Technology is improving and evolving at literarily “breakneck” speed, which is great on most levels, right? But sometimes it’s tough to keep up with all the changes. I mean, once you’ve learned one version of an app or software, there is a new version that comes out that can entice us with all its new and powerful capabilities and features. You then have to determine, based on the features and fixes included, if and/or when it makes sense to invest your time in upgrading existing clients/projects to this new version. The same holds true for SCADA applications since this technology is also advancing rapidly. Recently, as part of our Transform 360 series, ICONICS hosted the “Learn from the SCADA Experts & Become a Power User” webcast. This practical and informative event covered pertinent background and areas for SCADA users: Scott Kiser, ICONICS Director of Global Partner Channel Development, provided an overview of ICONICS, the company and the software, and went over some of the challenges our system integrators (SI) and users typically face, thus setting the stage for the heart of the webinar covered by the other presenters. Phil Kolkto, ICONICS Senior Applications Engineer, explained ICONICS High Performance HMI design and our Historian Reader (a topic the attendees voted for in a pre-webcast poll to learn more about); John Doto, ICONICS Director of Professional Services for the Americas, discussed responsive design and powerful aliasing features within ICONICS GraphWorX64, and Russ Ropken, owner of RSI, an automation and development company, put all this information into perspective with a demo from a large water application. 

What really stood out in my mind was a quote that Phil Kolkto gave, “Beauty is not necessarily correlated with suitability” adding that many song and script writers have tried to teach us this very important lesson. And what meaning can you draw from this quote as it pertains to ever evolving technology? That sometimes all the fancy bells and whistles of advanced technology can get in the way it being easy to use. Sometimes it can surely feel this way. So, the webcast presenters set out to explain that with a few rules of thumb and knowledge about how to use high performance HMI and SCADA applications, end users can indeed become experienced “power users.” To learn how, let’s first look at what high performance HMI design is and some rules of thumb on how to use it. 

High Performance HMI Design 

Specifically, when we talk about high performance HMI design, we are talking about enabling the performance of you and your users rather than the system metrics and response times. So, we're talking about UI design and the look and feel, that sort of thing. And overall, the fundamental thing to remember is, “Beauty is not necessarily correlated with suitability.” The intent of high-performance HMI design is to make it easier for you to do your jobs. That is the goal. That is the main goal. That is really the only goal. If it does make it easier for you and your users to get your jobs done, then you're doing things correctly. So how can you proficiently use high performance HMI design? 

Rules of Thumb on Using High Performance HMI 

There's an ANSI/ISA 101.01-2015 specification that lays out the details. And if you are a member, cool, you can get it for free. If not, you can pay to download the document. Or you can basically treat HMI high performance design like any UI design paradigm that makes it easier for you to do your job. And overall, it comes down to a handful of “Rules of Thumb”: 

1. Get your users’ feedback in the design process and be consistent in what you do.

You don't want to go down the road of putting together a UI screen that looks good from your and an engineer/SI point of view, only to have your users say, “Yeah, this is pretty, but it doesn't do anything for me.” So, get the users into the loop. Get their feedback to help ensure their buy-in upfront. And a point to remember is that even if you're doing things in a way that you might consider to be sub-optimally, but you're being consistent and doing it that way everywhere, it's probably going to be better than doing it perfectly on one screen and making your users search for something on another screen. 

2. Use bright colors and high contrast only when you want to draw the user's attention to something.

If your users are looking at a brightly colored process screen and struggling to figure out if there is something wrong or if something is not working normally, then that set up just doesn’t work. You want to use bright colors sparingly, so your users can very quickly spot an anomaly. Additionally, you don't want to use colors to point out things that are normal because you don't want to waste your users’ time looking at it, disregarding it, and then searching for something that might be an alarm. An example of this is using bright green to indicate something's normal. That's a waste since it’s going to draw the user’s eye, making it harder to find the things that aren’t normal. 

3. Use neutral colors for borders, labels, and normal values.

You don’t necessarily have to use the same color all around, but you can choose variations in color shadings. For example, you can use a light gray on the background, a dark gray for labels, and a deep blue for normal values. 

