What HMI Tells Users About Your Brand

The next step in human-machine interfaces is to go beyond what is currently possible and create experiences that are seamless.

June 12, 2023

11 Min Read
HMI design
Ahmetemre iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Dave Gonsiorowski, VP and CTO of Lifestyle Solutions at Flex

In the world of social media influencing and viral product trends, brands are focused on driving brand loyalty now more than ever. Customers now serve as a powerful marketing tool and vital sales force for brands. I saw this firsthand through a friend’s social media post seeking a recommendation for the best vacuum for pet hair removal. As an employee at a global diversified manufacturer that designs, builds, and delivers a range of products including multiple vacuum types and brands, I have some familiarity with vacuum features that cater to this specific task. In viewing the responses, I saw very few recommendations concerning products specifically made to remove pet hair, and even fewer descriptions of the unique features users found impressive. The vast majority of replies included strong opinions about different user experiences and why one brand is better than another.

It was interesting to observe friends forming alliances in support or opposition of various brands, and the majority of their rationale could be classified into one of four distinct "mental models." A mental model is the set of cognitive processes and beliefs formed from prior experiences, personal values, and perceptions of expertise gained through “research” (reviews of other consumers’ experiences). This forms the basis of the consumers’ expectations and fuels the conviction they have about making a purchase, using the product, and sharing their opinions with others. In the case of the vacuum example, the consumers’ mental models were ease of use, style, quality, innovativeness, and emotional connection to the brand. This exchange forever changed how I will think about product design and engineering going forward in my role in our Lifestyle business. I will pay closer attention to consumers’ mental models and how they use these models to influence not only themselves but others. I’ll focus more heavily on the human-machine interface (HMI) because it serves as the point of interaction where the customers’ requirements and the brand identity meet, where opinions are formed, and emotional connections are made.

Ease of Use

Many consumers desire something simple, and focusing on the ease of use of a product can be a great way for brands to connect with consumers. Designing for ease of use is one of the more challenging mental models to target because what one customer finds easy, another may find hard. With so many technologies, materials, methods, and manufacturing processes to choose from, it’s daunting to select the right combinations of on and off-screen graphics, icons, symbols, voice and gesture controls, and tactile features to create the most effective human-machine interface that caters to a wide variety of customers. In addition, some choices may make one task easier, but add complexity to another. For example, many products today require some level of internet connection or product setup to tap into their full potential. If installation or setup is too difficult, brands may lose the customer before they even start using it.

For devices that do not have a screen and still require stepping customers through processes, companies are increasingly deploying dead-fronting techniques. Deadfronting combines lighting, printed instructions, and tactile feedback to help users understand what actions they will need to take. This technique can be used to make the product easier to use and understand. And as more companies focus on satisfying the ease-of-use mental model, there is a trend to design products to operate in connected and disconnected modes while providing different methods of interacting. We see companies taking many different approaches in their attempt to deliver products that are easy to use. Some companies attempt to remove as many features as possible to simplify the interaction, while others see easy-to-use as giving the customer more control.

Take, for example, two sous vide (immersion circulator) devices using different approaches but often receiving a tie in their ratings and review. One product has an embedded display and user input features designed for the device. Users can adjust the temperature and time settings, select the appropriate cooking mode, and keep track of the cooking process directly from the user interface on the device or also via a phone app. By comparison, a competitor's product uses an alternative approach and is strictly app-based. Users can adjust the temperature and time settings in addition to selecting the appropriate cooking mode and tracking the cooking process all through the phone app. In this example, one approach might be deemed easier to use and more valuable than the other depending on the consumers’ mental model.

Quality to Cost

Another approach that brands can take to connect with customers is to place a focus on the relationship between style, quality, and cost. When reading consumer reviews, I often see consumers making comparisons like “This is a great product for the cost” or “This is the highest quality product and worth the cost.” When it comes to HMI design, companies have a vast toolkit of options to achieve desired levels of perceived quality to cost. It’s common for brands to create different HMIs for essentially the same functioning products to differentiate them sufficiently to justify different price points. They use different combinations of high-quality graphics, animations, and typography to create an aesthetically pleasing and polished look. Incorporating subtle, yet meaningful details such as responsive animations, hover effects, and detailed error messages demonstrate a focus on the user experience and show that the company takes pride in the small things while also telling the user that the product is of quality. Another technique is to provide consistency in the HMI across different products, platforms, and interactions, showing that the company values uniformity and has a keen eye for detail. In addition to the aforementioned techniques, companies can integrate materials, brand messaging, and special effects into the HMI design to create an immersive product experience.

