A field service technician carries a Zebra L10 XSLATE rugged tablet
By Kyp Walls | July 23, 2020

Which Matters More to the Productivity and Efficiency of Field Service Workers? A Mobile Device’s Form or Function?

Some devices are designed to look good above all else. Others are designed to work well first and foremost. Look for the latter if you want to keep workers (and customers) happy.

“Form over function” is a phrase we’ve heard for years in the technology industry, yet I’m often bemused by some industrial designers’ curious perspectives on product form. They tend to make the form the primary consideration, sometimes to the detriment of function, rather than consider how best to deliver the function of the design within the application environment (i.e. the form).

Consider headlights. The only design requirement is that they have to be able to be securely fashioned to the front of the vehicle within a specific height range, provide beam light at the lumens specified by current safety standards and focus to a defined area in front of the vehicle. And yes, the specific positioning, type, brightness and aim is defined in law: most countries’ motor code is very detailed about this, and many U.S. states check for compliance during annual vehicle inspections.

As you can see in the below picture, this headlight – though simplistic in design – is fully compliant with government safety regulations: 

A basic round vehicle headlight

Yet, oftentimes, industrial designers spend their days perfecting the form of those lights in what often amounts to a very emotive and creative process. They describe their creations as “dynamic of graffiti lettering” or “very dynamic, very emotional.” One designer was even quoted as saying that his headlight design “embodied a powerful forward movement” and was “like an archery bow ready to be unleashed.”

A more modern vehicle headlight design

That begs the question “why”? Why are manufacturers committing resources to unique headlight design? Does the form in some way improve function or performance? Or is the goal, certainly a worthy one for machinery that is in good part a fashion statement, purely to improve aesthetics without compromising function?

The truth is that industrial designers spend their careers trying to improve the form of everything from smartphones to potato peelers because many things have to be designed well to allow for their secure, safe and comfortable use. A potato peeler is a great example. There are only so many forms that allow for proper functionality, and most people don’t buy a potato peeler because it looks good. But if a sleek design can be achieved for such a product, all the better. (Did you know the OXO Good Grips peeler, of which I have a couple, is part of the permanent collection at the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art?)

However, many design efforts are indeed more arbitrary.

For example, the lines along the side panels of a car are highly subjective features and significantly less essential to function than, say, the size of the car door openings. Yet they are designed and fought over to the same degree as any other form decision made in the vehicle design process. That’s because visual design matters to customers. Attention to detail is the reason why many of us like the looks of a BMW, for example.

The problem is that sleek design, though desirable, may be done to the detriment of durability or performance. In fact, many times a highly “designed” treatment is necessary to differentitate a product that has no feature advantages. That’s why I’m always surprised when I hear manufacturers emphasize the aesthetic designs of their smartphones or tablets. They talk about the devices’ lines, materials and design stories. Yet, their focus often seems to be on making art rather than helping people make a strong (wireless network) connection – which is the purpose of communication devices.

While the aesthetic-centric approach to design and marketing might be great for people who desire artful implementations of useful things, I have found in my career that many people aren’t interested in hearing manufacturers talk about design, rather they want specifics in terms of function. How does the design make the device more useful to them? How does it help to improve durability, docking capability or even battery life? How does it allow for greater form flexibility, data input speed or security?

They may still appreciate a sleek and artful design form. But they favor a functional form versus a product that prioritizes “form over function.” This is especially true when the devices are intended for use in field-based or industrial environments.

How (and Why) Rugged Device Manufacturers Prioritize Functional Form

Engineers who design rugged mobile devices for manufacturing, warehousing, utility, energy, public safety and other field or factory-based applications often tout how it’s the many small form-related decisions that make the biggest impact on how the devices’ function within operational workflows – and on the return on investment (ROI) they provide. Yes, some of these are designed beautifully too, like the Zebra R12 XSLATE, which we think is proof that beautiful design doesn’t have to come at the expense of function

The Zebra R12 XSLATE rugged tablet

That reinforces the point I hope to make, which is that mobile device manufacturers such as Zebra, that serve the industrial, government, retail and enterprise sectors, employ industrial designers who do more of what their job title suggests  – they design devices for industrial uses. Their primary goal is functional form. They want to ensure the devices facilitate maximum productivity and efficiency – that the computing and communications components are fully supported by both the internal and external design. 

Consider vehicle docking of a lightweight tablet, such as one of the Zebra L10 rugged tablets.

The Zebra L10 XSLATE®  is a 2.8-pound rugged slate tablet with a 10.1” screen, and the vehicle dock that accommodates it is what we call a “designed-for” accessory since it is designed for this specific device form factor. Because the tablet and dock are designed to work together, a lot of thought is given to the combination design by both Zebra and its mounting accessory partners, including safety, installation and use ergonomics.

Design engineers must also consider what might happen if there is an accident and adjust the design form accordingly. For example, the mounted tablet can’t block airbags, and it must also be secure enough to not become a projectile within the cabin. From there, decisions are made about how the mobile device can and cannot be mounted. Ideally, brackets would extend to the dashboard, thus keeping the tablet out of the way of a deployed airbag. Installers generally have access to specific brackets for common types of trucks used by field service. Heavier “mobile” devices, like laptops, may require a mounting pole that is bolted into the floor.

