NCR: Design for Global Impact

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For our September Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design feature, we thought it would be interesting to compare the difference between individuals or small design organisations we’ve previously highlighted, and a large organisation which uses design such as NCR.

Over the past 132 years, NCR has had a number of innovative design milestones from; buying over the company with first cash register and modifying it to be more user friendly; to designing beautiful brass cash registers with Tiffany jewellers; to being one of the first organisations to set up a corporate industrial design group.

What many people may not realise however is that NCR has a Design and Innovation hub in their Dundee site, as well as a design department in their Atlanta headquarters. We met with Charlie Rohan, Senior Director of User Centred Design and Steven Birnie, Consultant Industrial Designer for User Centred Design, to learn more about their department in Dundee and how one idea from their office can be rolled out to NCR products across the globe.

How does NCR use design and innovation as a large organisation?

Charlie: NCR is a business to business organisation that relies on consumers being able to engage and use their products effectively. Many of the design values focus on the benefits to the end user as well as the customer (banks, supermarkets, airports etc.). A team of designers in Dundee and Georgia regularly collaborate and have shaped all of the hardware products at NCR to tie in with the company’s beliefs of making the everyday easier.

Steven: Traditionally the design side of NCR has been focused on the technology that satisfies the customer’s specific requirements. Looking at the design of machines, however, we are now also focusing on solutions that consumers need and can engage with. We have much more of a consumer focus on what we do – this is done through using design thinking methods during customer and consumer workshops which help us understand what we should design and why.

Image: NCR

Image: NCR 2016

How does NCR think about accessibility in their design?

Steven: Accessibility is a key element of our design process – not only from an ethical point of view but a legal one. Accessibility for me is more of a legal term, taking into account all the regulations we have to follow, whereas usability is making sure all people can use NCR products. From a hardware point of view, it is important that our products are usable by individuals with certain limitations. For example, NCR introduced the flashing strip where users insert their card, and refined the size of number key tips to help users who are visually impaired. Anyone across the world should be able to use our products effectively for their designed purpose – the same product designed here in Dundee can be put in the city centre, Alaska or Saudi Arabia and serve the same purpose.

Charlie: To expand on that, key tips on ATMs and all point of sale devices have raised indicators of a circle, cross and a bar to assist visually impaired users. This actually came from a project in Spain where we worked with Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (ONCE), which is their equivalent of Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB). We wanted better solutions for Spanish visually impaired users after noticing that Braille is becoming a lesser used skill. We worked closely with ONCE to develop some ideas on how to steer away from Braille whilst assisting users and came up with the circle, cross and bar, which are now used on every ATM and point of sale device across the world. We’ve recently had members of our design team spend a day with visually impaired individuals in Dundee – shadowing their trips to banks and shops in the city to appreciate how they use NCR products, and how these can be improved to suit their needs.

Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on at the moment?

Charlie: At the moment we’re currently working with RNIB and National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the US to look at the future of our technology. As most people become familiar with touch screen technologies, a number of places are implementing the technology. Whilst this can be beneficial, it’s important to make sure a visually impaired user can put their PIN in safely, securely and with ease. We’re developing a few ideas, one of which we’re working with NFB and RNIB to refine and get their approval so that visually impaired people can take advantage of touch technology. Whilst this is not currently in legislation, it’s important for us to be ahead of the curve and develop these ideas early on.

Steven: The questions that the banks are asking us are changing nowadays so we’re having to research more about how consumers are interacting with technology and banks. We and our customers want to know more about the users of our products – what they expect or would like from an ATM – and this is an ongoing focus for our team.

Image: NCR 2016

Image: NCR 2016

How does NCR work with the local community?

Steven: From a design perspective, I think we work with the local community quite well because we initiate collaborations and projects. For eight years we ran the NCR student design competition which was open to students from art schools across Scotland and the project briefs were very consumer focused to look at self-service products. For us it wasn’t so much about developing an end product but working with the upcoming design community and as an outcome of the competition, we took on design interns for the summer. With our NCR Student Design Competition students from some of the top design institutions in Scotland had the opportunity to understand who we were as a company, understand our history and the businesses we operate in. This allowed us to get one of the best design students in Scotland to work with our team on live projects.

Charlie: We also sponsored the Royal Society of Artists (RSA) Student Design Awards for nine years and will sponsor it again this year on a joint brief with Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). This allows design students from across the UK to enter, with the winners receiving either a monetary prize from RBS or a 12-week internship with us in Dundee. Whilst this is a UK wide competition, it pulls in international design students studying at a UK university and attracts them to not only NCR but our Dundee office where they can gain experience and develop their portfolio.

NCR exhibited at Dundee Design Festival with a cash machine that distributed Dundee Tekels. Why is it important that a large organisation like NCR get involved in projects like that?

Charlie: The first generation of cash machines designed in Dundee was back in 1981 and this helped changed the site from being second source manufacturing to engineering and design, which we still have today. Currently, just under one third of the ATMs in the world have been designed in Dundee, so we felt it was important we celebrate the design links NCR has had with the city. The Design Festival team were looking for design with a social benefit and design in collaboration so we put forward our work with the RNIB which allowed us to tell the story about how we’re evolving the ATM interface to be more like a tablet. As we got more into discussion, the festival team had suggested we dispense the Tekels and we commissioned graphic designer Martin Baillie, the creative behind the design of the note. 2016 is also the 70th year NCR has been in Dundee so it was a great opportunity to get involved in the initiatives associated with the UNESCO City of Design status.

Image: Alan Richardson

Image: Alan Richardson

Why is it important that a large organisation like NCR has a Design and Innovation department?

Charlie: Nowadays we have products in 180 of 196 countries. Having a design and innovation department based in Dundee has helped shape a number of global market leading NCR products. This came about after the first NCR ATM, which was designed in Ohio, didn’t fit into the average British high street branch due to its large size and American styling. As Dundee was a second source manufacturing site for distribution into Europe, the general manager at the time recognised the opportunity this provided for Dundee. NCR headquarters agreed to give Dundee the charter for ATM design, engineering and manufacturing and whilst there were some initial bumps, once we got going, there was no stopping us — the 5080 model received a Design Council award and Dundee became a centre of design expertise shortly after.

It is important for a large organisation like NCR to think about innovation in their designs and this is reinforced through internal and external recognition. NCR encourages innovation through a patent rewards program where they ask employees to think about innovations for user problems and then patent ones they think could be developed in future. Also, three products we’ve designed were shortlisted for the 2015 and 2016 Industrial Design Society of America Industrial Design Excellence Awards which celebrated our recent work on ATM products as well as Airline check in kiosks.

Steven: We are one cog in a very big machine so it is important that we make sure the whole operation runs smoothly and understands the value of good design. We can also use design engagements to demonstrate new innovations in our industry, similar to car manufacturers, NCR does concept products and one I designed for rural locations in Asia came about from a trip I took to India. I was in Mumbai for two to three weeks researching a project around bank branches in India through observation, interviews, insights and idea generation. I developed a unique ATM concept design inspired by my experiences called the Pillar ATM. The Pillar takes its name from the freestanding shape and features a fingerprint biometric sensor, pre-set cash buttons, a cash dispenser and receipt printer. Users simply press their thumb on the sensor, push a color-coded button for desired denominations and walk away with cash and a receipt. The ATM was a finalist in International Design Excellence Awards in 2009 and received a lot of attention online. These types of concepts and design focused engagements can only happen when the corporation understands the value of design and have the will to foster innovation from within the company. I personally think it is very important.