Simple, Strong and Easy-to-Use

User-Centered Design Makes Operators More Aware of Their Processes and Better Able to Respond Fast

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The ASM Consortium's "Guidelines for Effective Operator Display Design" also recommends shallow navigation (at right), in which all Level 2 displays are accessible from any location, and it takes only three mouse clicks to get from point A to point B.
ASM Consortium and Human Centered Solutions

In fact, ASM Consortium will publish its best-practice guidelines on procedural operations, Effective Procedure Management Practices, in June 2010. Liana Kiff, senior research scientist in Honeywell's Automation and Control Solutions (ACS) Laboratories, reports that many of the best practices for procedures are similar to those for displays and alarms, but there are some important differences. "We're finding that procedural operations are less about on-screen implementation and more about simply writing good process control procedures ahead of time," explains Kiff, who adds that procedural operations has been a core interest of the consortium since its inception. "This means asking what operators need to know to execute good procedures effectively and consistently. Traditionally, many procedures were written very loosely, and so 10 different operators at the same facility with the same task would each do it differently. To improve procedural consistency, management first needs to declare that it's important. Then, you have to get everyone to agree to the best method, train them consistently and then enforce compliance. Procedural documentation may range from guidance and training, to formal checklists and even to electronic solutions for tracking that specific actions are performed in sequence."

Teamwork + Proactive Ops = Better KPIs

Likewise, as with so many process control improvement projects, no gains can be made without genuine commitment from management. Besides securing this commitment, BHP Billiton's APM project and its control room consolidation also involved its operators from the very beginning. To create screens and displays that best fit their operational needs—a cornerstone of user-centered design—the team used Microsoft Visio software to design layouts and customized functions, and then inserted them into their Experion DCS using standard graphics-building tools. Once the new displays were built, the team trained other operators how to use them, and then organized five sub-teams to refine the displays into a simpler and easier-to-navigate hierarchy.

"Now we've adopted Abnormal Situation Management (ASM), trained our operators and left them alone to design their own screens, we've been pleasantly surprised at what they did," said Arnold Oliver, BHP Billiton's process control superintendent, at a recent Honeywell User Group meeting.

In fact, on one unit start-up, the team simplified its operator's job from having to do 24 navigation steps on 12 screens to using just one display. As a result, the operators found it takes much less time to do many typical tasks, that many jobs are easier and less stressful, and that they have more time and freedom to be more proactive. All this means better key performance indicators (KPIs) and better production. More recently, the refinery's user-centered controls also helped to expand its annual capacity again from 3.5 million to 4.6 million  metric tons in 2008.

Yes sir, once you use that coffee cup, you'll never go back to cupping your hands. 

How to Employ User-Centered Design

There are several main steps needed to successfully implement situation awareness and user-centered design in the interfaces, operator environments and procedures of most process control applications, explains Ian Nimmo, president of User-Centered Design Services Inc. ( These steps include:

  • Know your process application, the limits of your people and the information they need to do their tasks, and then account for all these factors consistently in how you design your interfaces, display screens, navigation steps, control rooms and operating methods.
  • Don't deploy too many alerts or alarms; don't use excessive colors or graphics; don't set up too many display screens; and don't require too many steps to navigate between on-screen tasks.
  • Use knowledge of your application and input from process operators to organize a hierarchy of graphics that permits quick drill downs to important instruments and measures. This should consist of an overview of all plants in the facility and offer a perspective on the most important alarms, so they'll show on what plant and where on it they're occurring. This hierarchy also should have a unit view showing specific areas or applications at each plant, a detailed view showing entire pieces of equipment and a diagnostic view showing the operating parameters for each device.
  • Develop these new screens in accordance with how your plant operates now. For example, a facility with five plants should have an overview screen with what's most important at each, such as their furnaces or boilers. The second screen should have a unit view of each individual furnace or boiler, while the third has a detailed screen of its temperature, pressure, flow, level and other information.
  • Reduce screens from the 12-16 typically in front of many operators to the four pre-prioritized screens recommended by the ISO 11064, Section 5, standard and the ISA SP101 draft standards.        
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