Can good design help seafarers make better decisions?
The Naval Architect September 2020
Mariners will generally find a way to make a system work, albeit not necessarily as the designers intended. Often that leads to discomfort, distraction and even injury. Moreover, as ships grow more complicated, with reduced manning and growing dependency upon the human-machine interface, this problem is only likely to be exacerbated. But what can naval architects and ship designers do to help mitigate this?
“One of the problems of ergonomics is that although the concept is very simple – to make the user the centre of the design – the details for what this means for a particular arrangement of equipment, the procedure for a particular job and how to address the range of people who will do that job involves lots of tradeoffs,” explains Dr Jonathan Earthy, technical authority for Human Factors at Lloyd’s Register.
Although safe access is a SOLAS requirement and certified by class, the reality can often be somewhat different. Among the examples Earthy uses of design ‘fails’ is an engine room where it’s necessary to stand on the manifold to get access to a wheelhead. In another case, crew are expected to access a winch in a confined space and no protective barriers.
Some fundamental design flaws also find their way onto the bridge. In the example of one recent vessel the maneuvering station on the bridge wing didn’t offer a clear view of the shipside, requiring instead the installation of a camera for coming into port. Consequently, the bridge station was effectively useless and crew instead would manoeuvre – via a monitor – from amidships. To compound its problems, the same bridge had a large overheard display panel that not only prevented a clear line of sight from the front of the bridge, but also caused crew to hit their heads and needed additional soft padding.
But Earthy warns that one of the biggest problems is a lack of feedback between operations and design. “If the designer and class don’t know what’s happening in reality they can’t necessarily assure safety.”
“There are many things that could be addressed cost effectively if they were reported,” he says. “There’s also the waste of money involved if you install a system that’s not used or has to be replaced.”
Designing for the captain
Dr Capt Margareta Lützhöft, a former master mariner and professor at the Marsafe group at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, says the infamous tragedy of the 17th century Swedish warship Vasa, which sank due to the weight of its cannons, is a textbook lesson in why “you should build for the captain not the king”.
Although the naval architects of commercial vessels may often feel that the dictates of the shipowner take priority, that doesn’t have to be at the detriment of Human Centred Design (HCD). In particular, Lützhöft notes the 2014-built vehicles carrier Harvest Leader, where 1,716 different changes were made to the design in the interest of human factors and engineering. These included moving the cargo hold fans to improve visibility, cameras installed at critical locations, ‘plug and play’ modules in the engine rooms and enlarging the crew living and common spaces to increase comfort.
“We’re very proud of this ship because the changes were partly made on the suggestions of our own publications,” says Lützhöft. “We are still in contact with the naval architects who did this and a lot of these changes were made not during the design stage, which was more expensive”.
HCD has been formalised and is widely practised in other sectors of industry and has been standardised as ISO 9241-210 ‘Human centred design for interactive systems’. Conceived as a cycle of improvement with the objective of understanding what’s going wrong, specifying the user requirements, producing and testing solutions and then evaluating the design to determine whether it meets targets (with performance measured by usability). There is then an ongoing process of monitoring to see whether anything changes to affect that usability.
The Nautical Institute’s own publication, Improving Ship Operational Design, continues to be the textbook of choice to help improve the flow of information between naval architects and seafarers. In addition, the Institute continues to encourage seafarers to show and report poor ergonomics, particularly with regard to the safety, the performance issues it addresses and what can be done to improve the user experience.