Why digital user interfaces matter for ship owners

Why digital user interfaces matter for ship owners

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. These digital services are designed and delivered by different companies with usually with no coordination of user interface design. Maritime workplaces are in many cases effectively multi-vendor systems where many systems are assembled in a workplace to be operated by multiple users. Thus, applying modern standards for user interface design cannot solve the problem since inconsistent design cannot be solved by improving individual systems. Current regulation gives only a bare minimum of guidance that may enable consistent design. There have been efforts to add requirements for design consistency through regulations, however these have not been able to solve the problems of inconsistent design. In effect there has been no realistic pathway towards coordinating design across a whole workplace, let alone a whole ship or a fleet.

Our studies have shown that maritime user interfaces are often intentionally designed to differ from other applications for marketing purposes and individual brand recognition. Thus, the need to differentiate products has led to significant differences in even common components, such as buttons and navigation menus.

Such an approach is less frequent in other domains where freely available design guidelines and design systems are in wide use and most applications share common design traits. By using commonly established design patterns, users already know how to perform basic interaction when they engage with a new product. If you learn how to use one interface, you gain generic knowledge that will make it much easier to use another interface built on the same principles. You also lower the risk of errors related to misunderstandings in how an interface function.  This lowers the learning and use threshold of new systems, requiring less mental effort from its users, as well as less time training and familiarizing user require to understand individual systems and their individual differences.

Consistent design is in most mainstream or consumer user interfaces an excellent convenience for the end user. In the maritime sector, however, it is absolutely critical. Here a user often uses multiple applications simultaneously, while operating safety and environmentally critical equipment. In everyday lives a user mostly uses one application at the time and can reorient themselves when they switch an application. A maritime user, however, might need to use several conflicting design philosophies simultaneously.

All in all, maritime systems have been lacking two major elements for achieving user centered digital integration. First it lacks guidance of how to design best practice user interfaces adapted to maritime context and second it lacks frameworks allowing for consistent design of user interfaces across any manufacturer.

Applying open innovation to solve a cross industry challenge

OpenBridge is an initiative seeking to increase user centered digitalization for all maritime workplaces at sea and land. It was initiated in 2016 and has 27 members from maritime industry, government, and academia. It launched the OpenBridge Design System which was the world’s first open-source maritime user interface design system in March 2020 and today over 700 companies from over 50 countries ha registered to access the resource. A design system is a framework meant to reduce cost and increase design consistency by combining a design guideline with digital tools for design and development. The OpenBridge Design System is a radical departure from current practice and enables user centered digital integration across maritime systems.

OpenBridge products have already started to appear in the market.

The OpenBridge Design System is built on current state of the art principles of digital user interface design from web and mobile industries adapted to the maritime domain. OpenBridge focuses on standardizing generic design of applications. This includes a standard application structure, styling, icons, and information visualization. On a higher level it standardizes global functions such as, multiscreen control, alert and dimming handling and in some cases provides standard reference designs for mandatory equipment such as ECDIS and RADAR.  

The OpenBridge design system can be found online on www.openbridge.no. In addition to the online guideline, it includes digital tools directly supporting design and development of OpenBridge compatible user interfaces. This greatly reduces cost of using OpenBridge and increases design and development speed, while providing guidance for quality digital user interface design through its premade components. There are already several software packages on the market supporting development of OpenBridge interfaces. By using these tools, new software will inherently be compatible with other OpenBridge software and will follow the maritime rules for palettes, readability, icons and clickable surfaces.

OpenBridge include definition of generic application design, color palettes, an extensive library of GUI components, a large library of maritime information visualizations, support for automation systems and multiscreen control. Currently planned future updates will include augmented reality support and support for remote operations.

OpenBridge will in most cases help companies realize better user interfaces by offering components that represent industry best practice standards and by reducing the work needed to create basic components, design patterns and palettes.

