Lack of UX Design Regulations for Ships’ Bridges

Lack of UX Design Regulations for Ships’ Bridges

Regulations for ship bridge equipment and systems provide little detailed design guidance for software. This forces the crew to adapt to a host of differing interfaces and designs within an already complex working environment. Inconsistent and poor designs of bridge systems have negative impacts on crew work tasks and can contribute to accidents at sea.

The OpenBridge project ( is working to develop an open platform to provide better user interfaces for ship bridge equipment. This is achieved through developing enhanced design methodologies and guidelines in order to simplify multi-vendor integration. As OpenBridge deals with design of bridge equipment and systems, it is important first to understand the current state of design regulations and guidelines within this area.

The Situation Today

The bridge is the main control center of a ship where vital operational tasks, communication and decision-making are coordinated and executed. The bridge is located on a structure that operates in frequently harsh, variable and isolated conditions, making the work environment and work tasks high in complexity and safety-critical in nature.

A ship’s operations and crew work tasks consist of interactions between people (i.e. the navigation team and ship crew) and technology (the various equipment and systems of the bridge and ship). This requires interaction and communication of people-to-people and people-to-technology, both onboard the ship and to external agents (e.g. port control, Vessel Traffic Service, surrounding ships, onshore facilities, etc.).

The bridge is a complex system from a technological perspective. Typical bridge equipment of a merchant vessel may include items such as autopilot, conning displays, Radar, Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA), Electronic Chat Display and Information System (ECTIS), Dynamic Positioning (DP), Global Positioning System (GPS), Gyrocompass, various communication devices and a host of further systems and sensors. Generally, these differing systems are designed and manufactured by multiple independent vendors. A single bridge can easily be comprised of dozens of differing brands of equipment supplied by differing vendors! These vendors typically have their own design and layout philosophies for hardware and software components. As you can imagine, once assembled and integrated into a single working environment (i.e. the bridge) which require the equipment to be used together problems can be created for the crew. Inconsistency in design across these differing pieces of equipment and interfaces have shown to have negative consequences for the crew and have even been implicated in contributing to accidents at sea.

There have been calls to develop more Integrated Bridge Systems (IBS) that standardize bridge design components in an effort to create a more user-friendly and uniform working environments and equipment. These issues are the motivating factors behind the concept of OpenBridge in order to seek harmony between ship bridge integrators and system vendors.

Regulations, Regulations, Guidelines, Regulations…

We carried out a systematic review of current maritime regulations and guidelines that are specifically related to bridge design (Mallam & Nordby, 2018). Documents were found from a wide range of organizations, including maritime and non-maritime related entities, regulatory bodies, professional societies, classification societies and equipment manufacturers. To date, our database includes over 75 differing documents that provide some level of bridge design or bridge equipment design guidance. Although the acronyms of these varying organizations alone can become overwhelming (and sometimes aggravating!): IMO, ISO, SOLAS, ILO, IACS, IEC, IHO, MIL, etc., the creation of a working database has helped our project and designers better understand the current climate of design support for ship bridges and associated equipment.

Our work has had several useful outputs: the first was the establishment of a working database of all design regulations and guidelines specifically focusing on the bridge, bridge equipment and bridge operations. The second was an analysis of the identified material to establish the design support within current regulations and guidelines. Design support within the documents is organized within three main categories:

- Physical Components: Workplace hardware including the physical workstation, console and interface hardware (e.g. buttons, levels, toggles, etc.)

- Application Components: Software that uses the workplace hardware to mediated user interfaces to end users (e.g. style guidelines, UI components and patterns, etc.)

- Integration Components: The software system that manages the relationship between applications and workplace hardware (generic input devices, voice interface, augmented reality, etc.)

Our analyses revealed that much more focus is placed within the analyzed regulations and guidelines on the physical infrastructure of bridge design. This includes elements of the bridge such as physical console design and general bridge layout, external vision requirements, general equipment layout and space requirements, and somewhat generalized guidance on interface hardware (in particularly primary and secondary output and input devices — screens, levers, buttons, etc.).

Little emphasis or support is placed on application and integration components within the design regulations and guidelines. Although, there are areas where more detailed design support is provided: for example, standardization of maritime icons, alarm indicators and standardization of specific equipment (e.g. ECTIS design and functioning). However, in general software design guidelines for maritime applications and equipment provide little, if any, detailed guidance. This could be partly why there is such an array of interface designs and design philosophies typically found across bridge equipment today.

Moving Towards Design Consistency

The focus of design guidelines on physical components should not be surprising. The history of utilizing analogue and hardware components in control systems is much longer than the relatively recent rise and continuously advancing software solutions and digitization. It is also important to note that these regulations and guidelines include valuable information and necessary elements for improving the physical work environment that will continue to have relevance.

However, digital interface design guidance was far less prevalent within the analyzed documentation. As systems move increasingly towards digitization, digital interfaces and cognitively demanding tasks, Human-Machine Interactions, User Experience (UX) and interface interactions become increasingly important.

Although our analysis revealed this deficiency and underdevelopment in bridge design guidelines, it also presents an opportunity. The major global tech companies who influence the web industry provide systematic design guidelines and frameworks in an effort to standardize design, including, Apple’s iOS and Mac OS, Google’s Material Design, Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform. These frameworks are delivered by platform owners with the goal of making their platform desirable for both users and developers.

We argue that similar principles can and should be applied for bridge equipment and systems in order to create a framework for increased design consistency. Furthermore, this framework can create more cost-effective development of user interfaces both for initial development and throughout the lifecycle of a ship. OpenBridge is using this philosophy in developing design guidelines and striving to improve bridge systems through more consistent, user-friendly design frameworks.

OpenBridge technical report on ships’ bridge design regulations:

Mallam, S. C. & Nordby, K. (2018). Assessment of Current Maritime Bridge Design Regulations and Guidance. Report Prepared for the OpenBridge Project: The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.