The future of UI design for embedded systems

It’s time for embedded user interfaces to catch up to the rest of the world.

We know this already, as you can’t read an article or go to a conference without someone saying “our users want their smartphone experience in their car and on their fridge!” The allure of blending powerful features and beautiful user experiences (UX) comes too easily, and embedded systems are found lacking.

So why are we falling behind and what market forces are driving us to catch up?

With less power comes more responsibility

There’s a common belief in the sliding scale of hardware-to-UI-capability ratio, in the sense that the smaller the platform, the less you can do with the UI. While true in a strictly functional sense—if you don’t have 3D hardware acceleration, you can’t use 3D hardware acceleration—it’s often the case that the application architecture, graphics library limitations, and suboptimal performance result in UIs that look like this:

Example of old UI design

Instead of this:

Example of good UI design

We know this has to do with not having enough development time and resources to squeeze as much out of the hardware as possible but users are left scratching their heads as to why its easier to operate a smartphone that does fifty things than a dishwasher that does only one thing.

It certainly doesn’t have to be this way. Not only are CPU and GPU hardware capabilities increasing, right down to the MPU, UI toolkits are getting better. Check out the recently announced ARM Dynamiq processors and Mali-G72 GPU, or the first MCU with an integrated 2D GPU and integrated DDR2 memory from Microchip Technology Inc. We’re being offered more speed and capability than ever before and with less power consumption and heat.

And it will only get better. Embedded processors have traditionally been slow to adopt cutting-edge components, being more concerned with power, heat, and longer in-service times. But with the Internet of Things, smart homes, connected cars, and a host of other trends that have become reality, the demand for faster, more capable devices by both consumers and industry is just getting started.

So, what can embedded UI teams look forward to in 3 to 5 years? A look at the forces transforming the technology world right now provides the answers.

UI design is equal to code

The 2017 Design in Tech Report, presented at SXSW Interactive, offers an analysis of design trends changing the face of tech. Three points stand out as particularly relevant for embedded systems, by the very fact that users are demanding more out of their UIs and that more customers are on their way. The IoT market alone is expected to grow to 75.4 billion devices by 2025.

Perhaps the biggest change is that designers, or at least the unique skillset of UI design, is becoming a priority for development teams. Developers know how to create, test, and optimize apps, but it’s the lack of a designer’s knowledge that results in so many of the “traditional-looking” UIs that are still being churned out by embedded teams.

Only by making the job of the designer equal to that of the developer can products be made beautiful, useful, engaging, and functional—qualities that drive adoption and brand loyalty. The report points out that not only have Facebook, Amazon, and Google grown their art and design personnel by 65 percent in the past year, two out of every five designers are now involved in code development.

We’re seeing this with embedded software teams as well, as bringing a designer’s mindset into the developer’s machine is the surest way to achieve UX and commercial success.

UI design must be inclusive

“Adopting an inclusive design approach expands a tech product’s total addressable market.”
2017 Design in Tech Report

The report observes that, historically, technology products weren’t designed for a broad range of users, rather they were built to be used by the people who created them. This exclusivity has softened over time, of course, with a whole industry devoted to user research and feedback, but again, smartphones continue to move the UX goalpost for embedded. Why can’t every device operate with just one button, a simplified set of graphics, and be understood by everyone around the world?

Users don’t care that your graphics library doesn’t support pixel shaders or hardware acceleration. Embedded systems are highly technical but cannot survive by serving only a technical audience, especially as they sell into newer consumer-dominated markets all over the world. UIs must be thought out, designed, and built for not only maximum usability but inclusivity as well—whether it’s geographic, cultural, or socioeconomic—to satisfy global user expectations.

Although originally intended for the web, the World Wide Web Consortium’s guidelines for accessibility, usability, and inclusion apply equally to embedded systems because, at the end of the day, all our users are human.

“Inclusive design, universal design, and design for all involves designing products, such as websites, to be usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation. Inclusion addresses a broad range of issues including access to and quality of hardware, software, and Internet connectivity; computer literacy and skills; economic situation; education; geographic location; and language — as well as age and disability.”

One major example of a company tackling this head on is Microsoft, check out their inclusive design toolkit.

The key to inclusivity is designing UI elements that are simple and unambiguous while eliciting an emotional connection. In this way, your UI is less frustrating to use and more likely to be used.

