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Touchpanel Design

Mar 14, 2011 3:12 PM, By Patrick Barron

Understanding GUI considerations by vertical market.


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There is an old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the same regard, a control system is only as powerful as the graphical interface used to run the system. A complex and powerful control system can be rendered almost useless with an improperly designed system interface. User interfaces come in many forms, but the most common and visible type is a touchpanel. A touch panel is the main point of communication with the control system. The importance of this single item cannot be understated.

The primary focus of a control system is to combine many complex operations from various pieces of equipment into a single system that is easy to use. The types of entities using this technology vary greatly. Residential, corporate offices, government buildings, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and entertainment venues are a few examples. Each of these facilities have unique requirements for their control systems, and the touchpanel designs incorporated should adjust for their unique uses. It would be laughable to take the same design for a bowling alley and try to incorporate that into a system for a hospital. Yet this mistake is made by many system integrators and programmers when using a standard template for every job. There are instances when templates can be used, but their use should be carefully monitored.

Corporate/Government

In a corporate office or government building, a touchpanel often will be used by different people in a shared space. A design for this type of room should be well thought out. Anticipate that a novice user could operate the system and appropriate training might not be available. This system should be simple enough to use by different people without training. In specialized rooms where complex operations take place, an advanced user might be the only person qualified to navigate the system. It isn’t always possible to simplify highly complex operations. In this situation, the design of the touchpanel should be highly dependent on input and guidance from the primary operator of the room. If average users are required to operate the room in a basic mode, while at other times the room is used for a complex specialized function, the touchpanel design should accommodate both types of room operation. This could be done by creating different modes within the same panel or by creating a basic panel in the room and a technical panel in a control booth. The goal of a user interface is to make the system simple to use. The preferences and views of the person operating the room should be the overriding factor in determining the final design. Even if a touchscreen layout doesn’t make sense for everyone, if it makes the system easier to operate for the person actually using the room, then the design is right for them. That is the most important factor.

A standardized design can be useful in saving and creating a nice interface on a limited budget. However, it is important to know when to use a template. Many corporate and government entities have spent millions of marketing dollars in creating a highly visible identity and image through the use of logos, graphics, colors, and even particular fonts. Brand recognition is a vital part of corporate identity. It would be unwise to design a touchpanel through the use of a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all template for a company with high brand recognition. A design strictly based on a template would not only be unimaginative and lazy, it would undermine the vast amount of effort and money that went into creating their image and identity. Integration and programming companies often take shortcuts and try to save on a job by using templates instead of taking the time to talk with the end-user. You need to create a user interface that truly addresses the entities needs and recognizes their identity by using the proper logos, color schemes, and fonts. A wealth of information is available on the internet simply by finding the company’s website and styling the touchpanel after the general look and feel of their website. Typically a company has already spent thousands of dollars and countless hours fine-tuning the look of their website, and this can be a good resource for interface designs. Always talk to the end-user to verify that their website is current and still fits their corporate image. These rudimentary steps of gathering information from the website and using the existing brand recognition are often overlooked when dealing with corporate clients.

Education

Systems used in schools are unique because the same design often must be used in many areas. If the system is in a lecture hall, that same space might be used by different professors. If a system is in a classroom that has identical classrooms on the same campus, the touchpanel seen in a single room is going to be the exact same design installed in every classroom with the same equipment. There can be customizations done like showing the name of the teacher or the room number, but the general design will be the same in each room. The system should be intuitive and easy to operate by a person that has never seen the system before. How to turn on equipment, how to select a source to view, how to operate the controls on the source devices being used, and how to adjust the volume should be apparent without training. Just like a person buying a car doesn’t need an in-depth training session on how to drive that particular car, a user should be able to operate the main functions on their touchpanel. A car has a standard layout that we call the dashboard. Several years ago an InfoComm committee took the idea and developed a Dashboard for Controls as a guideline for developing a touchpanel. This guide is an excellent reference and has many useful resources to help develop touchpanels that are easy for anyone to use not only in the education environment but in all instances where clear and intuitive touchpanels are desired.



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