Complex User Interfaces: Design of Products and Services
Submitting InstitutionMiddlesex University
Unit of AssessmentComputer Science and Informatics
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Mathematical Sciences: Statistics
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Computation Theory and Mathematics
Summary of the impact
Our research in complex user interface design for environments where
there is need to support a high cognitive overload as well the need to
support variability of user interface design has led to impacts on the
design of products and services in two organisations addressing the
domains of crisis management software and nuclear power plant industry. In
the former case, research arising from our investigations of user
behaviour in complex systems has been applied by adopting our Variable
Uncertainty Framework (VUF) into the software product `VSL Planner'
developed by VSL Systems AB and the `XVR' product developed by E-Semble
Systems. The XVR product has recently been sold to the London Fire
Brigade. Related to this, our research on complex task analysis,
specifically in abnormal situations resulted in a second conceptual
framework that extended the Task Complexity (TACOM) methodology that has
been used to inform and guide the Korean Atomic Energy Institute in their
work on designing and implementing modern control rooms for atomic power
stations in South Korea. The safety critical nature of these interfaces
means the potential impact of this work is very high, as any failure could
have catastrophic consequences.
The Interaction Design Centre (IDC) at Middlesex has been researching
user interface design issues since 1995. The Centre has previously been
led by Professors Harold Thimbleby (now at Swansea) and Ann Blandford (now
at UCL) and is currently led by Professor BL. Wong.
Since its inception IDC has been successful in obtaining over 25M in
research funding from a range of funding bodies including ESPRC, JISC,
Eurocontrol, and various EU FP programmes to study human computer
interaction requirements in a range of domains such as low literacy
skills, ambulance dispatch, and first responder crisis training. Recently
the centre has focussed on the visualisation needs in security domains
where the data characteristics such as velocity, volume variability are
predominant. The range of domains has necessitated engagement with a broad
group of stakeholders including users with low literacy, older populations
and intelligence analysts at both national and international levels.
In the context of these domains a range of task complexity studies and
human-system interface studies have been conducted leading to outputs that
include software tools with new visual paradigms  and new methodologies
Tasks that require a high cognitive overload have been explored in
contexts such as information seeking behaviours on web sites supporting
the services of the National Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB)  and in the
design of crisis management training situations as part of research
carried out in the EU funded CRISIS (CRitical Incident management training
System) project. The latter research led Professor BL. Wong and his team
to the development of the Variable Uncertainty Framework — a conceptual
tool for managing variability and complexity of training scenarios along
dimensions such as: situational complexity, the number of events occurring
simultaneously, and randomness of events . Our earlier research on how
situation awareness processes and their antecedents such as in the context
of emergency medical dispatch  provided an earlier intellectual
contribution to the VUF.
The research expertise and environment in the area of complex user
interface design in the Interaction Design Centre was instrumental in Dr
Dong-Han Ham being funded by the Korean Atomic Energy Institute (KAERI) on
a contract research project (`Development of Model-Based Method for
Evaluating Cognitive Task Complexity and Human-Machine Interface Designs
in Nuclear Power Plants'. Amount: GBP 75,000, Period: March 2007 ~
February 2010. Grant code: 2010-00001029). In this project, Dr Ham
conducted research for complex user interface design requirements for
nuclear power plants (NPP). This research developed a novel conceptual
framework for deriving various complexity factors and understanding
complexity-related issues with a specific aim to improve TACOM (TAsk
COMplexity) — a widely used method for evaluating procedure-based tasks in
NPPs in South Korea. The research paid particular attention to the
sufficiency and efficacy of TACOM's three methodological tools, the
process, the cognitive task analysis method and the set of guidelines. The
research outcomes were reported to KAERI in a confidential report  and
a subset of the findings were published more widely  .
References to the research
This research was based on competitively funded projects, with robust
peer review systems. The outcomes from the research were published in
leading peer review journals and conferences in the field.
1. Blandford, A. and B. William Wong, Situation awareness in emergency
medical dispatch. International Journal of human-computer studies, 2004. 61(4):
2. Field, J., et al., Variable uncertainty: scenario design for training
adaptive and flexible skills, in ECCE2011: Rostock, Germany. p. 27-34.
3. Ham, D.-H., Development of model-based method for evaluating cognitive
task complexity and human-machine interface design in nuclear power
plants, 2009, KAERI: Korean Atomic Energy Institute.
4. Ham, D.-H., J. Park, and W. Jung, Extension of TACOM to the complexity
of tasks designed for abnormal situations in nuclear power plants. Journal
of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 2011. 24(5): p.
5. Ham, D.-H., J. Park, and W. Jung, A framework-based approach to
identifying and organizing the complexity factors of human-system
interaction. Systems Journal, IEEE, 2011. 5(2): p. 213-222.
6. Kodagoda, N. and B. Wong. Effects of low & high literacy on user
performance in information search and retrieval. in Proceedings of the
22nd British HCI Group Annual Conference on People and Computers: Culture,
Creativity, Interaction-Volume 1. 2008. British Computer Society.
7. Kodagoda, N., et al. Interactive visualization for low literacy users:
from lessons learnt to design. in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on
Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2012. ACM.