OpenBridge user interface components

Practical implications: OpenBridge integration VS status quo

OpenBridge has a broad impact on current practice in the maritime industry. Most importantly it supplements current trends by adding systems to ensure human centered digitalization processes across industry. The ability to ensure proper user interface integration across maritime workplaces on a ship, across multiple ships and across sea and on land can impact cost and safety in multiple ways.

Research shows that there is a direct correlation between poor UI design and poor operator performance. Even the most cutting-edge system cannot be expected to work up to its specifications if its UI is not well designed. The good news is that it is easy to fix, and that it will be cheaper than doing nothing. With OpenBridge compatible systems, the gap between the theoretical benefit of a new system VS how it actually works, will be significantly reduced, because of improved usability in general and especially because of inter industry design consistency.

Maritime interfaces have a need to counter for temporal impairments due to the shifting conditions at sea. In general, impairments are countered in HCI by applying design guidelines for accessibility. Maritime regulation does not account for this in current rules and in effect there are stricter rules for accessibility when making consumer interfaces than for maritime equipment. For example, in consumer interface development strict and specific rules apply for contrast and readability. For maritime interfaces very broad international standards apply, providing goal-based guidance but little details for designers to easily interpret or implement in practice. For instance, in IEC 62288 contrast demands are define as «sufficient contrast”, with no details or guidance on how to achieve this stated goal.

OpenBridge counters this by appropriating web and mobile standards such as WCAG 2.0 and design patterns found in the leading, land-based design systems. These have been adapted to maritime specific requirements such as day night and dusk and need for optional physical interface redundancy. By applying these guidelines user interfaces will help mitigate the effects of temporal impairments and in general improve usability of the interfaces. This will help reduce accidents and increase efficiency.

Lower innovation costs and improved quality control

Modern user interfaces are much more detailed and advanced than previous generation systems. Because of this, there are considerable resources needed to make a modern system and for many companies it might be inherently expensive to develop and maintain such a system inhouse. OpenBridge alone have defined 760 components with behavior, not counting variations and color files.

There are also special competence needed to develop a state-of-the-art design system. This involves different user centered design traditions such as interaction, graphic and industrial design, as well as human factors specialists and front-end engineers. In addition to this it is important to involve a wide range of users in the development as well as regulatory bodies. Very few maritime companies have the available resources to carry out such processes alone at a comprehensive level as part of their software development.

OpenBridge has met these challenges by applying open innovation processes in order to support digital use interface development processes. First the development has been led by experiences designers and research from Ocean industries concept lab, a leading design research group in Norway. This team has been supported by engineering competence from Sintef Ocean and human factors competence from the university of South-east Norway. This group has been supported by an extensive network of industry and government partners that each has contributed on parts of the whole system. Furthermore, since OpenBridge is an open system a very large group of industry actors have had direct access and ability to contribute to its development. This has given OpenBridge a quality control throughout it’s continued development that in uncommon in maritime industry. OpenBridge is not bound by regulatory ratification or a frozen guideline that is static and cannot further developed in a top down approach, but rather driven by industry needs and thus much more dynamic and flexible in comparison to other approaches. It is likely as it continues to be developed that its quality will improve as more people get engaged in the development. Because of this process it is likely that OpenBridge at least has equal or better rigor that existing maritime applications. And since it is decoupled from any specific product, it will continue to incrementally improve quality forward.

As digital integration is mainstreamed in the maritime industry, more and more companies are seeing that using a standard baseline interface guideline is opening their ability to focus on the core functional offering of their product instead. In terms of cost, this removes the need for the software developer to invest resources in developing in-house design systems.

Using an existing system will save significant cost and most likely increase quality of the resulting user interface, especially for companies without a full design department. However, there are tradeoffs. For instance, using an open system requires the company to emphasize their sales on product functionality instead of using user interface styling as a sales channel. For an operator , however, there are few downsides as any company that follow the standard will automatically offer design consistency with other companies using the same standard.

