Five Peculiarities of the Design for an Oilfield Service Company

Design in conditions of rocket science, fanciness fobia, zero imagination, Excel habits, and traffic lights code

People are drilling earth to reach oil and gas deposits. It’s hard. It’s dangerous. They use thousand-ton machinery controlled by mind-blowing software. The software, the interface of which often has tabs inside of tabs, dropdowns in dropdowns, charts overlaid with charts, and popup dialogs on top of popup dialogs. Sometimes global companies — Chevron, Schlumberger, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Saudi Aramco, BP and others — ask designers to develop a brand new design. And it’s definitely a peculiar task.

I’ve been working on a project for one of the oilfield service giants for two years and have interesting observations about this area. So, if you are lucky to be assigned to such a project, the following tips might be useful. If you are working on such a project, please show me some empathy in comments.

1. Fanciness fobia

“We don’t need to make it fancy,” complains an average Jack the Oilfield Manager, “because design team is changing the design every week, and we’ll never be fully consistent with the visual guideline. We should deliver stuff — features and working state of the software.” That’s what I heard multiple times, and it’s quite logical.

Oilfield engineers work with the apocalyptic picture of a fiery blowout in mind (like the one from the movie “Deepwater Horizon”). 💀 Their fault or crash of engineering software costs millions of dollars and sometimes human lives. Generations of oilfield engineers are grown up on desktop applications, usually untouched by cloud technologies, responsiveness or consistent style. Consequently, they are confused when a designer proposes long shadows, vibrant gradients, and ultra thin fonts.

If Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who created the hierarchy of human needs, had defined oilfield engineer’s software needs instead, we would have seen the following picture.

Advice. Reason design solutions rationally, describe how they will help to avoid mistakes, recognize data, and notice risks.

2. Zero imagination

An anecdote first. Once I prepared a mockup of a web application screen. Whatever it was, just imagine an engineering dashboard with schematics, charts, and input fields. We discussed it internally with my team and then I sent this stuff to a customer. In a couple of hours, I received an answer from the product owner (a person from customer’s side responsible for coordination of our team).

“Please change the flow rate from 5200 to 160,” he wrote, “and also make the curved trajectory more horizontal so that it is twice lower than now.” I wondered, “This is a mockup that shows visuals, not the content, although the content is shown close to the reality. Is there a specific reason to do that?” The answer was epic, “Oilfield engineers — mmm, how to put it better—have no imagination. They perceive a mockup as if it is a ready-to-use interface and can reject your design if a certain number makes no sense to them and is unlikely to show up in the reality. I used to give them mockups with such incorrect values, and they always were distracted by them and could not focus on assessing the comfort of use.”

The majority of drilling engineers lack imagination. The price of a mistake in their profession is high, and as a result of professional deformation, engineers got used to looking at numbers first and only after that they may notice colors, fonts, and animations.

So, be careful with mockups and wireframes. There are two ways: either to show unambiguously dummy data or — this is preferable — try to use data as close to the real one as possible. The second approach will need preliminary consultations, and an extremely positive fact here is that there are so-called product champions in the oilfield industry. These guys and gals eagerly share domain knowledge and are happy to be asked about what they do.

Advice. Engineers work in dangerous conditions and are used to tracking numbers rather than button styles. Be attentive to the content of mockups; putting the data that is close to reality will help users to focus on usability issues.

3. The domain matters

Oil and gas drilling is not a common thing like booking a hotel, ordering a pizza, taking a taxi or even planning a budget. We deal with transport routes, money calculations, food recipes every day whereas such common drilling things as pore pressure, 💪🏻 weight on bit, 12-inch wellbore section or synthetic-based mud are beyond the majority of us.

Below is an approximate list of oilfield terms a designer should take at least a cursory glance at. Their high-level understanding will simplify collecting requirements and presenting design because you’ll speak your client’s language, which they are used to so much.

