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Designer Interview

OLYMPUS OM-D


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IPLEX UltraLite

What's critical is the ability to build on your proposals.

Yasuo Funakoshi [Industrial Designer]

Yasuo Funakoshi
Industrial Designer What is critical is the ability to build on your proposals. While it takes a lot of patient effort, it is a matter of working conscientiously until the job is done. I believe that the products you come up with through this process will also evoke an emotional response in customers.


My objectives are simplicity and ease-of-use.

Tomomi Uemura [GUI Designer]

Tomomi Uemura
GUI Designer My work to date has mainly dealt with microscopes and industrial endoscopes. I have also been working on camera applications and audio in recent times. It distressed me when I heard of people being unable to use a product they purchased, and it was this that inspired me to become a GUI designer. In other words, my objectives are simplicity and ease-of-use.



First released in 2012, the IPLEX UltraLite is a small and lightweight industrial videoscope with an integrated control LCD monitor capable of being operated with one hand. It is intended for inspection applications such as pipelines and wind turbine gearboxes.

In addition to winning a Red Dot Design Award, a prestigious international product design prize from Europe, the IPLEX UltraLite was also a finalist for the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) in the United States.

While mention of design prizes will have most people thinking about the product's external appearance, assessment is also based on how easily a product can be used and other practical considerations. The US IDEA design award, in particular, is recognized for paying rigorous attention to how much the design contributes to ease-of-use.

Here, the people responsible for the product design and graphical user interface (GUI) describe the development of the IPLEX UltraLite from a design perspective.

The question is, "how much value can we deliver?"

Yasuo Funakoshi

The Good Design Award is a well-known design prize in Japan. There are also a number of other widely recognized design prizes awarded in other countries. Europe has the Red Dot Design Award and iF product design award, for example, while the most prestigious design prize in the United States is IDEA.

In these awards, the external appearance of the product is not the most important judging criterion. Instead, what matters most is how much value can be delivered to the customer who ultimately uses the product and to what extent the designer has utilized the design process to come up with innovative solutions for achieving this.

The IDEA design award, in particular, applies very stringent criteria for judging this aspect of design and people working in the field have come to recognize the IDEA design award's assessment of new, highly practical designs as something to aspire to.

A design that does not tire the user

In keeping with the theme for the overall product, the concept for the IPLEX UltraLite was to produce a design that does not tire the user. The IPLEX UltraLite is intended primarily for outdoor use inspecting pipelines and other industrial plants. This means it needs to be carried long distances and through places where the footing may be poor. Our objective was to produce a videoscope that could be used all day in such environments without giving the user fatigue.

As it happens, this basis of "producing something a professional user can carry around all day without getting tired" is exactly the same design objective as for professional-grade digital single-lens reflex cameras. Consequently, the approach we took to the design and the way we went about conducting our design work were very similar to the process for a digital single-lens reflex camera. But with cameras, there is already a clear definition for how they can be used (such as how a user holds it or takes photographs) and this is reflected in how the product is designed.
In the case of the IPLEX UltraLite industrial videoscope, however, our task as the manufacturer would be better described as working out how the product would be used in practice, starting with how the user would hold it.

Initial product design proposal. Ongoing evaluation, including size, weight balance and ease-of-use.

The weight of the unit was kept down to only 700 g*, far less than half that of competing models. More important than simply reducing the weight, though, is how well-balanced it is when a user takes it into their hands. Therefore, we tried to create a shape that didn't feel heavy. For example, we designed a shape that fits in the fingers in such a way that operating a lever with one hand does not cause the entire unit to rotate. We also attached the scope at the bottom so that it does not get in the way of the control unit when performing an inspection.
* When attached to a 2-m-long insertion tube

Just like holding a brandy glass

Just like holding a brandy glass

It is a shame the IPLEX UltraLite is an industrial product few outside the industry will get to see. As a designer, this product is one I want people to hold. I would like people to experience how it fits snugly into their palm and feels secure in their grip without needing to grasp it tightly.

