Product development goes beyond getting the circuits and components right. The user interface is critical. Gez Kahan examines the design process behind Yamaha’s M7CL
When you make a product you want people to want it. You want people to use it. You want them to love it. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s surprising how many products there are on the market, even today, where top class engineering inside the box is rendered practically worthless because nobody considered the needs of the end user.
This isn’t a simple matter of turning engineering into eye candy, although attractiveness will be one element of a well thought out user interface. Nor does that hackneyed phrase ‘a marriage of form and function’ do the design process justice. If the product development teams have done their jobs properly and thought not just about what they want their invention to do but why they’re inventing it in the first place and how the customer will use it, the function will, to a large extent, define the form.
Let’s take Yamaha’s M7CL digital mixing console as an example. Consider, as the design teams did, the traditional analog mixer surface: to the left, channel strips, each with its dedicated fader; to the right, overall control – groups, masters and the like. And then consider the needs of today’s user.
Early live sound mixers were small, and the engineer sat at the centre, easily able to fine tune individual channel settings at the same time as working on the mix itself. But as more input channels (and channel features) were added, so the console surface expanded leftwards and outwards to accommodate them, taking up more and more space and meaning that if you were working on masters and submixes, you had to stretch and lean to tweak the pots on individual channels.
When live mixing first went digital, product designers retained the analog console format because it would be easier for sound engineers to accept the new technology if the control surface was familiar. But once the technology had proved itself, the design could begin to explore digital’s benefits in terms of the user interface.
The immediate thing you notice with the M7CL is that it has recaptured the centre ground for the engineer, with the heart of the control surface dominated by a touch screen, eight faders, a clutch of rotary knobs and a selection of buttons. There are individual channels and faders outside the central area but they’re for the usual instantaneous adjustments that users need to make during the mix: channel level and channel selection. Full functionality is accessed via the touch screen using Yamaha’s Centralogic system and the eight Centralogic faders.
The Centralogic system has the welcome benefit of reducing the mixer’s footprint, but that wasn’t the primary intention. Yamaha’s tag line for the M7CL is “easier than analog”, because, as Masaaki "Mick" Okabayashi of the Product Development Department explains, “Analog operation is not always the best in all situations.” He had noticed that engineers faced with the plethora of controls on analog desks often found themselves grabbing the wrong button by mistake – and some had even taken to blocking off areas with perspex covers to minimize the potential for error. The Centralogic system means that only those controls that are immediately relevant need to be available at any time.
The beauty of a touch screen is that it combines display and control functions, but it still needs to preserve a balance between accessibility and ease of use: trying to cram every possible control onto each touch screen page would simply replace analog clutter with digital. So the designers spent a lot of late nights on the GUI (Graphical User Interface) making sure the M7CL was intuitive and “fun to drive”. They also had to take into account that a touch screen is quick to use, but perhaps not instantaneous in the same way as tweaking an analog pot – hence the clutch of assignable knobs and buttons in the centre section, which helps strike a balance between direct and virtual control.
Making it work, and programming the touch screen layout is one thing, but any properly designed user interface has to work ergonomically and aesthetically too. That process may be labelled ‘cosmetic design’ but the cosmetics always have a purpose.
The team working on this aspect are designers in the artistic sense. There are 26 of them, most based in Hamamatsu, but with small design offices in Tokyo and London too, working not only on selected Commercial Audio products but also on musical instruments, golf clubs, hi-fi systems, motorcycles… anything. And the designs are truly beautiful.
Manabu Kawada, general manager of Yamaha’s Product Design Laboratory, is obviously a ‘creative’. It isn’t just his stylish dress sense that proclaims it but an other-worldliness, his eyes constantly drawn to reappraise and reassess the designs he works on. He is, however, resolutely real-worldly in terms of purpose.
“I want to make designs that say ‘touch me, play me’,” he says. These are products to be used, not objects to be stared at. In fact, the Design Laboratory team’s first principle – above Innovation and Aesthetics – is Integrity: the purpose of the product must guide the design. And Kawada also picks out Unobtrusiveness, explaining that the human being, not the design (nor the product itself), is the main character.
Cosmetic design has an important commercial role, of course, not just in attracting the customer in the first place, but in reinforcing the company’s brand – think of European automobile manufacturers such as Mercedes, BMW, Alfa Romeo and Jaguar. “Japanese manufacturers used to be focused on technology,” Kawada says, “but now they need to differentiate themselves via product design in order to stay competitive in the face of better manufacture from other Asian territories.”
Brand cohesion can be seen by comparing the M7CL with Yamaha’s first digital console – the DMP7. The M7CL draws inspiration from its ancestor, but the design is anything but old-fashioned, and the hand of the creative team can be seen in the simplicity of the ‘cross’ formed by the intersection of the vertical ‘overview’ and the horizontal ‘selected channel view’.
In the end, though, all the cosmetic design considerations have to be an integral part of making the product work for the end-user. So as well as the layout of the controls, their ergonomics have to be taken into account. That meant experimenting with slope of the M7CL to get the most comfortable fader operation, for instance. Even when there’s an obviously ‘designerly’ feature, such as the use of space, it has a purpose. Leaving the panel to the left of the Centralogic faders free of knobs and buttons gives a classy look, but it also helps differentiate the left hand channel section from the central mixing area.
It is the harmony of all these elements that woos the customer, fostering what Kawada calls an “intimate relationship”. Great looks might inspire love at first sight, but Yamaha’ designers want something deeper and more meaningful: they want their users and their products to form a lifelong partnership.