Fostering Inclusive Design in Industrial Automation, Part 2

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

March 4, 2024

In Part 1 of this series, we defined inclusive design and acknowledged its ever-growing impact, including on industrial automation. We then described inclusive design challenges in industrial automation and previewed how we solve them. Now, in Part 2, we’ll delve more deeply into a few of these design solutions, focusing on the following efforts:

  • considering diverse human factors in designing hardware
  • evolving our terminology to be more inclusive
  • weaving accessibility into our common design system

We now plan to extend this series to three parts. In Part 3, we’ll cover some additional activities and solutions that merit their own column.

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Considering Diverse Human Factors in Designing Hardware

What makes industrial automation unique is the prevalence of industrialized equipment that must withstand rigorous use in what are often unpredictable, rugged environments. In Part 1 we explained that any solution in this domain—whether hardware- or software-oriented or a combination of both—must run perfectly anywhere, anytime, and all the time. Therefore, hardware solutions must support the needs of diverse users equally. To get some current insights on how our hardware solutions can support diverse human beings, including those with disabilities, we caught up with Alex Mummert, who is a Senior Industrial Designer at Rockwell Automation, to discuss the following:

  • location
  • ergonomics
  • physical characteristics
  • user-interface responsiveness
  • indicators and lights
  • other considerations


“Physical hardware is going to be placed in a wide variety of locations, but is primarily broken into on-machine and in-cabinet placement,” said Mummert. “We must often standardize how we display information in related configurations to our end users, even though the product use cases may vary. After all, having unique options that could create an ideal solution in one scenario may wreak havoc in another scenario for the same type of product.

“We do have the ability to maximize access to our products, in a variety of mounting situations. For example, we minimize obstructions from the interface, maximize the available angles for which information is displayed in a legible manner—which takes into account both vertical and horizontal angles—and we make our physical products as ergonomic as possible.”


Speaking of ergonomics, Mummert offered the following: “Always strive to design for the 99th percentile. Standardize grip point, pull force, [and] space affordance, to account for 99% of the population using it without what we’d consider major impediments. We can test these factors in the same ways software designers test their digital solutions. When possible, we conduct low-fidelity [ergonomic] validations to confirm space affordances are appropriate for the use case.”

Figure 1 shows an example of an ergonomics study that Alex and his team led to evaluate an I/O module’s door-opening feature’s positioning relative to nearby cables.

Figure 1—Ergonomic validation study for an industrial-automation device
An ergonomic validation study for an industrial-automation hardware device

Physical Characteristics

“These products do not reside in a controlled, studio environment,” explained Mummert. “They are confined to what are sometimes cramped, poorly lit, and dirty environments with other pieces of cabling and equipment near or on top of them. We try to design products with these variables in mind to minimize their impact. Modifications such as adjusting the cabling direction and maximizing the legibility of the interface can make significant improvements to the day-to-day interactions for end users. … There needs to be thoughtful, ample affordance given on the hardware to allow … a clear hierarchy for information that is either static or dynamic—such as a series of dynamic light indicators.”

Indicators and Lights

Regarding indicators and lights, Mummert shared: “It’s critical that a user increasingly understands the module status the longer they interact with it. We also make sure that the most important information is noticed first, with subsequent information noticed second or third depending on the use case. To ensure proper, inclusive color affordance, we developed updated wavelength guidance to ensure users with vision impairments can more readily identify colors. Previously, green and yellow LEDs had overlapping color specifications, potentially leading to confusion. Blue-green and yellow-green indicators used on the same product line could alter users’ understanding of automation-device statuses.”

“Over time, we’ve also increased the spacing between each color LED to maximize legibility in poor-visibility conditions, considering environmental factors as well as human vision impairments. Intentional physical spacing between LEDs allows users to discern, [for example,] that the third indicator is flashing. Conversely, indicators clustered too closely together can read as one large, continuous color rather than individual elements. Finally, LED placement accounts for the actual environment, considering cables and other devices and modules, to maximize visibility. In a stressful situation, the goal is to ensure a user can readily find the product that needs attention. If that indicator is obscured, its usefulness is greatly diminished and becomes a point of frustration.”

User-Interface Responsiveness

“We must ensure that we’re designing features that are clearly articulated, whether visually or physically, and communicate that a task has been achieved,” said Mummert. “For example, the action of turning a locking feature on a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) one-quarter of a turn instead of multiple revolutions must provide distinct and consistent feedback so [users understand] whether … they’ve successfully locked or unlocked the device. In industrial environments, it is necessary to also account for users’ wearing protective gear such as gloves, which reduce feeling and add bulk to their hands, potentially causing ergonomic headaches when we’re trying to develop products that fit into compact footprints. Testing these solutions with similar gear in similar environments helps us validate those scenarios.”

