A behind-the-scenes look at how GE is using design to change how people use its machines

Tucked into the back of an office park about a 45 minute drive east from San Francisco sits an unusual 12,000 square-foot-building that’s a symbol of an experiment several years in the making at century-old industrial-focused conglomerate General Electric. The site houses GE’s chic new design center, complete with movable walls, a 360-degree immersive viewing room to cultivate empathy with industrial workers, and white boards covering every space imaginable — even the lunch tables — to encourage creativity.
Utilizing the space are GE’s very own designers, sporting the requisite thick-framed cool glasses. GE now has 60 designers at the San Ramon-based software center, and inside the movable pods they sit on foam chairs and craft software for, say, a technician on a supply ship in Malaysia or a power plant operator in Nevada. during a tour of the facility last week, Greg Petroff, the center’s chief experience officer, said that GE has been hoarding quality design talent he thinks could rival any of the large design-focused internet giants from Facebook to Google.
“Design is a nascent capability inside of GE,” Petroff said. “We’re adding a new layer of DNA to GE by bringing in design processes and thinking.”

GE's design center in San Ramon, Calif.

GE’s design center in San Ramon, Calif.

Over the past two and a half years, GE has quietly been building out its design capabilities and talent to help the company improve the software that runs all those connected industrial objects it churns out every year, from locomotive parts to wind turbines to nuclear power plants. It’s all part of GE’s overall strategy to build the “Industrial Internet,” and the idea is that as more industrial devices become connected, the way people interact with those machines will change. GE won’t just sell the jet engine it manufactured, it will also provide smart software to run, monitor, and maintain it and will help guide the experiences of those working on the jet engines.

Designing for connected machines

So how exactly do well-off Bay Area designers use software to make the work day better for industrial technicians that are maintaining trains, planes and power plants across the globe? Well, it’s not exactly an easy task. During the tour, Melody Ivory, a user experience scientist for GE, described how she underwent a helicopter crash simulation and met with 119 different people across many months to help GE redesign the positioning system for a supply ship.
While each design project has different needs, Petroff introduced five design principles that he said guide how GE designs the experience of using a connected machine:

GE's Chief Experience Officer, Greg Petroff

GE’s Chief Experience Officer, Greg Petroff

  1. Design for context: In an industrial environment, software can know the things around you, the people around you and the associated context of the outer world that relates to the things and people around you. For example, if you’re designing for people working on a jet engine, then a mobile app should include the context of the jet engine hardware, the history of the hardware, the people who have worked on the engine in the past, and other details like the spot prices of the parts that might be needed.
  2. Design to make us smarter: The best software makes the people who use it smarter. Petroff used the example of the Nest learning thermostat, because when people use Nest they start to learn more about their energy use and potentially change their behavior as a result. GE software for an industrial worker should not only make the operator do his/her job better, but also become a smarter worker.
  3. Design to connect: In diverse industrial environments workers can have a wide range of skills and familiarity with technology. An older worker might have deep knowledge about how the machines mechanically work but less skill on the digital side, and vice versa for a just-out-of-college worker. GE wants to build software to bridge the gap between the two types of workers.
  4. Design for ops (operations): Many of the people that use the software that GE is designing are using it to operate big machines. GE wants to use data that is unleashed through connectivity to help workers better operate and control those machines, achieving data-infused operations through design.
  5. Design for self: GE also wants to democratize design within GE, and enable non-designers to mock-up ideas and share their work in the same way that a designer would. For example GE developers made a software platform called the Software Design Hub that houses tools for GE’s apps. Designers and developers use the hub to publish reference designs and analytics dashboards.

Yes, some of these ideas are pretty obvious, and jargon-filled. But the core way that GE designers craft valuable experiences for workers that are so different from them is by using various tools to increase their empathy for the worker users. That’s why Ivory went through the helicopter crash simulation and why the design center has an immersive viewing room.

