What's Wrong With HMIs Today?

Sat in on a Web presentation this morning over the phone. (Love the Webexes of the world. Much better than burning days in an airport boarding lounge.)

Ian Nimmo, founder and president of User Centered Design Services, gave the dollar tour of his new book, The High-Perfomance HMI Handbook. The book covers everything you could possible want to know about designing an control-room HMI that actually does what it's supposed to do--support smooth operations, give optimal responses and increase situational awareness, i.e., help operators do their jobs correctly, not get in the way.

Nimmo's thesis is that newer HMIs, with all their graphical bells and whistles, actually get in the way of doing that job, leading to the all-too-common dreaded practice of "running by alarms." They cause operators to be reactive instead of proactive.  Nobody meant for that to happen, but that's the way things have played out, thanks to a lot of bad design practice.

Nimmo's ideal HMI would not be nearly as glitzy as some of the hot new models--little or no animation, mostly gray-scale, with few colors that are used only for exceptional circumstances, no 3D recreations of systems that look cool, but are distracting and don't contain any useful information, not nearly so many bits of numerical data, and a lot more simple visuals. There would be plenty of information on performance trends, not just single captures of moments in time without necessary context. Much less duplicating of the P&ID model and much more imitating the airplane cockpit. On the other hand, says Nimmo, such HMIs would tell operators what they need to know, when they need to know it efficiently and quickly, allowing them to behave proactively to avoid upsets.

I'm not a big fan of business and techie books. Give me a good John Grisham or P.D. James any time. But this is one I think I'd like to lay my hands on. Sounds like a fascinating read. And if you're in the business of working with or planning and designing control room HMIs, it's probably a must-read. 

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