Additional Considerations

“We make over 400,000 individual stock-keeping units (SKUs) for products that must look and feel like they are meant to work together,” acknowledged Mummert. “Each of these products has unique demands, and we must maintain a flexible solution that solves as many problems as possible—including factoring in diverse users or those with impairments—all without creating something that misaligns with the product brief. Brand perception is a consideration, too. A product can resemble the most capable and robust solution, but we negatively alter customers’ and users’ perceptions if the interactions and visual identity of the product do not align with their expectations. Finally, these products must perform over the long haul, and we take into account the full product lifecycle of unpacking, commissioning, using, maintaining, and replacing when we design them.”

For more on this subject, listen to Mummert and Amber on the ROK Talk podcast by Rockwell Automation, as they discuss how we can imbue inclusive design into our hardware specifications, as well as some other accessibility-related activities that we’re driving at Rockwell.

Evolving Our Terminology to Be More Inclusive

The technology industry is riddled with outdated, noninclusive terms that it has perpetuated for decades, alienating the very users who intend to use these solutions. Better terminology alternatives almost always exist. The automation industry is no different. In fact, the automation industry is more challenging in many ways given that software and hardware solutions have lived on for multiple decades and customers hesitate to change anything that could disrupt productivity.

Therefore, we endeavor to ensure that anything we produce—whether it’s oriented toward hardware, software, or externally or internally facing Web content—leverages our latest terminology strategy, which we’ve rolled out over the past few years. After all, a key aspect of any user interface is the terms it uses. A major goal of any user interface is to communicate. This becomes increasingly critical when considering our ever-diversifying user base and employee population. 

We’ve made great progress in modernizing our terminology to be more inclusive. Elena Dunne, Senior Manager of Industry Insights and a former terminologist, has spearheaded this effort. We discussed terminology issues with Elena to understand what we’ve done so far to achieve success in modernizing our terminology, focusing on the following:

  • external software and communications strategy
  • internal software and communications strategy
  • teams who support the effort and how they execute
  • striving to build these practices into our product pipeline

External Software and Communications Strategy

“At the time of the initiative’s launch, I was part of TerminOrgs—a consortium of terminologists from large organizations,” explained Dunne. “At TerminOrgs, we had already discussed potential alternatives to several noninclusive terms that we wanted to change in our respective companies. Once Rockwell launched its initiative and we started considering some of these alternatives, we knew we needed to actively engage with other external parties. We started conversations with standards organizations, some of our partners, and customers who had similar concerns and a desire to make the changes.”

“Additionally, we looked for more avenues to broadly share what we were doing. We published a blog and designed a dedicated page on our Web site, which has since expanded to include our preferred alternatives. The terminology list is ever evolving, but you can see that the terms are far reaching and extend across multiple subdomains within our industry such as cybersecurity, motion control, software programming, and many others.”

Figure 2 shows an example of some of the terms and their replacements.

Figure 2—Replacement terms on Rockwell’s Inclusive Terminology page
Terms and their replacements on Rockwell's Inclusive Terminology Web page

“Finally, we’ve been taking our show on the road. For two years in a row, we’ve included inclusive terminology in the ‘Bold Conversations’ roundtable talks at our annual Automation Fair® tradeshow event. Just this past year, in Boston, we talked about inclusive design and accessibility.”

Internal Software and Communications Strategy

“Proactive and transparent internal communication has been critical to us from the start,” said Dunne. “When we convened our Terminology Review Board, we used different tactics to make sure we communicated with as many employees as possible to keep them informed. Those tactics were and still are as follows:

  • Yammer outreach—We used a centralized channel on the Microsoft 365 enterprise social platform, Yammer—now called Engage—as the primary point of communication. Because it’s an open platform [for] all employees, anyone can post a question about a term or phrase. If someone didn’t feel comfortable posting, they could either send a private message to the channel owner or directly contact someone on the Terminology Review Board. The Yammer channel also became a primary channel for communicating recommendations.
  • cultivating a presence on our company’s brand Sharepoint site—We leverage this page as the single source for inclusive terminology changes and additional recommendations for creating more inclusive content.
  • presenting on the initiative—We regularly present to different departments, business segments, and new acquisitions. In addition, we’ve held special-topic conversations across the company.
  • regularly convening—Our Terminology Review Board holds monthly meetings, during which they discuss new terms, answer terminology-related questions, and provide recommendations. Our initiative’s leadership also holds monthly meetings to align across all workstreams.”

