February 19, 2018

Setting the course with 24 hours of immersive research

The power of front-end research
My work as UX designer and researcher allows me to visit places you normally don't easily get to. Think: a large chemical plant, hospital operating rooms and logistic points of airports. One of our recent projects brought me to the world of tugboats. You know, those boats that guide big container ships to a safe place at the dock in the harbour. The engines of larger tug boats produce massive power up to 25,000 horsepower and are extremely mobile, being able to push or tow container ships in all directions.

We went in the field for two half days in which we did observations and semi-structured interviews at two tugboats in the harbours of Rotterdam and IJmuiden. Planning these small research activities in the front end of the design process doesn't only result in a design outcome that matches the user and context, it also safeguards an efficient design process. At an early stage, fewer assumptions are made about the user, and fewer changes need to be made in the design along the way. Our goal was to gather insights which serve as input for the creation of UX concepts, that will improve the usability and the workflow in a tugboat steering bridge.

Off to the docks!
We started our first research day with an introduction of the system at a training centre for tugboat captains. I was challenged to maneuver a tugboat on a demonstrator model of a tugboat through the harbour of New York. And yes, of course, I liked to try this in the worst weather circumstances you can think of! Getting acquainted with all functionalities, we were impressed about the number of parameters that needed to be monitored (over 6000!), and the way this is currently controlled. What would this mean for the future in which tug boats might be controlled (partly) autonomous?

Next, we stepped onto a 26-meter long tugboat. As 'flies on the wall' we observed how the crew left the dock and took off to an incoming ship. During the commute, we were able to ask the engineer, sail man, and captain about their responsibilities and experience of working with the current systems in the steering bridge. Interviewing them while they are executing certain activities, provides rich insights into why and how they need to use the system functionalities. 'If I need lights, I need it quick. Every extra click I need to make frustrates me in such a moment'.

About 20 minutes, many questions and photos later, we arrive at the ship that we need to tug to the dock. As we come closer, the ship is even bigger than I imagined and I feel like a little ant. The captain is highly concentrated when he skilfully positions the tugboat behind the ship while communicating via the VHF system with the Harbour Control. At the same time, the engineer is controlling the winch and carefully increases the tension on the winch. It's amazing to see how the two perfectly adapt to each other.

As we guide a couple of big boys more into the harbour, we begin to identify a pattern of key moments in the workflow of the crew members. During these key moments, the crew members differently use the system and differently distribute their attention differently between their eyes, hands, and ears. On some moments they are carefully looking outside, while on other moments they have more attention for the controls and communication devices. These types of moments will serve as the foundation for designing an adaptive system that seamlessly fits into the context of use.

A difference of night and day
The next research day, I am driving in my car to the Rotterdam harbour when the boat crew phones me that they are about to do two big jobs, and will be leaving in 10 minutes. This proves how dynamic and adaptive their work is. I accelerate my car to the maximum, and I am luckily just in time to hop on board. We take off, as the boat is ready to do its work, and so do I.

This time, I am joining an evening shift, in which can be observed how the increased lighting contrast of the system is experienced in the dark environment. Seeing more than one situation is valuable to capture different ways of usage and ergonomic postures that captains have while using the system. When we are finished with the two jobs, I get to the little living area in the boat and am able to reflect back and zoom into certain usage situations I have observed.

While driving back home through the impressive harbour of Rotterdam, I think back about all insights I gathered in the last two research days. I am excited about translating these insights into the first wireframes with my colleagues. Spending 24 hours in the context and with real users definitely works as a booster, not only for me personally but also for the whole design process.

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