Designing Effective Industrial Control System Displays

The High Performance HMI Handbook
A Comprehensive Guide to Designing, Implementing and Maintaining Effective HMIs for Industrial Plant Operations

Bill Hollifield, Dana Oliver, Ian Nimmo, and Eddie Habibi, PAS, 2008

Dashboard displays come in many types, depending on the nature of the information that’s being monitored. While it’s true that all monitoring displays share many best design practices in common, each situation requires specialized designs as well. For example, an airplane cockpit display should look and function quite a bit differently than a business sales dashboard. A book entitled The High Performance HMI Handbook (2008) provides design guidance specifically for displays that are used by control operators in industrial plants. (HMI is an acronym for “Human Machine Interface”.) Apparently, the vendors that develop these systems are like most business intelligence vendors: they don’t understand how to present information effectively, especially for data monitoring and analysis. In fact, they promote really bad data presentation practices. Here’s an example of a typical industrial control room display.

If you’ve read my book Information Dashboard Design and now go on to read The High Performance HMI Handbook by Bill Hollifield, Dana Oliver, Ian Nimmo, and Eddie Habibi, you might think that either they or I copied the other’s material. When I wrote my book in 2006, however, I wasn’t familiar with the work of these authors, and I have no reason to believe that they were familiar with mine when they wrote their book last year. The reason the principles and practices presented in our books are so consistent with one another-in many cases down to precise details-is because we are drawing from the same research literature (human factors, human-computer interface design, cognitive science, information visualization, graphic design, etc.) and have both honed our expertise through years of designing practical, real-world data display solutions.

Where our books vary is due to differences between business dashboard requirements and displays that are used to monitor real-time industrial operations. Their book is rich in details that apply specifically to control room monitoring, down to the ideal configuration of display devices and the screen colors that provide optimal readability in a typical control room. It is because of the highly specific and therefore limited nature of this book’s audience that it bears the high price tag of $129.99. If you need to design displays for control operators, however, this price is a pittance compared to the benefits that you’ll derive from reading this book.

Let me share a few brief excerpts from the book to give you a peek into its contents.

Regarding the ineffective and irresponsible data display practices of the vendors that develop Distributed Control System (DCS) software:

There is a widespread need for the information in this book. It is not provided by the DCS manufacturers. In fact, the DCS manufacturers usually demonstrate their graphic capabilities using example displays violating almost every good practice for HMIs.

DCS vendors have now provided the capability of creating HMIs with extremely high sophistication, power, and usefulness. Unfortunately, this capability is usually unused, misused, or abused. The basic principles of effective displays are often not known or followed. Large amounts of process data are provided on graphics, but little information. Information is “data in context made useful.” In many cases, the DCS buyer will proceed to design and implement graphics based on the flashy examples created to sell the systems – unaware from a usability and effectiveness point of view, they are terrible.

Sound familiar? This next excerpt will sound familiar as well. Just as business intelligence vendors promote do-it-yourself solutions without providing the guidance that people need to analyze and present data effectively, DCS manufacturers leave it to companies to design their own control displays.

We would think it strange if Boeing sold jetliners with empty cockpits, devoid of instruments logically and consistently arranged for use by the pilot. Imagine if they suggested, “Just get your pilots together and let them design their own panel. After all, they’ll be using it.”

Imagine if your car came with a blank display screen and a manual on how to create lines, colors, and shapes so you could build your own speedometer. While this might actually appeal to the technical audience of this book, the rest of the world would think it strange and unacceptable. And, could you operate your car by using the “Doom” display motif created by your teenage son?

This do-it-yourself approach, without consistent guidance, is the general case with industrial graphics and is a major reason the results are often poorly conceived, inconsistent, and generally of low quality and performance.

Here’s a short quote that will grab your attention.

A graphic optimally designed for running a process and handling abnormal conditions effectively will, in fact, look boring.

Effective monitoring displays don’t “Wow” people with immediate graphical appeal. People often look at my dashboard designs and think “Where are the colors and those cute gauges that I like so much?” Here are a few of the characteristics that are listed as effective for HMI displays:

  • Important information and Key Performance Indicators have embedded trends.
  • There is no gratuitous animation.
  • There is very limited use of color and alarm colors are used only to display alarms and nothing else…Bright, intense (saturated) color is used only for quickly drawing the operator’s attention to abnormal conditions and alarms. If the process is running correctly, the screen should display little to no color.
  • Equipment is depicted in a simple 2-D low-contrast manner, rather than brightly colored 3-D vessels with shadowing.
  • Layout is generally consistent with the operator’s mental model of the process.

This is all that I’ll share as a glimpse into The High Performance HMI Handbook. If you’re responsible for designing effective industrial control system displays, $129.99 is a small price to pay for the useful guidance in this book.

Take care,

6 Comments on “Designing Effective Industrial Control System Displays”

By Reed. December 17th, 2009 at 8:56 am

Thanks Steve. Do you or anyone else know of any publications or blogs that cover industrial interfaces?

By Stephen Few. December 17th, 2009 at 9:46 am


Unfortunately, I don’t.

By Bill Hollifield. December 17th, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Steve – thanks for your review of our book here and on You are right, we were unaware of your 2006 book when we were writing ours – I wish we hadn’t missed it! I imagine we have some background literature references in common, but we somehow overlooked yours. We’ve been in the process control graphics business since the early 1990s, and also write our own software – so we are familiar with PC user interface issues. There is a lot more information available about general computer and web interface issues than specifically about process control graphics and control rooms – which was our focus. The applicability of the concepts does overlap though!

Regarding the previous comment, about a year after we released our book, the ASM Consortium released a somewhat similar (though less comprehensive) book on industrial operator HMI. Both are on Amazon. And there is a SCADA system HMI group on Linkedin, but it is not very active.

I do look forward to reading your book!

Best regards,
Bill Hollifield

By Devin Vodicka. December 17th, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Anybody aware of any “dashboarding” that has been used effectively in educational environments? We are considering developing one in our school district and templates or referents would be helpful. Thanks in advance for any insights that can be shared.

Devin Vodicka
Director–Curriculum & Instruction
Carlsbad Unified School District

By Larry Keller. December 21st, 2009 at 11:37 am


Hundreds of institutions of higher learning use dashboards as part of overall analyses. Institutional Research departments and Development offices are the predominant users. I just noticed that your title would indicate a school system from K- 12. If K-12 is correct one of the common applications is NCLB and operational data.


By business intelligence solutions. January 18th, 2010 at 2:35 pm

to me 129$ is a quite small amount, but these types of books have small number of readers and should be promoted in a good way. so that their readers got noticed about their arrival.