Teams That Support the Effort and How They Execute

“We have a cross-functional working group that leads five different workstreams,” continued Dunne. “Let’s delve into each, which are as follows:

  • Terminology Review Board—This is a cross-functional and diverse team that is tasked with identifying noninclusive terms, reviewing requests, addressing terminology questions coming from internal employees or from outside of the company, and proposing alternatives and guidance.
  • Standards & Industry Engagement Workstream—This outreach and governance team engages with standards organizations to support and promote changes, share information, and help ensure that our changes are aligned with standards recommendations.
  • Product Development Workstream—This group [comprises] our engineering and UX leaders, who put in place processes to identify where noninclusive terms exist in our products and orchestrate changes to these terms.
  • Communications Workstream—This team focuses on consistently and proactively communicating about the initiative and the changes internally and externally, leveraging the channels I previously shared.
  • Content Owner’s Workstream—This tactical team owns and drives the changes to terms in our collateral and documentation.”

Striving to Build These Practices into Our Productization Pipeline

“We have several UX and product-development representatives who are engaged in the initiative to help with the changes already identified,” said Dunne. “With the newly formed Inclusive Design and Accessibility function, which Amber now leads, we are focusing on proactive work that would help us build checks into the development process so that we can prevent inclusive-design and accessibility issues before they have a chance to develop.”

Weaving Accessibility into Our Common Design System

As we shared in Part 1, it can be difficult to retroactively update decades-old industrial-software solutions that were not designed to be accessible. Therefore, we must ensure that anything we release going forward has undergone rigorous implementation and testing of accessibility best practices and policies—many of which we’re still developing and implementing. One of our key strategies is to ensure that proper accessibility best practices and patterns imbue our internal Flourish Design System, shown in Figure 3. We checked in with Jonathon Gulbrandsen, Design System Leader at Rockwell, to ask him how we’re leveraging our Flourish Design System to drive the adoption of accessible, inclusive best practices.

Figure 3—Guidelines page on our internal Flourish Design System site
Guidelines page on our internal Flourish Design System Web site

“There’s much to consider when it comes to building accessibility into a design system, so we had to prioritize wisely,” said Gulbrandsen. “Our initial focus has been to ensure a proper contrast ratio [within] all our common componentry, [then] followed [up with] keyboard accessibility. Keyboard accessibility in particular was an easy sell to our business leaders because we were able to paint a clear picture of how it benefits all users when we consider those impairment cases.”

Amplifying Gulbrandsen’s point about selling the benefits, it’s important to understand that many software applications in industrial-automation use cases are immersive, integrated design environments (IDEs) such as Rockwell’s FactoryTalk® Design Studio™ that lets users program their operations and automated processes. We consider these users—whether they are system designers or automation engineers—as power users. Often, power users prefer the speed and efficiency of using their keyboard to navigate and perform tasks without having to reach for their mouse. Using a mouse imposes a physical and cognitive tax, especially when using it throughout an eight-hour or longer workday. Leaders readily saw how supporting our power users and users who have impairments could be an immediate win-win.

To ensure an appropriate contrast ratio, we chose to hang our hat on compliance, which also gets the attention of leadership and product managers who must decide what to prioritize when building a product. However, to execute this strategy, our Design System team first needed to get their house in order, which meant ensuring that our components were compliant before they ever reached the development teams. As Gulbrandsen put it, “For contrast ratio, we built into our component-design process a requirement to test and ensure that the ratio meets at least AA WCAG 2.1 standards for graphics and UI components, and we strive for AAA standards for text.”

Product leaders see compliance with a modern Web standard such as WCAG as another way to build customer and user confidence. They appreciate that we’re meeting customers’ needs, as well as those of their ever-diversifying workforces. This work is ongoing and will continue over time. “Every component has an accessibility section within our documentation site that is ready for expansion as we continue to add capabilities that all of our products can use,” said Gulbrandsen. “We are also currently working on making our design system themeable, which will allow the products that use it to offer various visual presentations such as dark or high-contrast themes to reach broader audiences.”


Aligning our company’s various industrial-automation experiences to the needs of diverse users and employees is an ongoing effort. At Rockwell, we’ve put several foundations in place to ensure that we can sustain this effort for years to come. Whether by establishing hardware design best practices for our ever-diversifying industrial users, evolving our terminology to embrace a diverse global employee population and user base, or ensuring that our design system incorporates accessibility, we must keep the momentum of inclusive design strong and remain engaged on many fronts, including our Rockwell Automation external Web presence, our localization efforts, and other software standards, which we’ll cover in Part 3. 

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

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