A good example of a brand deploying different HMIs to achieve different perceptions of quality and value at different price points can be seen in most lines of washing machines and dryers. Washing machine brands design their products with a variety of different HMI design styles and controls, ranging from basic dials and buttons to touchscreen displays with customizable settings, which allows them to offer a range of machines at a variety of price points while still using the same core technologies across their entire portfolio. By associating the more advanced HMI designs with their higher-end models, the brand can leverage the consumer's mental model of quality and cost. The more features and advanced controls a washing machine has, the more likely it is to be perceived as higher quality and therefore have a higher price tag. By providing a range of products with different HMI designs, the brand can appeal to a wider range of quality and cost perceptions.

Delivering The Brand Personality

As the landscape of consumerism continues to evolve, many brands have realized the importance of designing a unique brand personality into their products to create a more meaningful connection with their customers. This is often where great HMI design is helpful. A brand can leverage the HMI to establish a personality by reflecting the company's values, target audience, and overall aesthetic. The choice of colors, typography, icons, and materials can all play a role in shaping the personality of the brand through its products. For example, a sleek and modern HMI design may appeal to a younger, tech-savvy audience and convey a sense of innovation and progressiveness. On the other hand, a classic and straightforward HMI design may appeal to a more traditional audience and convey a sense of reliability and trustworthiness. The HMI can also reflect the brand's overall mission and values, such as eco-friendliness or accessibility, through the use of eco-friendly materials or support for assistive technologies. In short, a well-designed HMI can play an important role in shaping the brand's personality and creating a strong emotional connection with its customers.

Casino gaming machines are prime examples of products that are designed to deliver brand personality. The designers use popular branded titles, graphics, lighting, sound, and tactile human-machine interface techniques to create an immersive experience that draws the consumer in. For instance, games based on popular movies like Jurassic Park, The Hangover, and Ghostbusters create a connection between the player and the movie franchise. The games’ design includes sound effects and graphics which create a brand experience that the player can relate to and connect emotionally. Moreover, the use of tactile buttons and designs enhances the user's experience, adding a further level of interaction that can keep the player coming back for more. The result is a game that delivers a unique brand personality while creating an emotional connection and keeping the player engaged.


Creating products and experiences that resonate with the customers’ mental models can also be achieved through innovation. By incorporating cutting-edge technologies such as voice and gesture control into the HMI, brands can provide new and intuitive ways for users to interact with their products. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming more prevalent to create seamless experiences and the use of augmented and virtual reality can offer a truly immersive experience. In addition, companies may choose to implement futuristic design elements such as 3D interfaces and holographic displays. These techniques help to create an HMI that is not only functional but also exciting and forward-thinking, further enhancing the company's reputation and brand image as an innovator in their field.

Google Home is an example of a brand and product that focuses on innovation to connect with its consumers. This voice-activated home product allows users to access information, control their home devices and entertainment, and stay connected with their family and friends by simply speaking. Additionally, the device is constantly being updated with new features and services that make it more useful and convenient for users. Google Home is an example of a brand and product that is continuously innovating to stay connected with its customers and is one of many smart home devices leveraging standards such as Matter to create more compelling user interfaces and user experiences. The Matter is a cloud-based platform that allows users to control their connected home devices with a single command. It also allows users to control multiple devices at once, such as lights, thermostats, music, and more. Additionally, Matter allows users to create and customize their own rules and schedules to automate many of their home tasks. With Matter and Google Home, users can create their own personalized user experience. The combination of these two technologies is allowing users to create a truly connected home, with an enhanced user interface and user experience.

What’s Next for HMI?

As product developers, we are aware that consumer mental models are subject to change. Therefore, it is important to not only consider the current models but to anticipate that changes will occur. One such shift we are seeing is a mental model towards sustainability which requires designs that are beneficial for both the planet and people's health and well-being. This approach necessitates that developers pay greater attention to the entire product lifecycle, from manufacture to logistics to end of life. Additionally, there is an opportunity for brands to design and manufacture products closer to the end consumer, reducing their environmental impact. Creative solutions such as upcycling materials and creating products with longer lifespans can also be explored, reducing the need for constant production. By innovating with sustainability in mind, companies can demonstrate their commitment to their customers and the environment.

At Flex, we see that the next step in human-machine interfaces is to go beyond what is currently possible and create experiences that are seamless, intuitive, and, ultimately, invisible. We are already seeing the beginnings of this with the rise of voice-controlled devices and autonomous driving, touchless devices in operating rooms, and holographic displays within retail. Looking ahead, the ultimate HMI would establish a new mental model focused on seamlessness where humans and devices are interconnected, allowing users to interact with their devices more naturally and intuitively, and allowing devices to respond to users in real-time. Advancements in AI and machine learning are enabling devices to understand and react to users' needs and preferences, while still allowing them to feel in control. The implications of this are far-reaching and will revolutionize the way we interact with the digital world. Driving these advancements into products adds complexity to the design as well as manufacturing and logistics, requiring a much tighter collaboration between product management, electronics, mechanicals, software, system design, supply chain, and manufacturing. Ultimately, it requires strong partnerships across the board which will result in superior HMI interactions, more connected users, better customer experiences, and further differentiation for brands.

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