  • Drilling process: well, offshore platform, trajectory, wellbore, borehole, sidetrack, formation, mud, jarring, casing, cementing, cuttings, pressure, impact, and impulse, etc.
  • Drilling equipment: drill string, bottom hole assembly, drilling rig, drill bit, drill pipe, stabilizer, sub, accelerator, etc.
  • Measuring: American vs. metric system, measured depth vs. true vertical depth, complex units.

Drilling process, explained

I’ll help you to buy in. Enjoy a simple description of the end-to-end drilling process. So, there is oil somewhere deep under the ground. Engineers define the boundaries of the territory above the oil deposit and design a layout of future holes, so-called slots, in order to penetrate the deposit in multiple points simultaneously and pump oil quicker. On top of each slot, they install a tower-like structure, a drilling rig, which all the downhole equipment is attached to. A drilling trajectory can be curved and bend at various angles; nowadays it often goes a couple of thousands feet straightly and then turns horizontally or branches as tree roots. These branches are called sidetracks and help to detour around an impassable obstacle or to reach an oil deposit in multiple points simultaneously.

Each hole, a wellbore, looks like a gigantic telescope: it starts with the wider diameter, for instance, 18 inches, continues with a smaller one, let’s say 12 inches, and ends with the smallest one, 8 inches. These hole parts of a certain diameter are called sections and each of them is drilled by means of a specially configured drilling equipment, depending on the soil contents, temperature, pressure and other underground conditions.

This equipment is called a drill string and consists of metal tubes and a bit, a bottom-most tool, which cuts the ground and enables moving forward. In order to avoid stucking of a drill string, oilfield companies use slick and heavy drilling liquid, mud, that is pumped into the wellbore under pressure. Mud cleans the hole from the ground particles cut by the bit, smoothens the movement of the drill string and prevents the hole walls from destruction. For each section, both the drill string configuration and liquid ingredients are adjusted because the same equipment can not be equally effective for different drilling conditions.

After a section is drilled due to the plan, oilfield engineers strengthen it by means of casings, tubes with thin walls, and firmly cement them. Only after that a new section can be drilled and then cased. The result of such an activity is more of a tunnel than a rough hole. There you are! Oil can be extracted but this is different story.

Advice. In oilfield service industry, domain knowledge is especially important for a designer. It simplifies gathering requirements and designing.

By the way, there is a separate oil and gas drilling wikipedia — Petrowiki.

4. Traffic lights

You can not paint an interface in red, yellow and green 🚦 just because these colors are trendy or cute. Oilfield engineers have the perception similar to how a driver looks at traffic lights. Red is usually associated with danger or failure; yellow stands for a warning or risk; green symbolizes the normal state of something or success of an action.

Consequently, if you are designing an interface element not connected with “danger/safety” or “failure/success” meaning, use any color — pink, aqua, turquoise, violet, khaki, lavender, olive, blue, brown — except red, yellow and green. You can take one “danger/safety” color and combine it with other colors but not three or two of them simultaneously. For instance, a yellow-violet-turquoise bar chart will be perceived properly; but a red-green-brown chart might confuse users if it has no relation to safety or state.

Advice. Propose red, yellow and green colors for “danger/safety” and “failure/success” info; take advantage of alternative colors for the rest of cases.

5. Excel interaction

“When I see a table 💻 in the interface,” says an average John the Oilfield Engineer, “I expect pasting stuff from my desktop documents, switching cells through Tab and Enter, and selecting multiple rows by means of Ctrl.”

There are two things a designer can do in such a situation: either replace a table by any other interface pattern or agree with this damn Excel behavior despite the fact it’s fucking difficult to implement it in the web environment. I guess after you add a table to your mockups, developers will curse you because there is no totally effective, flexible and customizable table solution as of 2017 AD. To that end, I recommend minimizing the usage of tables and introducing powerful modern patterns like charts, gauges, diagrams, data tiles, etc., especially for read-only data, where users are not supposed to enter anything.

Advice. If oilfield engineers see a table or something table-looking, they will treat it as if it is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Start with a non-table solution if product requirements allow you to.

Feel free to get in touch elsewhere. I got cute pics on Dribbble, full-size projects on Behance and design presentations on SlideShare.

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