- Design centerDesign
- Yuhei Yamamoto
- Panasonic System Solutions Japan Co.LtdTechnology development
- Takefumi Ishida
- Panasonic System Solutions Japan Co.LtdBusiness strategy
- Kunihiro Yoshinaga
- Panasonic System Solutions Japan Co.LtdBusiness strategy
- Yuji Nagaishi
Driven by a desire to solve social issues, Panasonic has provided security cameras and high-performance recognition devices, systems, and solutions for corporate and public organizations for over sixty years. By doing so, we have steadily improved the sensing technology at the core of these solutions. Hallmark examples of this technology include the facial recognition gates for exit or entry procedures at Haneda Airport and elsewhere, and the facial recognition technology integrated in systems managing access to office buildings. Combining this technology with Individual Number Cards has been promoted under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) to simplify procedures in medical facilities and pharmacies. Facial recognition card readers are the terminals used to identify people in such places.
Designed to be naturally easy
for first-time users
For frontline sensing technology, accuracy and reliability are the most essential elements. As a result, designers were asked to add the finishing touches to products after their plans and part layouts were mostly determined. This meant that no major changes to the design could be made. However, in this project, a different approach was adopted. Designers were invited to participate in the initial stage, when product plans had yet to be decided. What was the intention behind this?
- We wanted to make sure that this terminal would have a winning look to it. Appearance and the design of the terminal needs to be able to express what it can do, so that people will intuitively see how easy it is to use. Another decisive factor was that people from medical facilities and pharmacies, where these terminals are installed, choose and purchase them from the MHLW website. I believed that a design focused on usability would ascertain whether or not the product would be successful, so that people would say “It’s so easy to use,” or “It’s compact and doesn’t require much space.”
- This product is part of social infrastructure; therefore, the technical standards are set by the government, putting every companies on the same level. Subsidies are also available from the government, so we knew it wouldn’t be possible to achieve a difference in prices. With these conditions, we went back to Panasonic’s DNA to thoroughly highlight the familiarity and ease of use based on our experience in manufacturing consumer electronics. That’s why we decided that the design would be the key.
- Requesting the design development prior to engineering is exceptional for B2B. In this project, we handed over the device information that we intended to incorporate, and then prioritized the design. It made it much hard to engineer because we had to achieve the performance within a fixed design. It was a struggle to create the actual product. However, I believe that the winning factor was the determination of everyone to see Panasonic’s facial recognition, and sensor technologies in general, in wide use in society.
The first design idea
set the course for development
There were two requirements for the design: it had to be compact, and it had to take up as little room as possible in order to be installable in a small space. However, simply designing the shape and color could not unify the direction of the technology and the Smart Sensing Business Center. With respect to the design aspect, the designers decided to pursue Panasonic’s core concept of manufacturing, “Customer usability”.
- Being able to join in the development from the upstream part of the project is a great opportunity for a designer. The reason behind this is that it allows us to use our greatest assets as in-house designers, namely our skills in creating shapes with an understanding of devices and mechanisms, from an early stage. The first thing I wanted to decide was the overall mass and volume of the terminal. We wanted it to be compact enough to fit in the reception area of a medical facility, yet to have a large screen easy to view for the elderly. How could we achieve such contradictory requirements? Normally, we would all think together while looking at an actual design mock-up in front of us; however, because this was at the start of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, we couldn’t make the standard mock-up. In the end, I made a simple one by cutting and pasting foam board and presented it during an online meeting, which I still wasn’t very used to.
- At the Smart Sensing Business Center, our opinions on the size of the screen and its orientation were split. A seven-inch screen was best for a compact installation space. However, there were concerns about whether the elderly people could read text easily on a screen of that size. The first design idea crystallized our thinking. Once we saw the actual size foam mock-up that allowed us to compare the proportions, orientation, and viewing of text, we realized that a seven-inch portrait screen was the way to go. It set the course for the development.
- Even with the simple mock-up, we could see it and understand the intention of the designer and what we wanted to build. After that it was just a question of getting to work to actually make it happen. In terms of the mechanism and the device, the most important challenge was to prevent reflection from outside light to ensure that the card face could be read accurately. The first foam mock-up was already full of technical ideas to prevent light getting in and reduce the depth of the device by slanting the card reading position.
- When putting the design concept together, I focused entirely on user considerations. Not only the size or proportions, I realized that there would be two types of users of this card reader. There’s a tendency to think only about the frontal view, meaning usability for patients, but in reality, the staff at the reception of a medical facility will constantly be looking at the back of the device. We want to limit the sense of bulk, so that it doesn’t block the view of patients in the waiting area. Therefore, I suggested that the volume of the unit when viewed from the rear was also important.
- Although we had decided on the direction of the design, there was only one month until the deadline for submitting a working mock-up, so straightaway I consulted with Ishida about how to complete the mechanical design in time. His response was “That’s impossible! It’ll be nothing but a hack job.” I spent the next two weeks running around to pick the contractors, select the specifications, plan the design, and secure a budget. I still can’t forget the impact on me of the moment when Ishida brought to me after that. I said out loud, “You actually did it! You really pulled it off!” The working mock-up was then used for presentations to medical facilities nationwide, thereby playing a key role in securing our share of the market.
secures nearly a 60% share
Panasonic’s card reader with facial recognition gained a good reputation with medical facilities nationwide, greatly exceeding our initial expectations to gain a market share of around 60%. We asked about the advantages of having designers work together in the development that led to this success.
- During development work, technology always takes precedence. Safety and security are the biggest priorities when delivering products closely linked to social infrastructure. However, in actual fact, technology and design must be integrated. I believe that the role of the Smart Sensing Business Center is to mediate both sides. If you’re the purchaser, you look at the design, including the color and form, but if you’re the creator or seller, then suddenly all you can see is reliability. That’s not the way to create products focused on usability.
- As the project progressed, I, as an engineer, had some very heated discussions with the designers. However, on a personal level I liked the design and honestly aspired to be a designer. Whether we’re considering the design or the technology in building something easy for the users, these are only differences in roles; we’re still aiming to the same thing. The fascination of a design goes beyond just color and form. I think many engineers in Panasonic would be highly impressed if they were shown a design concept that offers a solution from a truly fundamental level, from a user’s perspective.
- We need the ability to think of the optimal method of using facial recognition or other frontline sensing solutions according to each particular situation. The function of designers capable of building such an image is to clarify the challenges and incorporate the directions the development team must aim for. When we developed the check-in terminals for airports using facial recognition technology, one key factor was the eye level and operating position of users in wheelchairs. This design also takes into account the height and space of reception desks in medical facilities.
- Some people say that if we think about products purely from a business perspective, we end up with just an idealistic theory, but if we prioritize technology, we will end up with a technically-oriented product, and if we prioritize design, we will end up with a designer’s model. None of these will have a happy ending. Once we get a good combination of business, technology, and design factors properly ironed out, that’s when we will know that we have created something good.
We worked on this project during a nationwide state of emergency due to COVID-19. It wasn’t possible for us to be in the same place. I think the biggest reason why we achieved success with this project while facing such adverse conditions for product creation, was our ability to skillfully pass the ball. Upon receiving the ball, we kept on working knowing that there would be some overlap between our positions. Even if one person couldn’t pass from a good spot, the receiver would happily shift to pick up the ball. I think that this sort of attitude is crucial in creating products by combining business, technology, and design.
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