Harmonising maritime workplace design through collaboration, new technologies and open innovation.

Harmonising maritime workplace design through collaboration, new technologies and open innovation

OpenBridge, is a unique interdisciplinary project aiming to solve the problems of inconsistent interface design across bridge systems that has plagued the maritime industry and its operators for decades.

Render by Jon Fauske

An ongoing industry-academia collaboration based in Norway, the OpenBridge project aims to provide better user interfaces for ship bridge equipment through open innovation in order to simplify and enhance multi-vendor integration. OpenBridge is running from 2017–2022, with its consortium comprising of over 25 project partners representing diverse industry stakeholders, including shipping companies, ship builders, equipment suppliers, designers, classification societies, regulatory authorities, researchers, maritime trade unions and maritime academies. Project Leader, Dr. Kjetil Nordby of The Oslo School of Architecture and Design has been focusing on design of advances user interfaces for maritime workplaces over the last eight years. Nordby explains:

“OpenBridge is a result of our long-term research strategy of combining knowledge spanning design, engineering and human factors for enabling efficient and human centered digitalisation of maritime workplaces. It establishes a research framework that enables us to link state of the art user interface research with industry development processes.”

Dr. Nordby is managing the Ocean Industries Concept Lab (OICL) that focus on research supporting the maritime industries. The OICL team consist of a multidisciplinary group of researchers, designers and engineers working on next generation workplaces using innovative technologies, including Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR). Ongoing challenges and the failure of the integrated bridge Ship bridges are complex working environments and consist of many different types of equipment, sourced from many differing suppliers.

It is not uncommon to have over 30 different brands on a contemporary bridge. These multi-vendor bridge systems include equipment that comprises of many different design philosophies. This variation in user interface designs ultimately impacts the seafarers attempting to manage complex operations within the bridge and ship. Field studies on a wide range of vessels performed by researchers at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design revealed a complete lack of design consistency across bridge equipment interfaces.

Steven Mallam, Associate Professor at the Department of Maritime Operations, University of South-Eastern Norway and OpenBridge partner, is a maritime human factors researcher interested in the effects of design on safety. He states that inconsistent and poor designs of bridge systems have negative impacts on crew work tasks and can contribute to human error and accidents at sea. Mallam explains:

“Research shows that operators who work within complex systems, such as control rooms, flight decks, operating theaters or ship’s bridges, have difficulty managing the complexity of their work environment. High levels of information, constantly evolving variables and the need to communicate between people and technology create unavoidable complexity.

“The design of the work environment and equipment has shown to influence human behaviour and how people work, including the success or failure in executing tasks. Optimising design has tangible benefits for human performance.”

Struggling with inconsistent design is nothing new for the maritime industry and several ongoing initiatives from maritime stakeholders seeks to provide consistent design across navigational equipment, including the IMO’s E-Navigation and S-Mode development work. These initiatives are limited to consistency across specific equipment.

OpenBridge differs from these efforts in that it focus on design of all current and future user interfaces on a ships bridge. OpenBridge is adding value to the industry as a whole, and as a company, improves the products and services we are able to offer our customers. The OpenBridge design system provides the opportunity for customers to freely choose between many compliant bridge system vendors. This can result in both cheaper and more harmonised designs, increasing the economic feasibility and usability of integrated bridge systems.

There are good reasons for why the lack of harmonised workplaces is maintained in the maritime industry. Nordby states:

“When OpenBridge began in 2017 the first objective was to identify the main barriers for achieving consistent design across bridge equipment. What we found was that different maritime stakeholders struggled with different problems. The companies delivering smaller systems to the ships bridge, struggled with cost of acquiring design competence and implementing solutions, while delivering customised solutions to each bridge system increases costs. Ship bridge producers have a high integration costs and struggle with delivering consistent user interfaces when customers demand equipment from many different equipment vendors.”

Furthermore, a systematic review of current maritime regulations and design guidance relating to bridge equipment revealed a lack of support that effectively supports consistent design for digital user interfaces across all systems. Mallam describes the today’s situation:

“Most current user interface design guidelines address generic principles of design, such as workstation and equipment layout, readability, visual contrast or consistent use of symbols. However, there is limited support that may enable design consistency and guidance for entire user interfaces across multivendor bridge systems. This is certainly true for practical frameworks equipment producers can readily implement.”

Looking to the web industry for design consistency In order to address these ongoing challenges, the OpenBridge project looked outwards to other domains to understand how issues of design consistency were tackled. Most notably, the web-industry has evolved design systems for varied content creators. For example, web or app developers, whether professional or amateur, follow specific design frameworks in order to maintain consistency in design across differing platforms.

By following widely adopted design frameworks, they make sure a large portion of their users already are familiar with the user interface principles when they start using the application. These design frameworks are offered for free by large actors, such as Google and Microsoft. OpenBridge builds on these concepts and bases much of its design guidelines on design principles already widely adopted in web industries whenever possible. In doing so, a large portion of OpenBridge users will be familiar with central aspects of the user interfaces. In addition, maritime-specific elements are added, such as palette handling, thruster symbols or maritime iconography.

The OpenBridge design guidelines adhere to current maritime regulations (e.g. SOLAS V/15 and their associated guidance documents), as well as class rules, and in many cases uses stricter tolerances than contemporary maritime regulations. The concept is that any stakeholder who implements OpenBridge design guidelines by default also adhere to relevant workplace design regulations. As OpenBridge guidelines are based on descriptive input, with design examples and development tools, as a systematic approach, it is relatively simpler process for smaller companies to implement and deliver approved designs. Making an impact on maritime industries Nordby says that initially industry stakeholders viewed the OpenBridge concept skeptically, even warning him of the inevitable resistance and challenges he would face:

“Several maritime insiders told us that the industry would resist, that the OpenBridge philosophy was an idealistic and unrealistic solution for a traditional industry that was unwilling to change or accept open innovation as a way to gain a competitive advantage”

However, momentum is building behind the project, taking it from an interesting, but theoretical, idea towards the development of better practical solutions. This industry interest and support is demonstrated by the fact that the initial OpenBridge project consortium has swelled from 16 to over 25 partners over the past six months. Many of these partners are now starting to test OpenBridge solutions in their systems. The development of the OpenBridge design system is an agile and iterative design evolutions based on input and review from all project partners. By bringing together expertise in maritime design systems, equipment developers, designers, ship-owners, seafarers, human factors specialists and regulatory bodies, designs are proposed, evaluated and tested continuously.

Testing og OpenBridge compliant augmented reality user interface developed in the SEDNA EU project. Photo: Jon Fauske

Collaboration is key to OpenBridge, and drawing together cutting-edge design tools and visualisation systems, including VR and AR, with participatory involvement through workshops where hands-on work and face-toface discussions drive designs forward. OpenBridge is now in the process of completing the first version of its maritime design guidelines focused on digital user interface design. Using a step-wise model for rollout, OpenBridge will then focus on harmonising digital design guidelines with the implementation of physical interfaces, followed by further additions. This will be followed by harmonising digital design guidelines with the implementation of physical interfaces. Nordby states:

“Our ambition is to alter how we build workplaces in ships and solve a pervasive challenge in maritime design. We realise this is an ambitious goal. Yet, the momentum we are building within this project has increased faster than first anticipated. I’m optimistic that the OpenBridge project may have significant impact in the coming years. “

The story is reproduced with the kind permission from the Naval Architect journal. The story has gotten minor edits due to new developments in OpenBridge, such as an increased number of partners.