GE's user experience researcher David Gilmore shows off the immersive space

GE’s user experience researcher David Gilmore shows off the immersive space

In the immersive room, GE designers can project real-time videos and 360 degree still photography to help the designer get in the mind set of the worker. It sounds cheesy, but when I entered the immersive room on the tour, a closeup video of workers lifting a turbine out of position to repair it really gave me a closer feeling of what it’s like to work in that environment. In another example a projected 180-degree view of a power plant — taken with a bunch of GoPro’s mocked up into a 180 degree camera — enabled the viewer to feel like they were standing right next to the power plant.
GoPro cameras used to create a 360 degree immersive experience.

GoPro cameras used to create a 360 degree immersive experience.

GE is also using the latest in cutting-edge user interfaces to try to design the most useful products with its machines. When a technician needs to use his or her hands to move parts, they can use a wearable device to monitor the machine or input information into the machine with a gesture. The massive amount of data generated by the connected machines can be visualized in ways that enable the workers to know exactly what they need to know at any given time. Factories can be built with sensor systems that automatically awake devices for workers.
User experience pioneer Arnie Lund is the manager of GE’s UX Industrial Innovation Lab, which sits a couple floors above the design center and has about 20 Phd and computer scientists working in it. Lund has spent decades in the field of human and computer interaction and was a real coup for GE. Lund’s team has worked on the data visualizations that helped make up GE’s power grid software GridIQ, and during a tour of the lab a member of his group showed how a manager of a wind turbine team could automatically get updates on workers via a wearable computer like Google Glass.
The manager of GE's UX Industrial Innovation Lab, Arnie Lund, shows off the lab.

The manager of GE’s UX Industrial Innovation Lab, Arnie Lund, shows off the lab.

Lund’s team is also the lucky group that gets to test out new and wacky next-generation ideas that could one day become GE products. “We prototype new ways for people to connect with machines,” explained Lund on the tour.

How does an old company recruit young design talent?

In order to build the best experiences for its connected machines, GE needs the best designers. But in the Bay Area it’s hard to compete with the cooler internet giants and their extreme perks (gym, massages, free gourmet food) as well as the hot startups. It’s particularly hard when those companies are based in San Francisco, and not an office park in the far East Bay.
Petroff admitted that recruiting talent isn’t so easy right now. Designers are in high demand in the Bay Area, and GE is just getting started building design expertise in its organization. But that’s part of the reason why GE is offering tours of the design center to the media — to show off its resources and recruit. Petroff said he’s trying to build the team of 60 designers to 80; the overall San Ramon GE Software center could grow from 900 employees to 1,200 this year.

Young designers in GE's design center explain why they like working at GE.

Young designers in GE’s design center explain why they like working at GE.

During the tour GE trotted out some of its young design talent, including designers that were recruited from internet companies, to have them explain why they would want to work for GE beyond a paycheck and a new building. One common thread designers brought up was getting to work on actual machines in the real world; GE visual designer Leo Schneider was enthusiastic about visiting a locomotive shop on his third day on the job. Another reason mentioned several times was the chance to work on design projects that impact so many people on such a large scale.
Everyone knows big companies can be stifling for the creative set, but GE UX and interaction designer Phil Balagas said that GE’s design team operates almost like a startup inside of GE. He said that he feels unconstrained enough to be creative (although, of course, this is a group that volunteered to talk to the press about GE in front of their bosses). Changing the perception of GE from a boring industrial conglomerate to a design-focused company could be GE’s biggest hurdle to recruiting another two dozen designers.
Greg Petroff, the center’s chief experience officer

Greg Petroff, the center’s chief experience officer

GE has accomplished a lot over the two and a half years it’s taken to build out the San Ramon Software building, as well as the design center and the UX lab. But in reality, design is still a relatively small part of the overall organization. GE CMO Beth Comstock has spent years pushing for more design at GE, and spoke with Gigaom’s Om Malik about that at our experience design conference Roadmap last year. (We’ll be holding our third annual Roadmap on Nov. 18 and 19 in San Francisco this year, and we’ll be announcing speakers in the coming weeks).
If GE can embed design processes and design thinking into the broader organization, it could do some real good across the rest of the company. Design isn’t just about making something look good on the outside, it’s more about making careful and thoughtful decisions that deliver better experiences.
What company wouldn’t benefit from that?