Ease of learning and skill transfers

Efficient training and familiarization are affected by lack of user interface standards in the maritime domain. The differences in how generic user interfaces are built in the maritime domain essentially means that users need to learn different user interface philosophies for each equipment and combination of equipment that make up a single workplace (e.g. bridge) that they encounter. By applying a common standard of user interface design, this challenge is largely mitigated. The extreme realization of this is seen in the aviation industry, where pilots are trained on particular models of aircraft, and because of the design consistency across a particular Airbus or Boeing is identical, can move between aircraft types. Moreover, if a user has encountered and learned how to use one OpenBridge interface, the knowledge of how to operate basic functionality can be transferred from one system to another. Buttons, alert handling, iconography, styles and many standard interaction patterns will be exactly the same, and this will allow the operator to focus on the systems core functions instead of learning a new interface philosophy.

Requirements specification

In modern software development and question, it is necessary to define usability requirements in the acquisition process to secure that the systems meet modern standards of user interface development. However, defining requirements that can be met within budget can be a challenge in the maritime industry. Particularly because many system manufacturers do not have specialized human centered design personnel or processes inhouse. Some of these challenges can be reduced by using OpenBridge in the acquisition or design process. Since OpenBridge builds on state-of-the-art standards, a software following the guideline will follow the same standards to. That is not to say that all software that use OpenBridge is well designed. However, they will at least meet a baseline of modern requirements so that the usability requirements can focus more on operational performance than contrast and readability.  

At the level of ship design, when the ship owner is developing the list of specifications for a new ship together with the ship designer, the ship owner can ask for OpenBridge compatible systems. It is then up to the ship designer to find the appropriate systems. This simplifies the establishment of the specifications and saves time for both ship owner and ship developer.

Reduced cost of software development

Ship owners are increasingly developing their own software relate to their operations that are used in land and on ships. Modern user interfaces have in general a higher standard than previous generations and require much more resources in development. It is common to underestimate the cost in developing the user interfaces of modern applications.

OpenBridge reduces cost in several main ways. First it reduces cost in developing user interface components and style sets. The system includes a vast library of all the components necessary for producing most ships interfaces. Further, it reduces cost in implementation since the components are developed according to web standards that are well known and structured for export to developers. Further, the components are already integrated in third party development tools, making it possible to develop production ready interfaces using on the shelf software. The entire guideline is integrated in design tools, making it possible to sketch new interfaces using industry leading design tools with no upfront cost. Finally, the system include common design patterns and references designs for central applications, thus reducing the need to develop these parts from scratch. All in all, OpenBridge can significantly reduce investment in new interface development.

Freedom of choice

OpenBridge is still in an early stage where benefits mostly can be traced to more efficient design and improved usability of individual systems. However, as the number of OpenBridge systems increase in the maritime sector the value of endorsing open innovation will increase significantly when acquiring or retrofitting ships. Since competing companies might deliver systems with a common baseline user interface it will be possible to change or mix different systems while still maintaining interface consistency and in extension safety.

All in all, there is a tremendous value in applying an open standard to ships today to secure user centred digitalisation.  In effect there are very few downsides to such an approach and the entire premise rests on whether the open standard can deliver state of the art user experiences. If it does, it will make it possible to achieve lower cost and higher quality even in standalone digital products. However, if it is adapted across systems, the benefits will increase significantly as one can take advantage of compatibility gains and reduced complexity in the entire value chain of digital products.  

Future scenarios

As digital innovation is accelerating in maritime industry, the only certainty is that workplace will change. Introduction of semi-autonomous system, distributed bridges, land support and land control, create the need for scalable and versatile workplace design. OpenBridge support this in that it is built as a component system supporting any workplace form factor for the start.

One of the advantages with having a separate user interface system, is that new technologies can be integrated together with the existing system. Ongoing work already seeks to integrate support for new technologies into OpenBridge. Technologies such as voice interaction can be useful at sea, but to work well they need to be integrated consistently across systems. Thus, there is a need to define how to use voice in an open standard.

