Why field studies matter in maritime design and how we do them

Kjetil Nordby
Ocean Industries Concept Lab
6 min readMar 7, 2019

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A ship’s performance often relies on whether its crew are able to fully take advantage of all its capabilities. Field studies are an important method that may help in the design of more user-friendly ships. However, such studies need to be well integrated into the multidisciplinary process of designing ships in order to reach their full potential.

It might be hard to get a full understanding of the conditions in the field when being ashore. Photo: Anders Kittilsen

The human element is the major source of risk to safe operations. Up to 80% of marine and offshore accidents are attributed to human error or to some form of human input. The resulting expenses range from the costs of large accidents, downtime, maintenance and legal fees, to loss of reputation and various matters relating to personnel. Human errors are generally caused by technologies, environments and organisations that, in some way, are incompatible with optimal human performance.

Safer, greener and more efficient marine operations are achieved through design processes that take the entire operation into account, including the human element. To achieve this, the industry needs designers who are trained in acquiring and applying field knowledge and who have easy access to shared knowledge bases from the field.

Hiring designers with maritime operational experience (e.g. captains, chief engineers) is an approach that has been implemented to integrate experience-based operational knowledge into design. However, the increasing complexity of demanding operations makes experience competency insufficient as the main source for knowledge supporting design processes. In addition, the decreasing Norwegian fleet and the consequently smaller number of Norwegian personnel have led to the call for alternative approaches to securing operational competence in the design process. An increasing demand for leaner operations, improved safety and adherence to environmental regulations, as well as a greater service orientation, all serve to accentuate the need for a comprehensive understanding of operations in ship design. However, it is a challenge to fully understand demanding operations in order to change them through design, since they are complex intertwining systems of interacting people and technologies.

Layered scenario mapping of a maritime operation. Photo: Lurås.

Field studies play a critical role in acquiring contextual, systems-oriented and human-centred knowledge from demanding marine operations. The industry acknowledges that designers need an onsite comprehension of complex operations and tasks that ranges across systems and varied conditions. However, field studies for ship design differ from traditional ones in human factors or social science disciplines in that they must take into account the domain knowledge of the design disciplines involved and their particular data needs, as well as facilitate feedback loops from the ongoing design processes.

Today, field studies are carried out sporadically, often by external consultants. These consultants are often specialists in their own fields but are not always aware of the detailed knowledge needs of the naval architect (e.g. segment understanding, arrangements), the interaction designer (e.g. readability in different light conditions, interaction, timing and task priorities) or the stability engineer (e.g. crane, tower and handling operations). The result is insufficient knowledge-building in the companies and insufficient knowledge with which to successfully model and simulate the complete ship performance when in operation. This is a problem that may lead to design proposals that do not function well during demanding operations. ONSITE has tried to overcome this problem by integrating domain experts into the field study processes themselves in either the planning, carrying out or analysis of the field study results. ONSITE has tried to overcome this problem by integrating domain experts into the field study processes themselves in either the planning, carrying out or analysis of the field study results.

Design-driven field research at the Ocean Industries Concept Lab

User-centred design (UCD) warrants a mix of analytical, creative processes with an emphasis on the user´s potential needs. Field studies supporting UCD have a broad role in securing design reflection and the designer’s experiential understanding of the use context in addition to objective data collection.

When designing for users in the maritime domain, it is necessary to develop detailed knowledge about users, their context and their activities. To do so, designers employ a range of methods such as literature review, interview, focus group, workshop and collaborative design. Common for these methods is that although they may generate useful knowledge about users, their activities and the context, they all offer indirect access to the use context. We consider such indirect access to the work context to be problematic for user-centred design processes. This is because it is easier for users to recollect and comment on their work while being present in their work context. It is also much easier for designers to understand work practices when seeing them performed in real life.

Model of design driven field research. (Lurås & Nordby)

Based on experiences from undertaking field studies supporting design processes, we propose that field studies are integrated parts of design processes, that are planned and executed according to the evolving needs of design processes. We suggest three main motivations for undertaking field studies for design: data mapping, experiencing life at sea and design reflection (Lurås and Nordby 2014) .

1. Data mapping

Design processes require a wide range of information about users, their activities and the context. Each project will have different requirements in terms of what data to collect. However, since field studies are costly and an innovation process might venture into unknown territory, we recommend a broad approach to data collection in design-oriented field studies. This includes observations of and interviews with users, data capture from ship systems, as well as the comprehensive collection of media from the observation site.

2. Experiencing life at sea

We emphasise the subjective personal experience of being on board a vessel as important for building designers’ maritime competence. Consequently, we suggest an ethnographic approach to field studies where designers engage in the maritime workplace. This involves familiarisation with life on board the vessel in addition to the work activities. It also involves understanding the environmental and temporal aspects of being at sea through personal experience.

3. Design reflection

We suggest integrating design refection into field study processes. This includes evaluating design potential, developing ideas and concepts while in field and using the field to prepare for idea generation later in the design process. This involves bringing early-stage ideas to the field as well as including users in design processes while on board. By integrating design refection into the field study process, designers can take advantage of having the full richness of the context and the relevant users at hand when developing their design.

We see design-driven field research as closely integrated into design processes in such a way that we encourage design reflection in the field. Although field research is usually positioned early on in the design process, we encourage design reflection before, during and after the field research has been carried out.

We have applied this model to our field studies over many years and in our processes it is a proven approach that help add direction and value to the field study process. The model is integrated in our field study course and we see improvements in the students ability to integrate human centered design in their innovation processes.

Further reading: Journal article “ Field studies informing ship’s bridge design at the Ocean Industries Concept Lab”.

Authors: Kjetil Nordby and Etienne Gernez. The project is done in collaboration with Ulstein International, Pon Power and DNV GL and funded by the Norwegian Research Council in the MAROFF program. Project number: 269494
OICL is a research group at
Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

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Kjetil Nordby
Ocean Industries Concept Lab

Associate professor,design and research manager of Ocean Industries Concept Lab at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.