– Kevin Callahan and Ken Sinclair
Kevin Callahan is a product owner and evangelist for Alerton, a
Honeywell business. He has 38 years of experience in the building
control technologies field, including control systems design and
commissioning, facilities management and user training.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
features introduced in building automation software
Advances make the tools easier and more instinctive to use.
What have been the biggest changes
in building automation software in the past few years?
over-arching trend is BAS manufacturers have been working
to make their user interfaces more logical and easy to understand. One
way to do this is to streamline and remove visual clutter from the
graphical user interface.
For a while it seemed beneficial to show images of equipment that
looked like the actual thing, but such images ended up being a
distraction. End users told us “we don’t want or need photo-realistic
schematics.” If you’re a facility operator, you’re not going into the
BAS to see if the stairs on the cooling tower are on the left or right;
you want to know performance information, like: “is it on and is it
operating within spec?”
So, with Alerton’s Ascent Compass software
(pdf), we use simple 3D schematics
that allow even novice users to quickly grasp what piece of equipment
they’re looking at, and what it’s doing, without cluttering the image
with visual details they don’t care about like the number of bolts on a
flange. A simple click on the schematic then brings up trend logs and
other data they need to do their jobs.
What other simplifying features
are now available in BAS software?
Callahan: BAS developers are migrating
to the latest HTML format –
HTML5. This allows users to access the BAS from any web-connected
device, including desktop computers, smart phones and tablets, without
the hassle of downloading a third-party software plug-in. This improved
accessibility means facility managers can now monitor and control the
building equipment from anywhere, such as in the field, at the coffee
shop or at the beach. From a web browser they now have complete
management of trend logs, alarms and schedules.
Alerton recently released a new
version of its Ascent Compass software. What’s new in that?
Callahan: One of the
goals with this new release was to reduce the
number of steps required to complete a task. To that end we developed
an enhanced navigation tree that enables each user, or group of users,
to tailor the building automation system to only present features
pertaining to their work. As with the schematic graphics versus
photo-realistic graphics, it’s about reducing clutter and helping
people get on with their jobs.
What have users had to say about
Callahan: It’s one thing for us to say
it’s simpler to use, but what
counts is what the end user thinks. We hear from many of them that the
software is much easier to use than other automation systems. For
example, two facility operators with the largest school district in
Texas independently rated Compass as three times easier to use than our
already simple Alerton Building Suite supervisor software.
I’ve been hearing about
“human-centered design” in computers
and other electronics. What role does that play in making BAS software
easier to use?
Callahan: Some building control
manufacturers, such as Honeywell, run
user-testability labs to evaluate how people use their software. Done
well, software usability testing is an iterative process informing all
stages of the design process, and is not just having people try out a
near-final beta program and asking them “what do you think?”
Instead, effective usability testing involves careful observation and
measurement of the person’s performance, and noting where they have
difficulties, from the earliest stages of software design. At each
stage, the programmer makes adjustments and then retests the software
until the program is more instinctual to use. The changes end up being
pretty detailed, and can sometimes be subtle, but make the software
more user friendly. Examples include:
- altering the size, style or placement of an icon
- restructuring a menu tree
- changing color coding for equipment operating status
- redrawing equipment schematics
What other trends do you see
happening with building automation systems overall?
Callahan: Some of the high-level
trends to watch over the next few years are:
- Analytics – the building automation industry can
expect to see more cloud based services that provide analysis, fault
detection, and diagnostics that inform building operators on where
systems are under-performing, over-performing, and not performing;
thereby resulting in an increase in energy costs and equipment wear.
- Integration – more and more disparate systems are
being integrated into a common user interface. BACnet is a good example
of this, as is Niagara.
- IT alignment - BAS are being more closely aligned
with the various IT aspects of building systems, such as security,
cabling-infrastructure, IP-based controllers, etc.
- Wireless Technologies – Wi-Fi, Near Field
Communications (NFC), Bluetooth, etc., will likely play more of a role
in future building automation systems.
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