Differentiating an Instrument Through Human Centered Design

  • Capabilities Used
  • strategy
  • industrial design
  • engineering
  • user experience

In the 5 years since Niton (acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific) launched its last product, the growing competitive landscape resulted in a commoditized market. Now, unable to rely upon performance improvements to drive growth, Thermo turned to an unconventional approach for an instrument’s company. Through its partnership with Altitude, Thermo used Design Thinking to focus on the user experience. The result? An innovative new product that redefined the category and re-established the company’s leadership position.

A handheld X-ray fluorescence analyzer is an instrument that quickly identifies metals and minerals. It is useful in applications from mining, to scrap sorting, to factory inspections. Working closely with Altitude, Niton launched the first ever handheld analyzer and a series of subsequent products, allowing it to dominate the category for well over a decade.

Through a comprehensive and integrated approach to physical and digital design, we created a new product that met the needs of a huge variety of users.


Gaining Empathy with Users

Having lost touch with its market by relying on distributors, Thermo’s first step was to reacquaint itself with the people who used and bought its products. Together, we set out to interview, observe and ideate with customers from a range of industries and geographies. We met with expert users from oil and gas explorers, who need accurate and detailed analysis while in the field, to scrap metal sorters, who make quick scans up to 3,000 samples per day. In addition, we met with buyers, as well as the Thermo sales team, to understand the purchase process. The team mapped the user workflows and needs of twelve separate verticals in order to uncover patterns and discover unmet opportunities.


From Performance to Experience

The results were clear: the new product, XL5, would need to be significally differentiated to compete in a marketplace where all analyzers now had similar performance and ruggedness. Thermo chose to focus on three new, design and user experience objectives:

1. Make the XL5 a Delight to Use

Size and weight hadn’t changed much since the products were first introduced over ten years ago and our research showed that users found this to be a hardship. Most users carry their analyzers around all day, use them hundreds (if not thousands) of times, and often have to take measurements in hard to reach locations. So Thermo worked to shrink its core technology, while Altitude designed and engineered the smallest, lightest, most ergonomic product possible. We assiduously optimized center of gravity, balance, handle cross-section, and button locations.


In addition to ergonomics, we created a simple, intuitive user interface to reduce cognitive load and accommodate gloved use. To achieve this, we simultaneously designed, and closely harmonized, the digital and physical UI’s, giving attention to every detail and going as far as to always evaluate screen designs on a rendering of the device itself to make decisions in context. The resulting interface allowed users to switch seamlessly and effortlessly between touchscreen and physical buttons depending on their situation.

2. Give it the “Wow” Factor

Our research uncovered that the sale is made with an in-person demo. Buyers expected a product with a look to match its high price tag. The product would need to look special, stand out from the herd, and straddle the visual languages of instruments and consumer electronics.


3. Accommodate a Variety of Users

The market is highly fragmented with multiple verticals—mining, exploration, scrap, factory inspection, to name a few—and a variety of expertise levels. But no segment was large enough to justify a dedicated product. Our strategy: design for commonality with hardware and use software to provide variation. By making the smallest, most well-balanced and ergonomic product possible, we created hardware that would appeal to the widest variety of users. On the software side, we focused first on making the UI/UX simple, clear and intuitive. For example, on start-up the user is presented with just three simple options: analyze a sample, review the data and configure the settings. But additional layers of complexity are available for advanced users. Distributors can configure devices for the customer’s specific needs – or users can select from several applications and tailor the device for their specific job. Finally we designed the UI to accommodate further expandability through purchased upgrades.

Leadership Reestablished

With the introduction of the XL5, Thermo has embraced human centered design, acknowledging user experience as a critical competitive differentiator in a scientific instrument business. By doing so it has redefined the industry it created, introduced the most innovative new product since the very first launch, and reestablished differentiated leadership in a highly competitive and commoditized market.Altitude Green Logo