Ref: Kathryn Kearney
The term “avionics” is generally agreed to have been coined by the distinguished aerospace journalist, the late Phil Klass, as a linguistic blend of “aviation electronics.” Basically it refers to “electronic equipment fitted in an aircraft.” Nowadays, the concept encompasses flight controls, indicators and displays, communication, navigation, weather, system monitoring and anti-collision systems.
But what are the factors that make an avionics system effective?
Automates the most common tasks
A poorly designed interface automates some tasks but makes the pilot go through a lot of steps to do other common tasks. Thus, an effective system automates the tasks you need to do most often. And the most usable automation provides direct features for the completion of mission tasks.
For example, if the pilot has to memorize a sequence of sub-tasks, it becomes time-consuming and attention-demanding and thus reduces reliability and efficiency.
Of course all this is easy to say, so clearly the avionics provider has to have a good understanding of the pilot’s role and the particular mission of the type of aircraft.
Quickly finds the right screen
These common tasks should not only be automated but must be easy to access. This means the screen or panel itself should be conveniently located and close at hand.
To see specific examples of how principles of menu design are implemented on several popular business aircraft, check this brief video on Honeywell’s Primus Elite 875 Display System.
Formats data easily
Anyone who’s every operated a keyboard—and that would be all of us—knows that keyboards can be difficult to operate while performing other tasks. Ideally, knobs and buttons can be designed for one-handed use.
Touchscreens—truly one of the greatest advances since the days of Lawrence Sperry’s original autopilot—have the potential to make data entry easier, but only if formatted well. As noted above, this calls for an avionics provider with a strong resume in aerospace technology development from the pilot’s perspective.
In addition, a drop-down menu is often ideal—and helps address the next challenge as well.
Allows quick input commands
Clearly marked dialog boxes make everything a lot easier for the flight crew as they format their data—everything from routes to cabin conditions.
Shortcuts and specific buttons can also help. This video on Honeywell’s advanced navigation display (at approximately 2:30) demonstrates how shortcuts, map buttons and scroll bars can be implemented.
Voice controls have the potential to completely eliminate this challenge, but they too must be well designed. Imagine if Darth Vader had used voice-to-text: “Luke, I am your badger.”
Even in your own day-to-day life, how many times have you tried to send a voice text, only to find that your device has completely misconstrued your intent?
Furthermore, if pilots have to memorize complex voice commands, the benefits and efficiency of voice control are lost.
This last item is so basic that it’s almost amazing to see how many designs fail to take it into account: The system should clearly indicate when you’ve completed a task or set the parameter. Without this fundamental design principle, at best, the device is wasting your time, at worst creating a dangerous distraction from the proper business of the pilot: getting to the destination safely and on-time.
Overall, the success of any new user interface for the cockpit lies in the abilities of the designers to understand the mission tasks and provide appropriate automation to support the pilot in executing these tasks.