That brings a set of secondary issues into consideration. Will the installer just use an easy-to-access flat spot on the floor for the mounting pole? If so, could that cause the tablet to interfere with airbags? And, since heavier devices require stronger bolts, which means larger bolts, is there a risk that – with this particular mounting dock and/or tablet design – that installers could accidentally drill holes that damage parts beneath the floor? Or could the larger installed bolts interfere with other equipment or potentially harm the driver or passengers? There have even been recent cases of exhaust fumes from beneath the vehicle leaking into the cab and causing carbon monoxide poisoning of police officers.

And yes, while there are ways to install third-party heavy mounting poles without these risks, it becomes dependent on individuals. Usually, it is done correctly. But the better option is to develop tablets and docks that can be mounted into the dashboard or a least utilize a lighter pole which doesn’t require massive bolts through the floor. This is another case where the “square” rule applies: doubling the weight of a tablet and its dock squares the forces exerted when there is an accident.

The point is that designing a single tablet for vehicle docking use cases demands that industrial designers make a lot of small but critical decisions. How will the dock be implemented so that it:

- Is easy for the tablet to insert and remove, ideally with only one hand?

- Always has enough force to keep electrical connection in a vibrating and bouncing truck?

- Does not allow damage to transfer from one tablet’s or dock’s connector to another (via the failure scenario known as “pin virus”)?

- Allows for a small footprint to increase mounting choices and ultimately safety?

- Avoids interference with airbags and other safety considerations in a multitude of vehicles?

- Looks good too?

And that is a short list.

For example, rugged enterprise grade tablets that are expected be used in a vehicle dock are designed with a pogo-pin style connector. Essentially, the dock is equipped with pins on springs (like a pogo stick), which apply pressure on metal pads engineered into the bottom of the tablets to maintain electrical connectivity. But this design is more complicated than it sounds. If the springs are too weak, electrical connectivity is lost in a vibrating, bouncing truck. And if the springs are too strong, it is actually hard for a person to insert the tablet in the dock. (The Zebra R12 XSLATE tablet has 48 pads on the docking connector – if you simply make each spring strong enough, times 48, that is a lot of force. ) So, a balance is needed, and it is more than a compromise between too strong and too weak. The vibration “signatures” of various trucks are studied, which informs the designers as to what thickness of spring steel to use, how many windings in the spring and more.

The mounting configuration and tablet-dock design needed for each customer’s vehicle and tablet model selections can also vary greatly. In Europe, it is more common for field service companies to lease their fleet vehicles, so when the lease is up the vehicles must be returned in good condition. They don’t have the option of drilling holes into the floor to mount their workers’ tablets, so many European companies gravitate to tablets and vehicle docks that are designed for dash mounts, which usually mount by sliding next to the radio to an internal mounting point. These mounts can be removed and don’t leave a visible mark or gap. Whereas, in the U.S., trucks are usually larger and purchased outright, so floor mounting holes – and, therefore, larger tablets – can be used.

As you can imagine, all of these small worker and workflow considerations can quickly add up to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of design criteria made for each product design. That is why many companies guard their proprietary designs so closely. A lot of work was put into making them just right.

In Summary…

Designed-for tablet/dock pairs deliver superior performance in lots of areas, and most of the underlying work isn’t visible to customers. But this level of detail permeates every design decision, especially at companies that primarily serve enterprise, industrial and government organizations. Industrial designers for rugged device manufacturers like Zebra prioritize functional form and work with partners to ensure the design of third-party accessories – such as vehicle docks – follow suit.

Consumer tablets are thin and light, but often require third-party docks and accessories that weren’t designed for a specific tablet, and that results in a whole host of compromises and missing features. Heavy commercial-grade tablets and notebooks require large vehicle docks and installations that could interfere with air-bags and even damage the vehicles’ underfloor wiring and exhaust lines. Fortunately there is a class of mobile devices which are designed with their vehicle accessories for use in vehicles. Those are what you should consider.

This is why I’d be most comfortable installing a fleet mobility solution that was designed at one company for the whole of the use-in-field scenario. Industrial designers who focus on functionality over artful form in a profoundly detailed way  – whose decisions are not arbitrary, whimsical or emotive – will deliver products that you can be confident will work best. At the end of the day, that’s the design that matters most to end users who want their devices to conform to the way they work and not the other way around. 

Energy and Utilities, Transportation and Logistics, Field Operations, Public Sector,
Kyp Walls
Kyp Walls

Kyp Walls joined Zebra Technologies in 2018 and currently serves as the Tablet Marketing Lead. In this role, he is responsible for the global marketing of Zebra’s tablet, 2-in-1, tablets and in-vehicle computers.

Mr. Walls has been involved in dozens of new product and service initiatives throughout his 30+ year career, and he has directed product and marketing teams for many industry-changing products. He started in the technology industry in 1991 and has held key sales and marketing roles for Panasonic, Toshiba, Dell and others. Prior to this, he spent several years in consumer goods marketing and product management for global leaders such as Procter & Gamble and Nestle.

After completing a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Mr. Walls went on to become the youngest recipient ever of an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business.

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