User-centric bridge design: enough is enough

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While advances in engineering and technology have made piloting a modern ship safer and more efficient, information overload and an excess of options can hinder as much as help bridge officers in doing their job.

We are striving to see not just the bridge, but all the elements of a ship
We are striving to see not just the bridge, but all the elements of a ship

Antti Matilainen is automation engineer who has been with ABB Marine & Ports since 2000. “Back then I was doing a lot of commissioning work, and after a while I began to question the usability of some of the designs being produced for operator environments,” he recalls. As solutions became steadily more sophisticated, Matilainen observed an increasing lack of connection between bridge equipment and the machinery it was designed to control. “That’s when I realized we needed to start putting usability first.”

To get things moving in a new direction, in 2015 ABB Marine & Ports revamped their bridge and automation research and development organization, strengthening the team with industrial designers. The focus shifted to user-centric design, striving to refine the logic that links the bridge with the machine room. “Our goal was to emphasize simplicity. We wanted to provide only the essentials needed to pilot the vessel,” Matilainen says.

Essential connection with customers

“We gather concepts where research and testing leave off and enrich them up to the product development stage. But we cannot do this by ourselves.” The key to enriching ideas, he says, is dialog with customers.

“We have co-creation agreements with our largest customers.” These are primarily the yards, but also captains, machine engineers, and operative crew are invited to participate in product development laboratory sessions. At this stage, Matilainen says, they are not focused on profit. “We are out to collect the raw material that will form the basis of future products. Collaboration and discussion are the main goals.”

Enablers of this creative exercise might be a simple table, paper cutouts, inexpensive screen mock-ups, even coffee cup holders. The low threshold allows participants to relax and be inspired, Matilainen relates. “In this kind of a setting, everyone feels comfortable. It gives us an opportunity to play around with design.”

He notes that end users are often the most motivated to seek out simplified solutions. “The process gives our customers the chance to see options they might not have realized were available.”

Holding up the business end

The collaborative effort also serves to cement mutual commitment to solutions, he says. “That is important for all parties. Usability has to be prioritized early in the design process. Once a design has been committed, it’s too late. We need to engage the team before building is initiated. The idea is to not interfere with shipyard contracts, but rather to give them the right input before they start building,” Matilainen says.

The team also needs to make business decisions along the way in order to be able to roll out a new design. “We have to calculate the added value for all stakeholders, so product managers and sales staff are involved throughout the design process.” He reports that the team is constantly scouting for innovative technical and design solutions across all industries, not just transportation, all the while mindful of ABB design guidelines.

Matilainen emphasizes that prioritizing the end user does not stop with the initial design process. “We also use research to refine ideas. User studies are critical in this process,” he says. “Evidence-based design is another way to ensure that the focus stays on functionality.”

Circular collaboration

Matilainen and his team also have extensive collaboration with academia. Students are encouraged to do their thesis work across disciplines, in order to bring a wider range of perspectives to the design process.

Typically there are strong personalities dictating the direction of design, he tells. “Our idea is to concentrate on whether a design works or not.” Engaging automation specialists, sea captains and industrial designers to assist the students enables the team to verify results on a broader scale.

“Using these resources, we have discovered new ways of operating vessels with multi-use levers that control the vessel, thrusters, and more.” He is also aware that not all ideas are ready to be pushed out of the nest as soon as they are hatched. “We have come back to ideas after several years and used them in new solutions.”

Seeking simplicity

Matilainen acknowledges that while offering welcome improvements, modern bridge solutions can easily generate technical details that users do not always understand. “This does not serve any purpose, so we need to challenge the rules, and sometimes that means leaving out unproductive information.”

Avoiding operator overload is a key reason to strive for simplicity, he says. “We need to keep interferences to a minimum.” One well-known issue involves widely disparate situations with the same alarm indicator. “It makes no sense to get the same alarm whether the coffee machine needs cleaning or the ship is sinking. Too much noise makes it hard to understand what is really happening.”

The ultimate goal is to integrate a holistic view of the entire vessel into designs for operator environments, Matilainen maintains. “We are striving to see not just the bridge, but all the elements of a ship, including propulsion, power, and control, and still keep it simple.”

Trained as an engineer, Matilainen himself admits to believing that empty space was wasted space, until industrial designers advised him otherwise. “I thought a display was finished when nothing more could be added. In fact, it is finished when there is nothing left to take away.” The challenge, he says, lies in learning what can be removed. “There is a still a long way to go to the ultimate simplicity, but we are getting there.”

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