To design embedded UIs that include, rather than alienate, as broad an audience as possible, it’s the designer to the rescue. Unlike developers, they have the specific techniques and experience with distilling diverse personas into a usable design, so your product ends up with better UX/UI that also happens to be easy to use by everyone.

The need for supporting this diversity has found its way into the makeup of design teams, as the Design in Tech Report shows:

UI design unlocks value

“Design tool companies and design community platforms occupy new positions of value for tech.”
2017 Design in Tech Report

Software like Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, and Sketch are just a few of the many examples of design tools that have democratized graphic design, lowering the barrier to UI excellence, and reducing time to release (does anyone do back-of-the-napkin sketches anymore?).

The same applies to embedded UI tools. Our developers have mostly moved away from using graphics primitives to use mid-level libraries, such as OpenGL and Direct3D, with higher-level platforms such as Qt gaining popularity. With these pre-packaged, easier to use toolkits, building UIs has also become democratized. Anyone can take a Qt widget and run with it.

The problem is, to unlock the maximum value out of all that design effort, you need to go one step further and not get locked into how pre-packaged libraries look and behave.

“Every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return. That’s an ROI of a whopping 9900 percent.”
Good UX is Good Business: How to Reap Its Benefits, Forbes

Going straight from the designer’s tool to deployment, with little to no modification of the design, is the only way to ensure your product offers the best UX/UI. Otherwise, development tradeoffs (software limitations, pre-canned widgets, resource constraints, power, time, etc.) will chip away at your optimal experience.

Storyboard Suite is one such tool, with built-in parallel workflows between the designer and developer to reduce the common frustrations and friction between them. By working side-by-side, the designer can focus on creating the best UX/UI possible, the developer can focus on the back-end, and the whole application is created, tested, and deployed within one single environment. The app also happens to run on a highly-optimized engine tuned for a variety of platforms and architectures.

This video from last year’s Apple WWDC event sums up why smart design matters:

“When you put so much hard work and creativity into an app, you really want it to reach people. But ultimately, everyone will experience your app in their own way and if you think about the millions of people who could use your app, you have to consider how diverse their perspectives are.”

The key statement here is that we all want our products to reach people, in terms of both usability and market share. Using collaborative tools that make design equal to code is just the way to do it.

To see how easy it is to put design into action, try the sample applications included in our free 30-day Storyboard Suite trial:

The perks of developing in Storyboard

The following is a post from Vanessa, one of our multi-talented and insanely busy in-house Storyboard application developers. Vanessa uses Storyboard Engine, Storyboard IO, Adobe Photoshop, and many other tools to bring custom UI applications to life for many of our major customers.

User interface (UI) development can be tricky, even more so when you’re building apps for embedded devices like kitchen appliances and vending machines. As an application developer with a background in interactive media design, I’m constantly amazed at how much we can create based on such little information. It seems that every project starts with a rough sketch with many holes to fill, and somehow we get amazing experiences delivered on time.

I’ve been using Storyboard Suite for over two years and it’s pretty incredible what it can do. Compared to other design tools I’ve used, I feel really spoiled with how easy Storyboard makes things.

Here are some of the things it does that make my life easier and will hopefully make your life easier too.

Develop without knowing the details

With Storyboard, I can develop the application without knowing all the details, big or small. I’ve worked on customer projects where we only had a rough outline of the UI to work with. With a basic understanding of what the application needed, I started developing the preliminary navigation, followed by the backend functionality. Because Storyboard keeps the UI separate from the backend, it was easy to abstract the development of these key pieces. Then, once the design decisions were made, I added the graphics and interactions to complete the application.

All things considered, it’s pretty hard to be stalled when using Storyboard, which helps get products out the door, and into the hands of users quicker — without sacrificing quality or performance.

Develop without knowing the platform

Storyboard UI development is totally platform independent, letting you develop the app you want without knowing what target you are developing for. You can test the communication with the backend using Storyboard’s iogen and iorcv tools, or use a compiled C program, and then transfer your UI files onto your target via USB once you decide on specific hardware.

Once again, there’s no reason to wait to start creating your UI. This reduces the delays and holdups that tend to happen with traditional UI development.

Easy to test

Maybe worse than not deciding on a platform is not having any hardware at all! But with Storyboard, it’s easy to test your app with the desktop ‘simulator’, which isn’t actually a simulator, but our actual Storyboard Engine runtime, just designed for the operating system and graphics renderer your computer has. So, what you see on the desktop is exactly what you’ll get on whichever runtime you go with.

