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There is a stepwise progression in the way signals from the environment and the system under consideration are extracted and transformed into data, then analyzed and abstracted to form representations (e.g., indications and icons) on the user interface. In physical environments, such as aerospace and process control, many system components and their corresponding data and information are interrelated (e.g., an increase in a chamber’s temperature results in an increase in its pressure). These interrelationships, when presented clearly, allow users to understand relations among system components and how they may affect one another. Organization of these interrelationships by means of an orderly structure provides for the so-called “big picture” that pilots, astronauts, and operators strive for.

This research effort begins with the analysis of operational incidents involving current aerospace systems, where the operators have had difficulties understanding the physical interrelationships that existed among several sub-system indications provided on the displays. Analysis of these incidents highlights some of the limitations in the design of information systems with respect to the organization of information and user understanding of the automation processes.

We then contrast less successful and more successful attempts to achieve simplification and abstraction, integration of information, and nonlinear organization of the display to help viewers better understand the system as a whole. These concepts have been applied to the design of a graphical display for a statistical analysis of pilot-automation interaction, and to the design of an experimental engine display for a research helicopter that integrates information from engine parameters and organizes it in the context of other subsystems. The statistical technique known as canonical correlation analysis has been used to analyze and visualize deviations from expected patterns in pilot-automation interaction. A new approach has been developed for transforming continuous signals and creating a discrete alphabet to foster the detection of anomalies in data streams.

Exploration of several real-world examples and several theoretical approaches to information organization suggests a few preliminary hypotheses to be examined in future work:

  • Geometrical forms and patterns can be designed to be viewed and interpreted by humans as compact, integrated messages.
  • Geometrical properties of a field, such as interlocks, positive space, levels of scale, voids, boundaries, gradients, alternating patterns, etc., provide a language for describing the elements of an integrated field and may hold the key for developing a systematic engineering approach for analyzing and constructing integrated displays.
  • The amount of information in geometrical forms can grow when we recognize that whenever two or more basic elements interlock, additional elements are created. The same applies to layers of information that are embedded in a field.
  • For a field to accommodate interrelationships and become coherent, it must rest on a underlying structure. When the underlying structure and apparent geometrical forms are well integrated and organized, a sense of wholeness permeates.
  • Structures that have wholeness in them (e.g., a flower motif, stars and constellations, tree-like organizations) can convey considerable amounts of information, because we are attuned to the wholeness that such structures provide. In turn, deviations and/or collapse of this wholeness can be quickly identified, for example, as an indication of off-nominal system performance.
  • A highly integrated design allows viewers to consider multiplicity of interrelationships, some of which may be beyond what the designer anticipated, yet are still true to the system being represented. This feature of an integrated design and human capacity to detect patterns (and deviation from thereof) is very beneficial for identifying unpredictable situations.

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