The Industrial GUI is Busted!

Let’s imagine a chemical plant that needs to respond quickly to an emergency.

The hope is that our plant operator is appropriately informed and the tools to respond are aptly available. If not… ka boom!

Obviously, worst case scenario. But, the reality is, the industrial controls user experience is as out of date today as it was 20 years ago.


What makes a car go fast. Certainly, a big engine is important, but efficiency is perhaps equally required. Air friction increases at the square of velocity, therefore, aerodynamics and bearing resistance is critical to success. Certainly, needs that do not require speed are open to more interpretation, but we all can appreciate good design and efficiency.

In an automation system, friction can be defined by anything that prevents efficient reaction to real-world conditions. This could be

  • the lack of control options available
  • inappropriately alarming or categorizing priorities
  • bugs and inconsistencies that foster mistrust
  • unnecessarily complicated interface


This is really a conversation about the needs of our users.

We’ve seen the Apple model, where Steve Jobs famously stated, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This is a tempting view, but I argue that the optimal destination is where understanding meets opportunity. Take the time to understand your user (and process) and it will pay in dividends.

Google has performed many studies about optimum design. They conclude: that for every $1 spent on research (to understand your user’s needs) can save you $100 in maintenance and life-cycle costs.


Simplification is easier said than done. Every project, so much time is taken to condense needs down to common elements. It seems we start from scratch every time.

This may be the holy grail of industrial automation systems. There is no one way of accomplishing this goal, but there are certainly best practices.

With the proliferation of the i-tablet (iPads and Androids) and BYOD (bring your own device) economy, there is motivation to make things look like Apple and Google products. On one hand, if an engineer could leverage the standard design guidelines and templates, a dramatic advantage could be had by familiarity of interfaces. Mobile formats are almost always built around lists and associayed class objects. Work is still needed to develop display process layouts, navigation elements, alarm, and other common industry tools that are not usually found in consumer tools.

More so, it is the natural desire for an engineer to show off their inner artist (I speak from experience here) and try to make the interfaces not boring. Even worse, to put your own flair into the design. These are common design modes that contribute to a greatly inefficient design industry.


I vote for a standard. A real standard, governed by the likes of ISA. I understand… so many vendors and creators of HMI design environments want to differentiate, gain competitive advantage, and allow unlimited creativity to their customers.

Having better design is not a new idea. In fact, I owe my inspiration to Bill Hollifield and his industry leading book, “The High Performance HMI Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Designing, Implementing and Maintaining Effective HMIs for Industrial Plant Operations.” He lays out ample evidence that the industry needs to do things differently. Yes he gives examples, but there is still need for a common toolbox and consistent language that builds on modern techniques and great design.

There are companies making great progress to provide better tools to their customers. See Opto22’s groov product as a great example. Albeit an important first step, I see these as competitive advantages, not a revolution to the industry.

Think of the efficiency, from development, training, and measurable emergency response if there was a true HMI standard. Certainly, there’s even room for more than one standard (ie iOS vs Android).

The dreaded “Symbol Library” by Software Toolbox, keeping GUIs stuck in 1989.

Dump the old fashioned “Symbol Library” and replace it with an open sourced, industrial controls, simple yet modern, GUI standard. Sure, there will be needs for customers to go “off roading” here and there, but the design language can be common place, giving customers, developer, and users peace of mind.

I am going to get to work on an open source industrial GUI/UX toolkit — IUX.

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