Don’t Forget the Operator—The Importance of Proper Training With New Systems

March 23, 2020
When designing a new system, there are many things that need to be considered and thoroughly planned out. But one aspect of a system is typically thrown to the wayside, and that is its user-friendliness.

Recently, I was at a customer site for a project startup. As I watched the operators going about their day, interacting with both our newly supplied human-machine interface and some preexisting screens that we hadn’t developed, one incident really caught my attention. An operator pressed a button on screen to open a valve. Nothing. He pressed again. Nothing. After a third attempt with the same results, he walked over to the valve and opened it by hand.

The operator went on to explain that this was a relatively common occurrence—the button had always seemed to be temperamental. To see how this button actually went about opening the valve, I began investigating their code. It turned out there were six different conditions, in which at least one had to be met for the button to have any effect. I could find nothing on the screen, however, that gave any indication this was the case. Whether the conditions were met or not, the button looked and behaved exactly the same way. When it didn’t work, there were no messages indicating why. As far as an operator could tell, it was just a software glitch.

Before leaving the site, I met with the operators to get their feedback on the newly installed system. One of the things that they appreciated most was how clear everything was. This was done in a few ways. On the buttons themselves, we put indicators so the operators would know when they could be used or not.

They also had access to a popup window with the list of reasons as to why they couldn’t use them.

By showing the operator as much information as possible—without overwhelming them with unnecessary details—we were able to make their transition to a new system as easy as possible.

This situation serves as a good reminder of something that can be easily overlooked when developing a project, don’t forget the operator. Often times, projects are designed and developed without actually talking to the end users. Project success hinges on acceptance of a new system by everyone, not just management.

Including operator input as part of your project plan allows you to deliver a product that is not only useful, but more importantly, user-friendly. That’s the way we approach things, do you agree or have a different approach? Would love to hear it!

Evan Barnett is a project engineer at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.