Competition entry

ABB - Humanizing technology

Creating a Design System to work as a vehicle for cultural change in transforming an iconic hardware heavyweight into a technology leader at the forefront of the digital transformation of industries

With digitalization transforming the industry landscape, the physical and digital worlds are merging at unprecedented speed. In a previously heavily hardware-oriented manufacturing industry, a digital transformation is also a transformation of capabilities, with new skills and competences needed across the board.


Setting the scene

Our experiences as consumers define our expectations also when it comes to the professional tools we use. We know what easy and intuitive looks and feels like. UX is at the core of digital innovation; if users cannot understand and operate the systems, it does not matter how brilliant and efficient they otherwise are.

Today, ABB has hundreds of digital products available worldwide.
  • The applications are operated in various domains, from mining and factory automation to consumer solutions for the home and beyond. The environments range from control rooms to field work to offices and homes.

  • The applications work on different form factors; desktop and mobile, embedded displays, massive video walls - and in some instances, they run on unique old code specific to ABB only.

  • Industries have their own standards and regulations. ABB delivers many safety-critical systems, used in control rooms for situational awareness in extremely challenging environments.

The ABB CommonUX Design System was created to power the transition of ABB from a company that has traditionally delivered value through machinery, to a service company of people delivering value in human interaction.

Often, we tend to focus on the technology and technical side of digitalization, but in the end, it’s still people who use the products and services. People-centric design methods - design thinking - bridge the gap between technologies and people, making technology essentially more human.


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The process

To create a Design System that allows the company to build a product portfolio with a consistent look and coherent feel across the board, while remaining relevant to the end user, the Design System design process needed to build on human-centric design methods and real-life context insights.

To create a design system is to create an infrastructure for change; a platform for communicating and sharing best practices and innovating new ones.

A sustainable design system, at its core, is not simply a set of top-down rules but a community of insights and expertise. The design process was set up to work towards two objectives.

  • A Design System

    Transition from a standard UI Style guide to a comprehensive Design System to be used to harmonize and improve all ABB Digital offering.

  • A Mindset Shift

    By involving users in an iterative process that embraces open discussions, rapid feedback and reviews, introduce and motivate the use of new collaborative ways of working within the central UX design team and key stakeholders.

To have an impact, the design process fostered extreme transparency, promoting equal opportunities to contribute - at the same time, there needed to be a shared sense of responsibility to carry the contributions through the test of time.

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  • The design system core group had a facilitating role rather than a dictating one. Shifting the design work to a cloud environment offers increased transparency and facilitates participation.

  • An open source model is already embedded in the culture of software development; sharing code and software enables the community to make better products for the benefit of everyone.

  • The process timeframe had to be realistic; democratic decision-making takes time but pays off. Validation of design choices can only happen through testing with actual users in realistic market contexts.

  • A focus on team culture during the design phase takes into account the diversity of team members and the differences of time zones, cultural environments and calendar routines, fostering a sense of shared ownership and responsibility.

During the design process, the designs had to be proven functional before moving forward to production. Each component had to follow the same style principles and be in alignment with other components.

Tests were carried out in demanding real-life conditions, in the pitch black darkness of a mine, on the bridge of a ship - using various devices new and old. Human aspects such as color blindess were also taken into consideration.

The ABB CommonUX Design system

With a portfolio of hundreds of digital products, it would not be feasible to create one-size-fits-all solutions to be applied across the entire range. The user needs vary from case to case as do the users’ digital capabilities.

The design principles had to build on simple universal best-practices to cater to the various use cases and users. They needed to be proven, efficient and well-documented, while still leaving room for new innovative solutions when needed.

In addition to the principles and guidelines, an extensive set of ready-made reusable assets has made the adoption of the Design System speedier and a positive experience within the organization.

  • A platform for sharing of unified UX design standards, practises and resources.

  • A team offering services of UX and service design consultation of best practises, training and quality assurance reviews.

  • A toolkit of reusable assets like working code, design tools and templates.

  • A community for collaboration and contribution among R&D developers, UX and service designers and product managers from all ABB businesses.

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The role of the design team

The CommonUX Design team leads the vision building and guidance of user experience design principles at ABB. The team consists of professionals with different backgrounds and nationalities who are experts from the fields of interaction design, graphic user interface design, and frontend development.

The team’s goal is to provide support for the company’s 20+ business units in their UX design, help business units to establish their own competences in UX design, and to proactively promote the adoption of human-centered design approach.

The team also moderates the community of ABB Designers; it is a community consisting of ABB in-house designers providing peer support, best practices and knowledge sharing, and the body for the collaboration in design related matters internally.

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The ABB CommonUX Design System is company confidential and not accessible outside of the company. Illustrative screenshots are provided above.

The design work was carried by a dedicated CommonUX design team formed off ABB and Idean designers. Companies involved in the production are ABB, Idean and Gofore Oy.