Voice is only one of many possibilities. Definition of haptics in levers, audio for alert systems, multiscreen control and new collaboration mechanisms, can all benefit from integration in an open standard. One example of such technology is augmented reality. Augmented reality allows us to project graphics directly over the world. It is already much used in video overlays on screens, but can also be integrated into headsets, such as the Hololens. Multiple sensors and systems can make use of this teaching, but there are, as of today, no standards for how to integrate AR in maritime settings. Because of this there is high cost in establishing an AR framework, and if it is created, it is high probability that the system will be poorly integrated in existing workplaces. By integrating a technology into OpenBridge we can ensure that maritime AR will be compatible with all other systems that apply OpenBridge.

OpenBridge has already started this work and new standards for AR integration into OpenBridge is already underway through a new research project driven by industry partners. Similar projects have already been established on remote operations.

AR concept test from the OpenAR project

These developments, that moves beyond the state of the art, shows the benefits of having an open resource to work from. In all new expansions of OpenBridge we can move from a position of having existing and freely available resources that can accelerate new development. Further, new developments have an industrial context they can be embedded in making their adoption more likely.

The transition to low emission shipping is a potential benefactor of this. As of now there are few standards for how user interfaces should help users use the equipment more efficiently. OpenBridge make it possible to develop such standards and integrate it directly into the design system. Such development will make the new tools compatible with the entire design systems, and make it immediately accessible for all OpenBridge developers. As such, open innovation can help standardize and accelerate development of new tools that can benefit the industry overall.

How to apply OpenBridge in your organization

OpenBridge is a long-term project that aims to gradually affect all maritime workplaces. It is currently in a good position to achieve this as the only open-source design system in shipping. As a ship owner there is a few simple steps you should consider as a ship owner that might help moving towards better and more consistent software in your fleet.

First, we would recommend doing an internal survey to understand the current status of the user interfaces in your fleet. Are your systems consistent within or across workplaces and ships. If they are consistent, does it mean that you are locked to one vendor? If they are not, is this a problem for the operators?

Second, there is an increasing number of OpenBridge systems in the market already and many more in on its way. As a ship owner you can start to refer to OpenBridge or ask for OpenBridge implementations when acquiring ships and systems. This will affect the speed of transition to an open system in the industry.

Third, ship owners that are involved in or make own software can consider using parts of or all OpenBridge in internal development projects or when acquiring custom software.

Fourth, support the open community by commenting an critiquing in the guideline or by offering additional content so we can extend the guideline faster.

Fifth, if you are starting research projects that affect workplaces. Consider whether the research can contribute or will benefit of connection to OpenBridge and the associated research network.

Conclusion: the added value of OpenBridge

Our analyses show how open innovation and OpenBridge can bring value to the ship owner. This transition are already underway and hundreds of maritime companies are already accessing OpenBridge. The entire chain of maritime industry can benefit from this standard. However, the largest effect will be for Ship owners who will see improvements to cost and efficiency across the entire lifecycle of the digital system.

The multiplication of individual benefits and savings per user interfaces will become significant at the level of a whole ship, with the integration of numerous UIs. When integration spans across several ships or a whole fleet, the benefits keep on adding up. Because each ship in a fleet will require the need for more management and data analysis from land-based operators, the benefits also add up on the land-base side of ship operations.

For the ship owner, we argue there is little risk in moving towards OpenBridge in their digital strategy. As demonstrated in this article, even a partial implementation of OpenBridge is still better than the status quo. On the other hand, if the industry at large embrace open innovation of user interfaces we help free up resources now tied down into generic user interface development so we can focus on next generation systems instead.

OpenBridge is absolutely free and can be accessed at www.openbridge.no. We encourage you to have a look and please reach out to us of you have questions.

This is a longer version of a text published in the Hansa International Maritime Journal and is published with their approval.