What I particularly want to get across is the distinctive shape of the grip. All unnecessary material has been shaved off, leaving only what is needed and allowing the joystick to be manipulated in all directions while holding the control unit in one hand. The grip's final shape emerged from repeated iterations of this process.

I designed the grip to create a videoscope with notable characteristics: Operating the joystick without causing the control unit to jolt about; Providing a firm feel without leaving soreness after extended use; and, fitting so snugly into the hand it feels like an extension of the body and no longer even noticable.
Our design team used a brandy glass as the conceptual image for this distinctive hand grip. This represents the shape of the grip and something you can keep on using indefinitely and with ease.

To develop the grip shape we used industrial clay to produce a number of models we could trial over extended periods as we worked on the design. We then passed the grips on to people with particularly large or small hands and asked for their impressions so we could home in on a shape comfortable for anyone to hold.

Development work using a clay model / Development work using a 3D image


Encouraging users to take that first step

Tomomi Uemura
Monitor display

It is not uncommon for industrial product users to continue using the same device for 10 or more years. Therefore, in addition to intuitive operation, it is essential that the GUI not feel unnatural compared to the products people have been using in the past.

In the case of the IPLEX UltraLite, miniaturizing the control unit meant using a smaller monitor screen. Therefore, we also faced the challenge of being able to display less information than we had been able to in the past. Starting from the graphics concept, we set to work with the development team to update the unit's graphics. Our aim was to produce a GUI users would find reassuring so that even if the screen was filled with buttons and text, they would still feel comfortable about pressing buttons and be confident about using the device from the very first time they tried it.
The interface is not only reassuring. Actual operation has also been kept simple. By carefully adjusting the quantity of information on each screen to prevent it having too much or not enough, operation was designed so users could get to the menu they wanted in a small number of steps. It takes no more than three screen levels to get access to any setting.

In seeking to design a GUI that is easy to understand, familiar and reassuring, we followed the example of other products familiar to many people. This guided our efforts toward a direction similar to that of a digital camera interface. This is because the GUI designs used in digital cameras are based on universally recognized concepts.

Despite this, deciding on things like icons and multi-language text was not easy. Words have different lengths in different languages, such as Russian for example, and this means fine tuning is needed for spacing, fonts and other aspects of layout design. Another difficulty impeding standardization is that icons can also be interpreted differently in diverse cultures. For example, symbols were used to differentiate between similar functions such as creating or renaming a folder. This was because we felt using universally recognized symbols would label these more clearly.


Russian display / English display

Dust- and splash-proof and built to withstand impact

Along with ease-of-use, durability is a critical requirement for an industrial product intended for outdoor use. Despite the IPLEX UltraLite having been made considerably smaller and lighter, its performance in terms of robustness is equal to that of previous industrial videoscopes made by Olympus. In addition to satisfying dust- and splash-proofing standards, it is also built to withstand impact from a height of 1.2m.

In general, a shape with rounded corners (a high "R") is what results when seeking a shape both easy to hold and not prone to breaking when dropped. The metal joystick used in past models was replaced with plastic and its height and shape were chosen to provide an optimum mix of resilience and ease-of-use. The display was also made easy to read, even in direct sunlight, by testing visibility on a prototype unit and adjusting the use of color.

Proactively eliminating causes of stress that even users won't notice

No matter how good the product you create, there will always be some aspect that becomes a cause of stress until you actually use it. While it goes without saying that listening to user feedback is very important, there will also be defects that even users don't notice. We aim to eliminate these proactively. This is the sort of product we want to produce at Olympus.

There will likely be numerous things we can do to achieve this through the GUI and other aspects of design. One example is to keep an objective and open mind when trialing the product. We stay on the lookout for features that strike us as awkward during casual use of the product and improve accordingly. Our aim for the future is to continue gaining a deeper understanding of the circumstances in which the product is used so we can design functions easy to use.

Yasuo Funakoshi & Tomomi Uemura

Information of this article is based on the facts as of August 31, 2012.

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