In this paper we establish a foundation for understanding the instrumentation needs of complex dynamic systems if ecological interface design (EID)-based interfaces are to be robust in the face of instrumentation failures. EID-based interfaces often include configural displays which reveal the higher-order properties of complex systems. However, concerns have been expressed that such displays might be misleading when instrumentation is unreliable or unavailable. Rasmussen's abstraction hierarchy (AH) formalism can be extended to include representations of sensors near the functions or properties about which they provide information, resulting in what we call a sensor-annotated abstraction hierarchy. Sensor-annotated AHs help the analyst determine the impact of different instrumentation engineering policies on higher-order system information by showing how the data provided from individual sensors propagates within and across levels of abstraction in the AH. The use of sensor-annotated AHs with a configural display is illustrated with a simple water reservoir example. We argue that if EID is to be effectively employed in the design of interfaces for complex systems, then the information needs of the human operator need to be considered at the earliest stages of system development while instrumentation requirements are being formulated. In this way, Rasmussen's AH promotes a formative approach to instrumentation engineering. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.