A model for design-driven field research
Monday, November 3, 2014 at 3:19PM
Sigrun LurĂ¥s in Field research, Publications, The offshore industry, Ulstein Bridge Concept

Based on our experiences with field research at the Ocean Industries Concept Lab and in the Ulstein Bridge Concept design research project, we have proposed a model for design-driven field research1. This model suggests focus areas we believe are important when doing field research at sea. We particularly emphasise that the designer should engage in design reflection while in the field. In this regard, the model expands on the more traditional concept of field research in design, which emphasises field studies as efforts that take place before designing.

On this blog I have previously discussed why I believe that field research is important and shared my experiences from one particular field study. You can also find my account from a visit onboard the platform supply vessel Bourbon Topaz at the Centre for Design Research's website. Looking back at these blog posts one can see that the model I present here emerged early in my research, and have been refined through discussions with colleages in the Ulstein Bridge Concept project.

Data mapping, experiencing life at sea, and on-site design reflection

The model for design-driven field research includes three focus areas: Data mapping, experiencing life at sea, and design reflection.

Data mapping involves collecting data for specific purposes, the actual data designers need in order to develop relevant designs. As an example interaction designers have a need for very detailed insight into user tasks, and what information and functionality is needed at what time in order to support the user in carrying out these tasks.

Experiencing life at sea suggests an ethnographic-inspired approach and getting to know the people, context, and culture. This involves becoming familiar with life on board the vessel, gaining insights into the offshore culture, and getting to know 'the men behind the users', i.e. what kind of people choose to work at sea, how they experience their life at sea, and what their needs are, beyond those of their work performance. Another important aspect is to understand the environmental, temporal and bodily aspects of working and living at sea. Our experience is that getting an embodied and temporal understanding of being at sea is one of the things most difficult to obtain without taking part in field studies.

The last focus area, on-site design reflection, is the one that most prominently distinguishes the model for design-driven field research from field research of other disciplines. On-site design reflection involves reflecting on possible design opportunities and on the potential of design ideas while in the field. It also concerns being conscious of using the field study to create a basis for generating ideas and for getting 'aha-moments' later in the design process. The purpose of on-site design reflections is to accelerate the process of interpreting use situations and more quickly arrive at appropriate designs, and to decrease the contextual gap between the field and design.

I believe the model for design-driven field research is not only relevant to design for maritime and offshore contexts, but can be of value to designers working with other unfamiliar contexts as well.

Building on 1800 hours of field research

The model is proposed in a paper1 written by me and the project manager of the Ulstein Bridge Concept project Kjetil Nordby and presented at RINA's Human Factors in Ship Design & Operation conference in February 2014. In the paper we also present our experiences with doing field research at sea based on the ten field studies we have done at the Ocean Industries Concept Lab and in the Ulstein Bridge Concept design research project. The field studies have had different objectives in relation to the focus areas of the model for design-driven field research. Some have put more emphasis on data mapping and less on design reflection, while others have emphasised design reflection the most. On all trips we've experienced life at sea. Our main finding is that conducting field studies is vital when designing for a complex and unfamiliar domain like the offshore ship industry. This context is environmentally and culturally very different from the contexts most designers work with onshore. We have also seen that the field studies vary depending on the focus of the individual designer and that designers develop a personal sense of the situation at sea that enables them to make better design judgements later in the design process. For those interested in reading more about our experiences with field research, the full paper is available online.


1In: Lurås, S., & Nordby, K. (2014). Field studies informing ship’s bridge design at the Ocean Industries Concept Lab. In Human Factors in Ship Design & Operation, 26-27 February 2014, London, UK (pp. 27–35). London: The Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA).

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