing experience for those seeking our products, solutions, and services. However, if we are lax in our efforts to create inclusive users experiences, this can deepen the challenge for users who rely on assistive technologies. Broken links, missing alt-text for images, and poorly tagged HTML elements can be easy to miss on such a large site. Our team has developed a process for mitigating these challenges. We’ll delve further into that process in Part 2.

Figure 4—Megamenu of products on the site
A megamenu showing products on the site

Image source: Rockwell Automation

Preview: How We Solve Inclusive Design Challenges in Industrial Automation

We didn’t want this column to focus solely on challenges and obstacles without providing some sense of our action plan for addressing them, but there was only so much we could cover in one column. The following is a quick preview of the processes, solutions, and areas of focus that we’ll touch on next time, in Part 2:

  • considering physical-asset placement and its impact on human factors
  • solidifying our strategy for helping our software products reach WCAG 2.1 AA compliance and beyond
  • building inclusive-design practices into our software-development pipeline
  • supporting localization best practices for a global user workforce
  • embedding accessibility into our internal design systems and application frameworks for free
  • ensuring that we prioritize inclusive design in our external libraries of content for visualization, emulation, and more
  • evolving the terminology in our software to be more inclusive
  • addressing accessibility and inclusive-design best practices across the ever-growing footprint of our corporate Web site
  • recruiting diverse users to obtain their feedback on our hardware and software solutions


The industrial environment is more human-facing than you might think. Designing solutions that meet the needs of people of all capabilities and backgrounds becomes even more challenging when one considers the nuances and dangers of such industrial environments. At Rockwell, we’re making significant progress in driving inclusive-design best practices into our solutions, which has long been overlooked across our industry. In Part 2, we’ll share our best practices, which will hopefully benefit you in your work as a UX professional. 

Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell.  Read More

UX Designer at Rockwell Automation

Denver, Colorado, USA

Amber WestlundAmber is a versatile professional with degrees in Computer Science and Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her journey began with an internship at Ford Motor Company and a Co-Op at Rockwell Automation, both centering around continuous integration (CI), continuous delivery (CD), and DevOps, or software development and IT operations. Returning to Rockwell in 2020, Amber joined their Leadership Development Program for Software. Over the course of two years, Amber has undertaken diverse rotations in backend development, User Experience, product management, and industrial automation hardware and software training and support (EIT). This multifaceted experience has given her a holistic understanding of the automation industry. In 2022, Amber transitioned to the role of UX Designer within Rockwell’s software team. Her contributions extend to multiple products, and she currently serves as a lead designer for a simulation product, showcasing her proficiency in delivering user-centered design solutions. Amber assumed the role of Accessibility and Inclusive Design Lead at Rockwell in 2022. In this capacity, she has been instrumental in raising internal and external awareness and leading efforts to comply with inclusive-design principles within the software and hardware automation space.  Read More

Other Columns by Jonathan Walter

Other Articles on Accessibility

New on UXmatters