Why digital user interfaces matter for ship owners

MARPRO's Blog of the Week: Integration of digital user interfaces will save costs throughout the life cycle of a ship and contribute to safer and more efficient operations.


Digital user interfaces might not be the first thing that springs to mind when building or operating a ship. Yet, the fact is that as digital technologies are increasingly affecting ship acquisition, operation, and maintenance. The user interfaces are the front-end meeting point between humans and digital technologies and if these do not work optimally across the organization, it will affect the ability to harvest safety and profitability gains from your digital investment.

Suboptimal user interface design is often an invisible problem that can have large consequences when acquiring and operating a ship. This affects aspects, such as operator training costs and effectiveness, contributory factors to incidents and accidents, operational efficiency, cost of equipment procurement purchases and product choice.

These challenges have increased in recent years as the digitalization of the maritime sector has led to a rapidly increasing number of digital user interfaces onboard ships. In our research in user interfaces on ships, we have found that it is not uncommon to have a dozen or more individual systems installed in a single bridge workplace. If one in addition includes the systems found in the multiple other locations around a ship, you are likely to exceed far more different user interfaces in use on a single ship. Most of these interfaces typically have unique user interface designs. This means that each application has its own philosophy for how to represent information, and its own way of allowing people to interact with the information. That includes design of basic interaction components such as buttons, as well as more complex interaction patterns, such as how to navigate inside the application. These differences make it exceedingly difficult for users to transfer knowledge of using one system over to another system.

In this article we will discuss why digital user interface integration is challenging in the maritime industry, how we can solve the challenges and what this would mean for ship operators in terms of innovation, cost and safety. In short, we argue that ship owners have much to gain and few downsides in applying a long-term strategy for improved and consistent user interface design.

The challenge of developing usable maritime workplaces

User interface design is deeply affecting the digital services you use in your everyday life. Most people expect that activities such as sending messages, writing documents or even shopping can be performed efficiently with little or no training or prior experience with a particular device or service. Services failing to perform for the user might have devastating effect for the service provider since it in many cases can be very easy for users to switch products. Although, most people understand that a good user interface contributes to the ease of use, efficiency and satisfaction in interacting with  a digital device or service, it might be less known how much work goes into making “user friendly” products and services.

Over the last 20 years, processes, methods, and tools have been refined to make usable digital services. This has been largely driven by web and mobile industries where excellent usability is a necessary commodity to separate oneself in the highly competitive international market. As this field has matured design patterns (standardized ways of solving user interface problems) has evolved so that people can transfer their skills from one system to another regardless of who produced it. This has been a gradual process driven by industry and academic collaboration. Large organisations have developed design systems that integrate design guidelines with development tools for user interface design in order to create an ecosystem where designs created by differing entities end-up having similar design properties. Companies such as Google, Apple and Microsoft have developed open-source design systems that have to some extent converged over the years.

The maritime industry has struggled to follow the standards for increased usability found in other domains. These shortcomings can be traced to reasons such as cost pressures, cumbersome regulation and lack of modern digital design guidance, a development culture oriented towards hardware and lack of competence in user centered digital design. Therefore, maritime interfaces do not reach the standard of modern design principles beyond bare minimum maritime regulation.

Much can be gained by applying the tools and knowledge that are available in the web and mobile industries. However, design resources from other fields cannot necessarily be directly applied to maritime cases. In our research we have visited multiple ships in operation and observed how maritime workplaces are operated in shifting and often very challenging environmental conditions. Fatigue, weather, waves and shifting light conditions all made using systems challenging as users were effectively temporary impaired using a common workday.

Mainstream design resources do not support many of the challenging conditions of maritime work. Likewise, many maritime user interfaces need modernization to reach contemporary standard of usability. This can be solved through adapting current best practice design processes and guidelines to maritime contextual needs. However, even if we could apply state of the art user centered design on maritime interfaces, there are additional challenges connected to the structure of maritime industry itself.

Design consistency

The development of a ship is a tremendous effort carried out by a group of industry actors. As such, a ship owner is in essence a system integrator that organizes assemblies of large number of systems that need to work together. This is also the case for the increasing number of digital systems that can be accessed in various places across the ship or on land… continue to read full article.

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This blog of the week is shared by courtesy of Ocean Industries Concept Lab –

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