Easy to change and iterate

We all love change, right? Well, with Storyboard design and code changes are easy to do for a number of reasons. First, you can easily make changes to the design of the application without having to search through code to find where that piece of the app lies, especially important when you’re collaborating and someone else could have written it.

Second, having a visual, drag-and-drop tool that automatically updates everything underneath lets you easily picture and modify what the UI will look like without much stress. Instead of designing with code, running the application, navigating to the part of the application you’ve changed, and then deciding, “No, I don’t like it there,” and repeating…It’s much easier to scroll down in the Storyboard Designer editor view to the screen you want to edit, position the element where you want it, and see instantly whether it looks good or not.

Third, it allows designers to frequently test out the UI design and interaction to make sure their vision is coming to fruition, either on the simulator or on any number of real targets. This allows designers and developers to continuously evaluate together and create the best possible version of an application.

Easily run your application on a real target

No part of the UI application built in Storyboard Designer needs to be compiled to run on a target. This means I don’t need an environment setup to allow me to compile, making transferring and testing on a target pretty painless. All I need to do is export an application file, which creates an XML model file to be interpreted by Storyboard Engine, then transfer it to the target and run sbengine and point it to that model file.

In Storyboard 5.0, we introduced the SCP transfer feature which has made this process, and my life, so much easier! No more adding files to USB, transferring USB to the target, making sure it mounts properly, moving files via the command line, and then restarting the board, when needed.

Now, all of this can be done through a network connection, with files copied directly down to the target from within Storyboard Designer, and you can also choose to run a script to start your app, or do anything you want really, right after the transfer is complete. Just another reason why developing Storyboard Suite is so great.

To try Storyboard Suite for yourself (and feel like an application development goddess!), start your free trial now and see how easy it is to create beautiful embedded UIs from concept to production.

StoryboardTrialBtn

Supporting UI scalability – from MCU to MPU

We are often asked the question, “what platforms do you support?” or variations on the same that include operating systems, GPUs, rendering technologies, and more. Development teams want to know if Storyboard Suite supports the environments they have, or want to build out.

We always give the same answer: All of them.

Of course, the details are important, so this blog explains exactly what Storyboard Suite supports.

Support across the boards

Storyboard supports a wide range of ARM architectures, from the low-power Cortex-M series used on MCUs to the powerful Cortex-A series used on MPUs. We’ve also supported PowerPC, x86, and SH4 architectures, among others. Storyboard runs on everything from task-based RTOS such as Micrium µC/OS-II and FreeRTOS to full-featured, general purpose RTOS such as Linux, QNX Neutrino, and Green Hills INTEGRITY.

This means you can build user interfaces (UI) for everything from tiny industrial controls to complex automotive instrument panels without having to worry about the particulars of the platform or the effort required to port to different environments when your product line grows.

Here are examples of our demo images running on the STM32F4 (Cortex-M4) and the NXP i.MX 6QuadPlus (Cortex-A9):

STM32F4 (Cortex-M4)

NXP i.MX 6QuadPlus (Cortex-A9)

We support this wide range through extensive development and testing on each platform, ensuring the Storyboard Engine takes advantage of specific board features, such as proprietary graphics libraries, 2D or 3D hardware acceleration, and memory management functions.

The ease at which we provide support for multiple platforms is a result of the way Storyboard is architected: it’s purpose-built for maximum performance and customizability. This flexibility is also exposed to the user, allowing fine control over application configuration and performance:

Application size – The Storyboard Engine is based on a modular plugin system, such that only the required components are included in the system configuration and deployed. Not only does this reduce the application’s footprint, it allows the user to scale functionality down for systems with minimal memory and CPU resources, including:

  • Screen transitions
  • Animations
  • 3D models
  • Input methods
  • Rendering types (polygons, circles, raw canvas, etc.)
  • Lua scripting

Scalability across platforms – Storyboard uses a fixed data model to represent the UI, not generated code, which means the same model can be used across multiple platform-specific runtimes that are tuned for the features and hardware optimizations of the platform. The model itself is event-driven and uses a well-defined API between the UI and the event/messaging system native to the deployment platform, meaning it isn’t tied to a specific environment.

