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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    Designers’ experience with the offshore industry

    Due to busy times it’s been a year since I updated the blog. Since my last post I have had several papers published and also submitted my PhD thesis (currently under review). I will in the next couple of weeks post some blog entries dedicated to the published papers. I start out by presenting an article discussing designers’ experience with designing for the offshore industry1 written with Margareta Lützhöft and Birger Sevaldson and published in the International Journal of Design.

    The interview study

    Eight industrial or interaction designers with 2 – 10 years of experience from the Norwegian offshore industry were interviewed. The objectives of the study were

    1. to investigate how industrial and interaction designers find designing for the offshore industry,
    2. to identify the challenges designers face, and
    3. to examine the strategies used to meet these challenges.

    Since my PhD research concerns the how Systemic Design can help designers cope with complexity when designing for complex, high-risk control environments, the study also investigated the designers’ use of systems thinking and systemic methods in their projects.

    Results of the study

    The designers interviewed described offshore-specific design projects as complex and challenging on many fronts. The main factors contributing to the complexity are that the offshore domain is unfamiliar to most designers, the operations and user tasks one designs for are complex and very spesialised, the industry is very much regulated by sometimes conflicting regulations, and the products one designs is often based on highly advanced technology. For these reasons the designers emphasised making substantial efforts into understanding the context of use and user tasks.

    There are, however, many challenges that make it difficult to gain the needed insight in offshore-specific design projects. These challenges are related to:

    • economic, organisational and practical barriers to gaining access to users and field sites,
    • the offshore industry is a high-risk domain with a strong focus on safety,
    • considerable and fragmented information to make sense of, and
    • limited possibilities for working broadly and holistically.

    This leads to a situation where the designers often had to rely on secondary sources of information.

    It is incredible how difficult it has proved to do what you thought, while being a student and a fresh designer, was the most important part of a project, and the most natural thing to do as a designer.

    Designer interviewed

    We conclude the article by proposing that systemic approaches could help designers in this field acquire a better understanding of what I refer to as the system they design for and the system they design within. The system they design within consists of all the framework conditions that influence a design project and shape designers’ performance, such as regulations, project organisation, the designers' role, client's position in the industry etc. I have developed the notion of the system we design within further in a paper that has been accepted by Design Issues and will be published next year.

    Why interviews? A flexible research design

    The main method of my PhD research is research by design, which implies developing new knowledge from own design practice. Even though I think this is a strong method in design research, I believe design research is even better if research by design is supplemented by other research methods. Therefore I chose to do an interview study to learn how other designers’ find designing for the offshore industry and not only base my research on own experiences.


    1 Lurås, Sigrun, Margareta Lützhöft, and Birger Sevaldson. 2015. “Meeting the Complex and Unfamiliar: Lessons from Design in the Offshore Industry.” International Journal of Design 9 (2): 141–154. Available online.


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