How should designers approach the task of designing for complex high-risk contexts, like the bridge of an offshore service vessel?

What do we need to make sense of to make good design judgements?

In what ways can systems thinking be of help when designing for such environments?

This PhD blog addresses these and other questions and is about my search for and research on design for sensemaking.

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    Monday
    Oct082012

    Studying the moving environment

    I've earlier been writing about how I really wanted to go to sea again. One week ago I returned back from my second trip to the North Sea. Saturday morning nine days earlier I had received a call from a shipping company representative saying that it was possible for me to join a platform supply vessel in Aberdeen the same day.

    We arrived at the port in Aberdeen 23:30 Saturday night and were supposed to go out to the rig the next morning. That didn't end up being the case, though. Life on a supply vessel is unpredictable and plans get changed quickly. The ship had to stay in port for one more day to unload and load cargo. On Monday the weather was getting bad and we didn't go out to sea that day either. On Tuesday a bad storm was hitting Scotland and all traffic in the port was stopped. (Have a look at BBC's amazing report from the storm). When we got out Wednesday morning the weather still wasn't calm. I wasn't the only one feeling in a lousy shape due to the waves, three of the mariners also got sea sick, from what I heard.

    One might imagine that sailors who are used to the motions at sea don't get sick, but that is not the case. And while I as a visitor could lay down in my cabin when the motions were at their worst, the mariners often have to do their job no matter how they feel. In June I attended an interesting lecture on ship movements and health by Joakim Dahlman at Chalmers University in Gothenburg. According to Dahlman motion sickness can create real problems for mariners. He writes in his dissertation that "motion sickness is not an illness, but rather a natural autonomic response to an unfamiliar or specific stimulus."1 Even if the movements don't make you nauseous, they may affect you in other ways. The problems start long before people become so ill that they have to abort their duties. Under the influence of motion sickness, motivation and ability to perform tasks are limited. One example is short-term memory performance, which in Dahlman's studies was negatively affected. In my experience the mariners acknowledge the fact that sea sickness is natural and can happen to everybody. I guess they all experience it from time to time. During this trip it was nice to observe the crew members' empathy for colleagues that were sick.

    The moving environment doesn't only result in people getting sick. It also results in some practical challenges with loose items onboard. On vessels you see a heavy use of rubber mats that prevent things from gliding. You also see all kinds of clever solutions for securing things, e.g. using elastic straps for fastening loose items and stucking chairs under the desk so they don't fly around when the ship rolls. During the movements on this trip I had some real issues with my bar of soap. The sink in the cabin's bathroom was of the regular type with no special means for making sure the soap stayed in place. Because of the waves the slippery soap constantly fell into the basin after I had washed my hands. I tried out all kinds of placements of the soap, but nothing worked and I ended up having to put some toilet paper underneath it to keep it in place.

    Even though it might seem so from this blog post, this field study wasn't all about what it's like to be in a moving environment. During these nine days at sea I got one step closer to understanding how the people on the bridge make sense of their situation. Many of the findings from previous field studies were confirmed and some new issues became apparent. I also managed to map out a couple of scenarios that will be valuable to me and my colleagues in our designing. And through hours of talking to the mariners I learned more about what kind of people choose to work at sea.

    Read the story about my previous trip to sea at the Centre for Design Research website.

     

    References

    1 Dahlman, J. (2009). Psychophysiological and Performance Aspects on Motion Sickness. Linköping University, Sweden.

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