This study investigates the involvement of the user in the design process on ship bridges and navigational equipment as seen from the designers' perspective. Keywords: user centred design; human centred design; bridge; navigational euipment

This study investigates the involvement of the user in the design process on ship bridges and navigational equipment as seen from the designers' perspective

Keywords:  user centred design;  human centred design; bridge; navigational euipment


This study investigates into the involvement of the user in the design process of ship bridges and navigational equipment as seen from the designers’ perspective. Following a qualitative approach, designers were asked about their work habits and guidelines. Four different images of the navigator were identified, ranging from “servant to the engineering” to “power- and skilful bridge manager”. These types evolved from surprisingly different notions on topics such as basics of ergonomic design, human factors and usability, feedback loops in design, and system knowl- edge of the user. While there was a general interest in usability, interaction design and human factors among designers, there was also evidently a lack of detailed, concrete knowledge. This leads to the conclusion that there are still a number of difficulties with respect to organizational structures and internal as well as external collaboration that hamper integration design. Some possible solutions to these problems are discussed.

Keywords: design study; ship bridge design; user participation; human factors; design practice.


The bridge of a modern ship is a highly complex system. This is not only true with respect to the nautical technology, but also with respect to the multitude of interac- tions between humans and technical systems that are required for safe navigation. We therefore can speak of a socio-technical system, a tightly knit network of modern technology and a host of human factors as well as prerequisites of interplay between these aspects.

Obviously, this interaction between humans and different soft- and hardware components offers numerous possibilities for difficulties. As in other complex and safety-related industries, it is practically impossible for the developers of technical ship bridge components to foresee all conceivable risks and hazards and minimize their likelihood through appropriate design features. But even if this were possible, nautical officers would still be “naturally vulnerable to designers designing in a way that impedes operators’ reasonable intentions” (Busby and Hibberd, 2002 pp. 132-8).

It is therefore important that the process of developing technical devices and systems that are supposed to assist humans in such complex tasks be conducted in close exchange with the end-users of these developments (see Herczeg, 2005; Trans- portation Research Board, 2003; Scolari, 2001). When, some 25 years back, Gould and Lewis (1983, 1985) formulated their now often-cited principles for interface design, they put “early focus on users” at the top of their list. In everyday life, howev- er, user involvement still often lies somewhere between “rare” and “absent” (see King, 1995) and “developers are therefore forced to‚ design in the dark' ”, as Nandhakumar and Jones (1997) describe the problem.

Given the risks involved, ship bridges should be organized and designed in way that offers maximum safety and efficiency – not only under normal circumstances but also under conditions of rough seas, in emergencies, and during operation by stressed, fatigued, or overloaded mariners. If these aspects are ignored, work on a ship bridge would fall prey to the same observation Busby and Hibberd (2002, pp. 132-8) formulated as a result of their study on the misunderstandings between designers and users: “An important causal factor in many failures of complex engi- neered systems and the subsequent accident sequences is a mismatch between the intentions of the system designers and operators”. To counter this mismatch it is critical that the design of complex systems is not only driven by the latest advances in technology. The user and his necessities under different working conditions require the same amount of attention as do the general principles of human infor- mation processing and action regulation. These are often subsumed under the label “human factors”, meaning those special principles that determine human behaviour in dealing with complex sociotechnical systems (see, e.g., Cherns, 1976; Dörner, 1989, 1999; Hawkins, 1987; Reason, 1990; Vicente, 2004).

The integration of this claim into the design process has gained different levels of momentum in different industries. The merchant marine is most probably not

among those leading the pack. Even the most modern ship bridges cannot deny their evolutionary past as they are still quite reminiscent of 19th century technology. Improvements in safety and efficiency are still mostly sought through purely techno- logical solutions without proper recognition of the systemic character of the task of sailing a ship (Lützhöft, 2004; Lützhöft & Dekker, 2002). To avoid the problems other industries have encountered following this “technology philosophy” (see Dekker, 2005, for the example of civil aviation), new developments in ship bridge design require the integration of the views of the users (the nautical officers), the ship builders, the bridge designers, the hard- and software engineers, and human factor specialists.

This article reports some of the results of an interview study that was conducted as part of just such a collaborative project in ship bridge design. We made inquiries into the user models that are entertained by designers of ship bridge systems and we asked them about the ways in which the user perspective is integrated into the engi- neering process as well as the human factors knowledge they can use in the design process. From this material we could isolate some tendencies which in our opinion are not restricted to design for the merchant marine. They might also be valid for other industries that are not especially “high risk” but are still characterized by com- plex man-machine-interactions. This article, then, is also an attempt to intensify the debate on how communication between different stake holders in such developmen- tal processes can be improved (see Dekker & Nyce, 2004).