4. Use diagrams when it’s beneficial and useful but keep them simple in 2D and try to avoid animation.

Sometimes you need diagrams to show operational details, for instance how the flow out of one tank impacts the flow into the process or how a piping diagram can make it easier to spot where the tank is, to spot where the processes are, so you can know where to look for the flow. 3D looks pretty and can be beneficial in other use cases such as for maintenance diagnostics, training, or simulation, but it doesn't add anything to the user’s ability to understand what’s going on with your operation. The key is to keep it simple. 

5. Provide a navigation method that reflects your users’ perspectives.

Talk to your users to understand how they see the plant, the building, the process, etc. to know what is related to what. Organize your navigation tree either by organizing your equipment hierarchy within ICONICS AssetWorX or by using tree views, so that what your users see on a navigation tree or what they see on the screen reflects the way they look at the system. Before you start putting your hierarchy together, come up with a navigation method that is natural to the way you and your operators do business.

6. Provide easy access to trends and alarms.
These are very handy for a quick and easy search and for quick access as long as they're pertinent to what you’re showing alongside them. So, if you have a trend on your screen for a specific piece of equipment, filter the alarms just for that piece of equipment as well, and make the trends come up automatically with the key points on that piece of equipment. Then provide a way for operators to add other pens to the trends (check out ICONICS Institute’s section on Commanding to learn about all the functionality you can accomplish without any scripting whatsoever). Overall, putting trends and alarms and allotting small pieces of real estate on equipment graphics will make this capability very handy for the users, as long as they are positioned on screen consistently. Especially with alarms, if you're filtering down to the equipment level, then you don't need that much vertical screen real estate to show alarms.

7. Use gauges to easily interpret numeric text, but only if these are consistent.

If you're using some wild combination of vertical bars, horizontal bars, dial gauges, and all of these are on one screen, it's going to make it harder to scan for information. However, if for example you're graphing a bunch of temperatures, it will be easier for comparison if you're using the same vertical bar graph with the same limits on all the bars or on all the graphs.

Ultimately, it comes down to getting your users’ feedback and being consistent across your system. What you want is quick and simple interaction with the system. And talking about quick and simple interaction, another relevant topic covered in this webcast by John Doto, ICONICS Director of Professional Services for the Americas, was ICONICS responsive design and aliasing capabilities available within GraphWorX64.

Responsive Design and How It's Key to Optimally Visualizing Operational Data 

Responsive design is something that you may have heard about but may not be familiar with what it's actually all about. In general, it's a design approach that allows you to create optimal viewing across various devices. This capability has been around the web ‘world’ for a while. As you know, you can view web pages on your laptop and on your mobile devices with the displays adapting and changing as needed to give you the best view. Some websites provide a better user experience than others at this. The same goes for HMI SCADA software.

In terms of what problems are solved with responsive design, it really helps to address viewing user interfaces, not only on a PC that might have different resolutions but on anything from large TVs down to tablets or even mobile devices. And this is achieved by allowing you to create content that can adapt to different platforms. So, today’s technology is going away from the antiquated way of designing interfaces into a more fluid approach. You can understand this by thinking about how a liquid poured into the container adapts to that container as it fills it up. Responsive design is a key principle supported by ICONICS display software, GraphWorX64, and is instrumental to becoming a SCADA power user since this means knowing how to optimally use ICONICS to get the most out of your system, to optimally visualize your operational data. That also includes understanding a bit about how this technology works. John Doto explained this in the webcast, taking the time to explain how grids, panels, and aliases (global, local, and language) are utilized in GraphWorX64.

Continuous Learning - a Fun & Exciting Perk of the Job 

I can’t do justice to John’s explanation nor to the other presentations, especially the demonstration on the large water application, so I suggest you watch the webcast to get a better feel for the concepts being laid out. You’ll learn about the details of high-performance HMI and by seeing the advanced displays and technology, you’ll gain a more thorough understanding of how to become a SCADA power user. Ever evolving/improving SCADA technology shouldn’t be frustrating. On the contrary, because this technology with all its new capabilities and features requires continuous learning, your job will be fun and exciting as well as a whole lot easier.  And hey, with a bit of background and some help from ICONICS Institute, you and your users can become SCADA power users in no time.