Power to the people

Concerned that controls are truly usable — Doug Robins.
Doug Robins explains why technology needs to be user friendly if controls are to deliver their energy-saving potential.These are great times to work in the building controls sector. The technology that drives our industry is advancing rapidly and is capable of quite amazing applications. We are in a web-enabled, networked and integrated age. A building-management system can control everything from individual pumps through to security and energy management. As demand increases, technology prices continue to fall so this level of capability is available to a greater number of clients. At the Building Controls Industry Association, we believe that building controls contribute directly to more energy efficient buildings. A well designed controls strategy can therefore make an impact on the bottom line of any business by helping to cut energy waste and reducing energy bills. However, no matter how advanced the underlying technology, most building-control systems eventually boil down to a person flicking a switch, turning a dial or pressing a button. This is the interface where building and occupant meet; unfortunately it is not always a happy place. We may sometimes hear occupants say: ‘The building doesn’t work properly.’ It is very probable that what they’re really trying to convey is ‘We don’t understand how to make it work properly.’ In this era of Internet-enabled controls and machine-to-machine messaging (M2M), it might be pertinent to ask if we should remove the occupant from the equation altogether and automate the whole process through various sensors for lighting, carbon-dioxide concentration and temperature. However many studies have shown that satisfying building users and energy efficiency link very closely to local controls. Occupants want to influence their own environment and adjust elements such as lighting, temperature and ventilation themselves. Case studies (including some from the Usable Buildings Trust and BSRIA) have shown that in non-domestic buildings there is a positive relationship between occupant satisfaction and levels of perceived control. Local controls can also make a very positive contribution to energy efficiency, as systems are more likely to operate only when occupants need them. Unfortunately, local controls can create problems rather than solving them. The increasing complexity of building-services systems has led to more complex controls — leaving users confused and unable to operate them correctly. In specifications for building controls, usability is not often addressed — leaving the interaction between user and building out of the whole construction process. With costs and commissioning time squeezed to the minimum, problems with the usability of controls often go unnoticed, and occupiers are left to tackle the problem themselves. The BCIA has worked with BSRIA and the Usable Buildings Trust (UBT) to produce a Carbon Trust funded publication called ‘Controls for end-users — a guide for good design and implementation’.* The authors have outlined some simple criteria for ensuring controls are truly usable. The control device should meet a range of requirements.
• Be easy to understand and, preferably, intuitively obvious.
• Be easy to use, or people will not use it.
• Work effectively with sufficient control to give a required level of adjustment.
• Give instant tangible feedback (for example a light or click).
• Give rapid feedback to show that the intended effect has occurred (such as a readout).
• Not need to be used too often.
• Take into account that some devices may only need to be used occasionally, so that people may forget how they should be used.
• Not require users to intervene too much.
• Be located close to the point of need. The key message of the research is that as well as functionality, usability has to be high on the list of considerations for the design of building-management systems. Controls can only deliver their energy saving potential if users understand and use them correctly. This requires attention to detail. The automotive industry has achieved a good model for usable controls in the car dashboard, which meets most of the criteria listed above. It has done this by putting the user at the centre of its thinking about design. Construction professionals need to do the same. Doug Robins is President of the Building Controls Industry Association (BCIA)
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