Operator Display Color Usage Study

I received an email from the Center for Operator Performance (COP) about a newly completed study, Color Usage in Graphic Displays for Process Control. Emerson is one of the founding members along with members from process manufacturing, academia, EPCs, and automation suppliers. Emerson’s Mark Nixon, who leads the research efforts for the DeltaV system, is also the chairman for these research efforts at the COP.

The center oversees research to meet the needs of the members and is responsible for contracting universities and human factors companies to conduct the research. The center also serves as a repository for human factors data in process control and training in human factors as requested by the members. Research interests include the following:

Expertise – With attrition of operators, much expertise is walking out the door of process plants. What makes an expert operator? What skills does an expert possess that a novice does not? How can novices become experts faster?

Simulator Effectiveness – While simulators in general are a wonderful tool for enhancing operator performance, their application in process control has historically yielded mixed results. What are the key attributes of a successful simulator training program? How important is simulator fidelity in the success of training?

Graphics & Data Presentation – Process operators deal with thousands of process variables that ultimately become the basis for a single decision. How can graphics better support this effort? What impact does background color have? Does the use of one color for more than one meaning impact performance?

Alarm Actuation Rate – What is the upper limit for alarm processing? How long can this limit be sustained without impacting performance?

The Operator Display and Color Usage study is the first of a multi-part study investigating the overall topic of display design. In this study, the researchers reviewed the current literature, surveyed operators, and visited a number of operating sites. A key component of this project was to bring the researchers up-to-speed with what the state-of-the-art is in the petrochemical industry.

As part of their learning, the researchers were looking for evidence on whether or not best practices related to color and visualizations are being followed. The 99-page color usage study is available for members of COP and was prepared by Dr. Jennie Gallimore and Jennifer Shinkle, with Wright State University. With Emerson as a member, I was able to get my hands on a copy and here are a few things I gleaned. If you’re interested in the full research, here’s the COP contact page.

One conclusion that the researchers came back with was that although there is considerable research on the use of color and other visualization techniques for display design, guidelines specific to the petrochemical industry are scarce. Color as well as other guidelines such as position, form, and animation could potentially help display designers to improve their overall display implementations.

The researchers also made another observation; color is probably not the most pressing problem, a bigger factor is the overwhelming number of displays and the design and presentation of the information on these displays. For example, although mimic displays such as P&ID’s are simple enough to create, they are not necessarily the best way to present information to operators. Further studies are required to look into better ways to organize and present information on displays.

The research was performed working with U.S. refining and petrochemical manufacturers and their operations staff. The mean age of study participants was 46 with an average of 16 years experience. The report notes that more than half of the research participants have some form of corrected vision. As someone in this age demographic and needing those “cheater glasses” myself for dimly lit rooms, I can appreciate this growing trend.

The research also looked at lighting conditions in the operator rooms, environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, noise, and vibration), total colors used in operator displays, alarm-related colors used, and different aspects of display element effectiveness. It looked at many other things too, including display technology, considerations in vision and color perception, and ways color is used in visual displays. From the responses, the study points to opportunities for improvement to better define color usage and visualization guidelines.

I asked Mark his key take away from the research. Mark notes that although there is considerable research behind visual encoding techniques, that research has not made its way into our industry. A key challenge that people responsible for configuring displays face are that there are few guidelines describing best practices and for the best practices that do exist, there is very limited research proving that the techniques actually work in our industry. The center’s goal is to provide that research. A well-designed operator interface will improve overall plant operations and environmental, health and safety conditions. The members of the COP share these objectives and are jointly funding this research.

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