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.

More about me and this blog

RSS subscription
Email subscription
This form does not yet contain any fields.

    Reaching the "hard-to-reach" users

    Twitter icon. CC Image courtesy of Marek Sotak on Flickr.

    In order to make good and relevant designs, we need to have a deep understanding of the users, what they do and their context of use. However, not all users are easy to meet or use contexts easy to reach. This blog post is about alternative ways of learning about "hard-to-reach" users, i.e. seafarers.

    "Hard-to-reach" users?

    When I say "hard-to-reach" users I don't think of populations that are difficult to approach, like drug addicts or criminals. I think of user groups that are hard to reach because they are situated geographically in hard-to-reach places. Or because they work in high-risk environments which it is difficult to gain access to due to organisational issues, like required safety certificates etc.

    In my current work the "hard-to-reach" users work on marine vessels. In my opinion the best way to learn about these users and their context of use is to spend time with them on the ship. But if you don't have the chance to meet the users "in the wild", you can learn alot from meeting them online.

    Information for those considering a maritime career... And for designers!

    If you are considering an education or a job option, you probably want to know as much as possible about what that career choice will mean in practice. For those considering a maritime career, lots of information is available online presenting what working on a ship is all about. This is valuable information for us designing for the maritime environment.

    Marine Insight has an own section on Shipping Careers. Here you can read about the difference between a Ship Captain and a Master Mariner, the duties of the Chief Officer or of the 2nd engineer, the Maritime Pilot's responsibilities, what an Able Seaman is and does and how to become a Ship’s Cook etc. Browsing job adverts can also give some insight into the responsibilities of the different positions. See for example Marine Insight's list of websites to find maritime jobs.

    In Norway Maritimt Forum, which is a foundation representing the maritime industry, has developed a website called Ikke for alle (Norwegian for "not for everyone"). This website presents what a maritime career implies through short videos. From the deck department we meet the Captain of a chemical tanker, the Chief Officer of an express ferry and an Officer Of the Watch of an LNG tanker. They talk about what kind of responsibilities they have, what is important when carrying out their tasks and what it's like being a mariner in general. On the website you also meet an Able Seaman cadette, a Chief Engineer, a 2nd Engineer, a Motorman, a Cook, a Marine Electrician and different positions on-board offshore rigs. If you speak Norwegian, I recommend watching them all! Ikke for alle is a bit tricky to navigate at first. Look for the big arrow at the right hand side of the page to navigate from one video to the next.

    Ikke for alle provides interviews with different mariners.

    Blogging about life at sea

    Company blogs

    Not long ago gCaptain published an article about how to utilise social media in shipping. Here Maersk Line was put forward as having the most influential online presence in social media. Their investments in social media are of real value to us designers. In particular the presentation of Maersk People in their Maersk Stories Tumblr blog where you can for example:

    • Get a short intro to the unpredictable daily life of a Captain of a PSV (Platform Supply Vessel).
    • Follow Captain Søren H. Hansen as he reports from all corners of the world from the bridge of the Clementine Maersk. All in all he's written 13 blog posts about the trip. Here are the links to the first and last posts. Browse Maersk People for the others entries.
    • Read a detailed account of a very busy watch of a 2nd Engineer.
    • Learn from a Mooring Master about offloading of LNG from an FGSO vessel (Floating Gas Storage Offloading) to a tanker.
    • Read an Officer's description of how he and his colleagues onboard an AHTS (Anchor Handling Tug Supply) vessel spent 2 weeks towing a jack-up rig from Esbjerg in Denmark to the Gorm Field in the Danish sector of the North Sea.

    The Maersk Stories give insight into the daily lives of Maersk employees.

    Personal blogs

    Maersk allows some of their employees to blog as part of the company's branding and recruitment strategy. But there are also mariners who keep personal blogs. These blogs can be really valuable to us designers, both to learn specifics about what is happening at sea, and to learn about what kind of people choose to work there.

    The Mariner is a blog kept by a Second Officer onboard an AHTS. He writes about lots of different issues ranging from how to become a deck officer, to health care and keeping fit while at sea, to how the AHTS is operated to make sure an FPSO (floating production, storage and offloading) unit keeps its heading, to a deck officer's understanding on the work of the engineering department. The Mariner sometimes shares videos, for example this timelaps of an anchor handling operation. He also publishes some amazing photos. See his take on the December sun, the North Sea sky, the penguins he met on his way to the South Sandwich Islands, a couple of rough days at sea and some beautiful buoys he passed.

