The cost of poor HMI design and what to do about it

15 people were killed and 180 injured in the 2015 Texas city Oil Refinery explosion. A significant factor that contributed to the disaster, the official report revealed, was poor HMI design.

Even after the fire broke out, the operators in charge could not tell from their display screens that they were pumping more fuel into the flames.

Cumulatively, according to an industry expert from Rockwell automation, bad HMI design resulted in billions of dollars of loss and more than once contributed to accidents and fatalities.

Why is this so, considering all the advances in the fields of display technology and user interaction?

System designers today have more choices than ever. Innovations in fields related to the Industrial Internet of Things allow us to stream exponentially more data to HMIs than before. There is also a diverse range of choices with display technologies such as LCD, TFT, LED, OLED, capacitive or resistive touch, and so on. It seems like there is a solution for any conceivable scenario or application.

The problem is that these advances do not make life easier for embedded system designers. They are fuel poured on the flame of an ongoing problem:

In theory, technology gives us more possibilities. But in practice, we do not have enough time and money to exploit these opportunities. 

What we need is simplicity and unification of components

Consider a common frustration when prototyping with embedded displays. You’re in the middle of a project and you just need to connect a smart display to the development board, and then you see you don’t have the right connector or the right cable.

In the big picture of hardware and software development for industrial HMIs, of all the issues engineers have to deal with, non-standard cables and connectors appear to be a trivial issue.

However, the picture changes if you look at product development as a sequence of mutually dependent processes. Then it becomes obvious that chokepoints in the early stages of development will cause significant differences in the final output of an engineer’s work.

When small nuisances cascade into larger issues we get lower productivity and lower standards of performance. That’s how we end up with subpar industrial HMI designs, even though the theoretical framework to build good ones exists.

That’s why it’s of unusual importance to address and remove chokepoints in the development process. In most cases, simple solutions work best.

RIBUS standard

For example, Riverdi has designed and released their RiBUS standard. An intelligent display BUS that is made for connecting any development tool with a Riverdi display.

It simplifies HMI prototyping by making displays of different sizes and technologies interchangeable. The RiBUS works with all Riverdi displays – of any size or resolution, capacitive or resistive.

Ribus is conceived to cover the needs across the entire HMI development cycle. That is why it is an open standard. Development tool providers such as Xinabox and Mikroe have already included it into their development toolchains.

Once developers are ready to move from prototyping to deployment, it is easy to simply integrate the display connector onto a mainboard.

And since a single RiBUS-equipped mainboard is compatible with all Riverdi displays at once, product developers can let customers choose which display they want.

Not only does this speed up development, but it also makes it much easier to maintain and upgrade systems that are already deployed in industrial environments.

In these early stages, RiBUS is still tied to the Riverdi ecosystem. But the idea behind this open, royalty-free standard is to revolutionize HMI development and allow developers to build modern, intuitive, and safe user interfaces.

To that end, to promote the adoption of RiBUS, Riverdi is offering free complimentary connectors to any manufacturer who adopts the standard.

Industrial IoT VS consumer IoT

Industrial IoT has much to do to catch up with consumer IoT. Consumer electronics solve simple everyday needs and problems of users. Innovation there revolves around improving the user experience. Industrial applications, however, must solve more complex problems. User interface considerations often become secondary.

However, the consequences of poor user experience in industrial, medical, or other professional settings are harsh. And they will become harsher with time, as a new generation of plant operators expect all their devices to be as sleek and intuitive as the iPhones they grew up with.

Therefore it is crucial for the industry to move toward standardized tools that allow engineers to accomplish more within the same constraints. RiBUS is a step in that direction.