Graphics rendering – Storyboard lets you choose how you want to render graphics, from writing directly into the frame buffer to taking advantage of any 2D or 3D hardware rendering available on the board.

Flexible filesystem – The standard Storyboard deployment uses a filesystem to store the UI data model and associated resources but, if you don’t have a filesystem, you can compile and bind resources directly to Storyboard Engine and flash to the target system.

Font usage – A Storyboard application can either use a font engine to load fonts directly from TrueType or OpenType files, or use pre-rendered glyphs that are stored in ROM.

To try out Storyboard on different platforms for yourself, download and run our ready-to-go demo images.

 

Thanks NXPconnects!

The big news for NXPconnects attendees last week wasn’t the scorching heat wave running through San Jose, rather it was the announcements, demos, and talks surrounding autonomous vehicles. Visitors to our booth were treated to our stunning 3D automotive cluster demo running on the NXP i.MX6QuadPlus, along with other examples of how we accelerate and improve user interface (UI) development.

Most visitors to our booth were hardware and software practitioners curious about how Storyboard Suite improves UI development and what markets we target. While Nick answered the business reasons, Thomas demonstrated the real-world implications on a live system:

  • You can go from design to deployment in minutes, with Storyboard’s Adobe Photoshop import tool and variety of deployment methods, including running on a desktop simulator or using SCP transfer to real targets
  • By allowing designers and developers to work together in the same environment, neither is dependent on or gets delayed by the other, resulting in a much faster time to release
  • Talking about Photoshop again, the final UI is much more rich and engaging because the designer’s intent is put into production – no more forcing the UI to fit pre-packaged widgets or limiting it to software constraints

People were immediately hooked by taking a design to target quickly and it led to questions about what platforms we support (everything from MCUs to MPUs, with little compromise in UI features) and production readiness (every deployment is production ready). Our partnership with NXP has never been better and together we can help you realize UIs that are beautiful, engaging, and highly performant.

Our partnership with NXP has never been better and together we can help you realize UIs that are beautiful, engaging, and highly performant.

Stay tuned for news on how we support the NXP i.MX 8 series of processors to get maximum UI performance on powerful, highly efficient boards.

To learn more about Storyboard Suite, check out our latest on-demand webinars.

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Thanks TU Detroit!

TU Detroit 2017 banner

At any given moment last week, the more than 3000 attendees at TU Detroit were talking about autonomous vehicles, safety, and cybersecurity, while in our booth, we spoke to many automotive design and development leaders who wanted to bring it all together within rich, engaging HMIs.

Here are some of the things that Brian and Nik talked about with them in our booth – the current and future state of automotive HMI development.

  • Good (great!) HMI design is critical for user adoption and brand loyalty, especially now that more connected systems are being fed through a small number of panels in the vehicle
  • Combining safety with stunning visuals is a big challenge. Brian spent a lot of time with connected car and design leaders in front of our 3D cockpit demo running on the BlackBerry QNX Platform for Instrument Clusters and NXP i.MX 6. Bringing together an ISO 26262 pre-certified platform and a fast, engaging UI built by Storyboard Suite led to some great conversations.
Demo: Storyboard + BlackBerry QNX Platform for Instrument Clusters

Demo: Storyboard + BlackBerry QNX Platform for Instrument Clusters

“Engineers go into the dark for two months, then come back with a UI that’s ruined my design vision!”

  • This was a common story from designers and led Nik to demonstrate how Storyboard enables designers to work in Photoshop, developers to work in code, and maintains the vision of both. This short video explains how:

  • Development leads want to deliver more and do it in less time. This isn’t a new concept for software but it is a challenge for automotive teams trying to keep up with new technologies and consumer demands. For HMI development, a major time consumer is design iterations, as versions are built, validated, and adjusted based on user feedback and differences between designer expectations and developer realities. Storyboard helps teams fly through iterations with tools such as Photoshop re-import, graphical comparison tools, and rapid deployment on a variety of targets.
  • Great HMIs aren’t limited to automotive, as vendors asked questions about supporting platforms outside the car, such as smart home devices and wearables. Storyboard supports them all, across a wide range of hardware and operating systems.

We also heard good things about our demo in the Texas Instruments booth, running on Green Hills Software INTEGRITY.

To learn more about Storyboard Suite, check out our latest on-demand webinars.

Click to watch