User-Centered Design at Work

User-Centered Design Theory Is Interesting, but Is Anybody Actually Using It?

By Dan Hebert

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March 2011 CoverWe covered the background and theories of user-centered design (UCD) in Jim Montague's article, "Simple, Strong and Easy to Use," Control, March 2010 (

Tables 1 and 2 summarize the elements and advantages of UCD, and Jim's article describes how it all works.

About the Author

Dan HebertDan Hebert, PE is Senior Technical Editor for CONTROL, Control Design, and Industrial Networking magazines. He began his career at Putman Media as a Field Editor in 1995 and joined the company on a full-time basis in 2000.

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But does anyone actually use UCD in process control applications, and if so what are the challenges and benefits? Yes, several companies employ it to great advantage, and some have been doing it for years.


One reason that applications are widespread is because UCD isn't new. "User-centered design is just the latest fad term for human factors engineering (HFE), which has been going on for 70 years," says Dave Strobhar, chief human factors engineer at Beville Engineering (, an engineering firm in Dayton, Ohio. "Any human factors professional is doing UCD."

Bob Zapata, automation team lead, Refining Business Improvement at ConocoPhillips ( in Houston, Texas, agrees. "We've been using UCD for about eight years now," he says. "Our human-centered designs are primarily centered on an improved HMI based on the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM, consortium's guidelines and practices."

Zapata reports resistance along with the benefits. "We've used human factors consultants in the design and layout of our control rooms along with our project and control folks," he reports. "Unfortunately, some buildings are viewed as Taj Mahals, and some plant managers want to direct the design, which restricts some of our HFE designs. It hasn't been smooth, he laments. "One of the greatest challenges we experience is support for new concepts and ideas. Humans resist change, and some vocal and powerful operations supervisors can derail a project."

Table 1  Table 2


Ian Nimmo, president of User Centered Design Services ( in Phoenix, Ariz., reports the same attitudes. "Traditions and ‘never done it that way before' are typical attitudes," he says.

Working with Operators

One major point of disagreement in UCD whether the operators should be involved. Stephen Goldberg, director of the industrial systems division at Matrix Technologies (, says yes. Matrix is a systems integrator in Maumee, Ohio, that's provided "literally hundreds of systems that were based on UCD," according to Goldberg. He says he relies on operators.

"If you get to know the operators and really understand the pain points in the systems they operate, they are a wealth of information. "Simple items are often overlooked by engineers and designers because they don't have the same perspective as the person who lives with the system day to day."

Claude Pezzopane, district system solution leader at Rockwell Automation (, says UCD is the basis of most solutions Rockwell Automation provides for clients. "We recently completed a project with a paper goods manufacturer looking to migrate from a legacy DCS to the PlantPAx Process Automation System," he says. "Their existing system used obsolete universal workstations and process group display capabilities."

The Rockwell team began by interviewing several of the plant's operators to fully understand the application, the needs for the new system and any pain points of the existing system. "After this assessment, the manufacturer upgraded to PlantPAx with little to no downtime," Pezzopane reports.

Not everyone shares these views about operator involvement. "We used to allow the operators to build graphics, but that isn't our practice now," he notes. "That allows us to retain the same look and feel across all units on the DCSs.

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