A Design Pattern Language to Assist the Design of Alarm Visualizations for Operating Control Systems

The purpose of this page is to present the research work developed by Rosa Romero Gómez , Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science and Technology at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. She's also a member of the DEI Lab Interactive Systems Group.

In what follows, the research domain, the main motivations, and the research problem to be addressed by this work are presented.

The Research Domain

Control systems

A control system is defined as "a device, or set of devices, that manages, commands, directs or regulates the behavior of other device(s) or system(s)" Sheridan (1992). Control systems have been used over time to solve problems of practical importance with enormous impact on society. As a consequence, control systems have proliferated enormously. They can be found within a range of industrial domains, including electric power grids, transportation networks, or water management systems. Lately, the intensive use of information technologies has resulted in a proliferation of these control systems in other domains such as emergency response; in particular, in case of natural disasters including earthquakes or floods. In current control systems, equipment is separated in functional areas and is installed in different work areas of a controlled process or system. The human operator monitors and manipulates the set-points of the process parameter from a central control room. In particular, he views the process information transmitted from the process area and displayed on the computer terminal through information displays. Computer-based information displays provide the capability to human operators to process data of controlled processess through the use of representation methods, such as graphics and integrated displays.

Electric grid control room Emergency operations center

An electric grid control room (left) and an emergency operations center (right)

The design of these computer-based information displays determines what should be displayed and how it should be displayed. The way the information is displayed may result from the consideration of both the physical surroundings in which the operator are required to work and the nature of human operator tasks. Owing to the high complexity of current control systems, where many parameters on many different locations need to be supervised and controlled, the execution of human operator tasks can be characterized under the operation-by exception approach. In keeping with the research literature on process control, human operators can perform their tasks according to either the management-by-awareness approach or the operation-by exception approach. The management-by-awareness approach characterizes the human operators' activity as a continuous monitoring of the system to try to anticipate and avoid problems' occurrence. On the contrary, the operator-by-exception approach describes the human operators' activity as triggered into action by an upcoming cue or alarm, instead of focusing on monitoring any feature or parameter of the system; this approach has been more specifically conceptualized under the notion of 'alarm-initiated activities' Stanton(1994). It characterizes human operator tasks as focused on the use of alarms. As a consequence, alarm visualizations have become key control artefacts to the operators in maintaing safety in a broad range of domains. An alarm visualization refers to as "the method(s) by which alarm coding and messages are presented to control room operators". ANSI/ISA-18.2-2009. However, the design of these alarm visualizations is not a trivial process.

The Research Motivation

Reusing Prior Design Knowledge

Design Knowledge Reuse

Designing alarm visualizations requires designers to take into consideration the role of human operator in response to alarms. They should recognize the human operator's capabilities, goals and needs. They should also understand how to support them through visualization means. Accordingly, this design involves address complicated issues involving numerous specialized fields of expertise such as Alarm Management, Human Factors, and Visualization . However, no single designer can be an expert in every relevant field, and becoming proficient may require years of experience. Moreover, in today's global and competitive business environment, designers are under increasing pressure to perform better in terms of low-time, high-quality and high value output that can provide competitive advantage for the organisation. Consequently, reusing prior design knowledge can be a critical resource for designers to support and amplify their abilities of alarm visualization design generation.

The Research Problem

Experience-dependent design knowledge reuse approaches

There is a plethora of design material in the form of design rules such as guidelines, standards and design principles that collect design knowledge about known ways to design alarm visualizations. However, these design rules are limited on some aspects, relying on the designers’ experience to be applied to create complete alarm visualization designs:

  • (i) they are incomplete (they provide a partial consideration of the required design factors for alarm visualization design, lacking of flexibility to incorporate new ones);
  • (ii) they are too abstract (they provide a too high-level description of the important characteristics of alarm visualizations and when to use them, but they do not express the how, which must rely on designer's experience);
  • (iii) they are loosely coupled (they do not provide a description of how they can be integrated into the alarm visualization design process)


1. International Society of Automation (ISA). (2009). Standard No. ANSI/ISA-18.2-2009 Management of Alarm Systems for the Process Industries.

2. Sheridan, T. B. (1992). Telerobotics, automation, and human supervisory control. MIT press.

3. Stanton, N. A. (1994). Alarm initiated activities. Human Factors in Alarm Design, , 93-117.