    Rigmover is another mariner with a great interest in photography who shares insights about his daily life at sea. His blog is full of informative and beautiful pictures, accompanied by easy-to-read and humorous comments. Rigmover also offers some useful descriptions of marine operations and systems. Here he describes how the FPSO he's on works. In another post he shares some informative pictures of thrusters of a jackup rig. Yet another post includes a description and some amazing photos of how he was transported from the FPSO to an AHTS using something called a Billy Pugh. Rigmover also publishes quite a few photos from his spare time.

    There are other mariner blogs you might want to check out as well, and probably lots more than the ones I've been able to track down. An engineer keeps a blog about his life on a supply vessel and writes among other things about feeling homesick. The difference between life at sea and land life is discussed by several bloggers. One deck officer writes about how life comes under a completely different heading whe she's at sea, while another stresses how one should enjoy work life as well as personal life. Other blog posts are of a more practical nature, for example one written by a deck officer on a cruise ship providing a list of what to pack before going to sea.

    On Twitter I've come across a few mariners worth following. For example Capt. Andrew Ferris, Capt. Murray Latham and Chief Officer Jason Church who sail the Great Lakes in USA and post photos and funny remarks about their work life and personal life. The Mariner who keeps the blog mentioned above is also worth following on Twitter. Even though many of the tweets aren't that relevant to us designers, some can be of value, like photos of their working environments as shown below.

    Photo of the bridge shared on Twitter.

    Follow the insider discussions

    The last online resources I would recommend for getting to know the hard-to-reach users are online forums. gCaptain's forum may be the most interesting one. They have different sections, for example one for Professional Mariners and one on Dynamic Positioning. Here you can follow conversations about any issues related to sea life. For example sharing of "experiences that you may not want to recall but are interesting to others", discussions on how to cope with noise on boats, alternative solutions to dragging an anchor in tricky weather situations, comments on the Ulstein Bridge Vision design (addressed in this blog post) and even inspiring poetry describing a dream ship.

    Give me a boat without paperwork mate
    Most of which I don't really need
    They go on for miles
    my library of files
    And its not what I normally read
    Give me the tools to adjust mate
    The things that need tweaking a bit
    This ISM
    is more like S&M
    And with me it is not a big hit

    Excerpt from poem by gCaptain forum user smudgerthesailor

    Other forums worth checking out include CaptainsVoyage's forum,'s forum, the forum of the International Dynamic Positioning Operators Association and for the Norwegian speaking readers, Norsk Skipsfarts Forum.

    In addition to the specific online resources mentioned above, I recommend following maritime news websites like gCaptain and others. Most of these are on Twitter. I have made a Twitter-list where I've included more or less useful English and Norwegian maritime Twitter-accounts. Please feel free to follow the list if you want to.

    In this blog post I've shared some online treasures I think are useful for designers who would like to get to know the hard-to-reach users at sea. Similiar resources can be found for other domains. I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts and suggestions for additional ways of getting to know hard-to-reach users. Please use the comment field below!

    Reader Comments (4)

    A colleague reminded me of a documentary about the life onboard a Platform Supply Vessel in the North Sea. The film is made by NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, and can be found here (Norwegian): Nordsjøens livsnerve

    December 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterSigrun Lurås

    I came across this overview of jobs at sea at Farstad Shipping's webside. They also have a section where they present some of their employees and a nice selection of photos of life onboard.

    December 25, 2012 | Registered CommenterSigrun Lurås

    My co-supervisor made me aware of SIRC (Seafarers International Research Centre), which has many interesting reports about seafarers and life at sea.

    February 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterSigrun Lurås

    Nice insightful blog post by Rigmover about a successful rig move in the North Sea.

    February 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterSigrun Lurås

    PostPost a New Comment

    Enter your information below to add a new comment.
    Author Email (optional):
    Author URL (optional):
    Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
    « Why do I do a PhD? | Main | Chasing Aha! moments in design and research »