1. Development of Model-Based Method for Evaluating Cognitive Task
Complexity and Human-Machine Interface Designs in Nuclear Power Plants'.
Amount: GBP 75,000, Period: March 2007 ~ February 2010. Grant code:
2. CRISIS (CRitical Incident management training System); FP7 Security
Call; Ref: 242474
Details of the impact
Systems such as that found in nuclear power plants and air traffic
control place a high cognitive load on human operators as they perform
tasks that require information search, integration and deep inference
leading to a critical decision. Mastering such complex environments
requires extensive training and increasingly, computer-based simulations
form an essential element of such training. Although improvements in
display technology are important, underlying issues prevalent in risk
laden environments means that improvements do not necessarily provide for
productive and reliable user performance. In particular, design and
evaluation of task procedures, information displays for complex systems
and associated training have become a critical issue. As the task
complexity issue is very important to improve the safety of these
(safety-critical) complex systems many organizations utilizing these
complex systems require methods for evaluating task complexity or
evaluating interface designs for this requirement.
Our research on information seeking behaviour, goal oriented domain
analysis techniques and the influence of user interfaces on critical
decision making has addressed the issue of cognitive overload in safety
critical systems and how to provide training to support users of such
systems. The research described earlier has led to two overarching
frameworks, both of which have had direct impact on external research
Frameworks for measuring complexity of user interface tasks
In the first instance, within the context of the nuclear power industry,
the analysis provided by Dr Ham on the efficacy of widely available TACOM
methodology for abnormal situations has further materially, informed and
guided the Korean Atomic Energy Institute in their work on designing and
implementing modern control rooms for atomic power stations in Korea.
Guidance has been provided in two specific areas. First, a conceptual
framework for complexity factors that was developed formulated on a sound
theoretical basis of cognitive systems engineering and system thinking has
now been made available to KAERI. Secondly, practical guidance for using
task complexity factors in the design and evaluation of task procedures
and information displays for NPPs has also been utilised by KAERI.
Much of the guidance has had its main impact since March 2010 following
the completion of a number of task complexity studies. The research
outputs and case studies developed in the underpinning research are now
used as a significant reference point for the on-going research activities
of Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI).
Following the research undertaken by Dr Han, task complexity has been
regarded as a critical component that should be addressed for the
systematic design and evaluation of task procedures and information
displays in complex systems particularly for NPPs.
Additionally the research outputs have offered a new way of addressing
complexity-related research issues in NPPs. For example, the research
outputs have helped systems designers and human factors engineers working
in NPPs to evaluate the design of task procedures and information displays
from the perspective of cognitive systems engineering.
Colleagues working at KAERI (Dr. Wondea Jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)
and Dr. Jinkyun Park (email@example.com))
have been the primary beneficiaries of the impact. They have been able to
utilize the research and develop further research outputs based on the
initial work done at Middlesex [S3].
Frameworks for designing variable training scenarios addressing
complex crisis situations
The CRISIS project led by Prof. Wong developed the Variable Uncertainty
Framework — a conceptual tool for managing variability and complexity of
training scenarios along dimensions such as: situational complexity, the
number of events occurring simultaneously, and randomness of events .
VSL Systems AB) a commercial software services company has implemented
key functions of the framework in their software product: `The VSL
Planner' including the following: time-based triggers initiating events at
a precise time or between time-intervals; events triggered from other
events; manual triggers and others. VSL acknowledge that the ideas of the
VUF are powerful and provide a simpler means of increasing the variability
of the training situations with minimum user interaction [S4]. VSL are in
the process of commercialising their products.
Additionally, E-Semble (http://www.e-semble.com),
another simulation based training product organisation has also
incorporate a part of the VUF (spatial aspect triggers) by developing a
bespoke software development kit (SDK) into their XVR product.
As part of the investment into improved training facilities for London
Fire Brigade, Babcock, the infrastructure services company selected
E-Semble to implement the XVR platform into two newly built Incident
Command Simulation (Sim) suites located in London. The XVR platform
generates a range of scenarios including those derived from the CRISIS
project and its deployment is reported in a press release to the trade
magazine Fire & Rescue [S5]
Sources to corroborate the impact
S1. KAERI is a research led organisation and as such it conducts
foundational and applied research relevant to the nuclear power industry.
In the initial case KAERI funded Dr Han to perform research (`Development
of Model-Based Method for Evaluating Cognitive Task Complexity and
Human-Machine Interface Designs in Nuclear Power Plants'. Amount: GBP
75,000, Period: March 2007 ~ February 2010. Grant code: 2010-00001029) to
conduct research for complex user interface design requirements for
nuclear power plants (NPP).
S2. This research (in particular the papers [4,5,6,7] were used and
co-developed by KAERI). These papers were cited further in other research.
S3. Letter from researcher at KAERI describing influence of research on
designing for task complexity.
S4. Letter from Dr John Jenvald, CEO, VSL Systems AB.
S5. E-Semble Press Release; 30-09-2013. http://www.e-semble.com/en/About_E-
The press release was also reported in the Fire & Rescue Magazine,
Page, 5, December Issue, 2013.
S6. Letter from Martin Boosman, Founder, Director of Strategy, E-Semble