Update Nov 2001

If you are uncomfortable using a software tool, can it be part of an efficient process?

Intuitive access to a seamless information and reporting system is essential whether you are approving spares purchase quantities or planning a voyage.

A good decision and a quality process are dependent on easily accessed relevant information, appropriate reporting and well designed co-ordination.

All processes in the maritime business are intertwined with quality management prerequisites whether these are maintenance processes, purchasing, personnel management, operations or any other. Quality prerequisites such as following established procedures, verifying that these have been followed, and taking measures to prevent known risks are prerequisites of any well executed process. Furthermore co-ordination, communication and knowledge management are equally intertwined with decisions, procedures and the assurance of quality.

Information technology can truly increase efficiency if it provides a one-stop access to the right information and tools at the time of need for all the user’s tasks, without preoccupying the user with its workings.

Essentially information technology must address:

  • How to collect and process information from people and instruments
  • How to present this information so that better decisions can be achieved
  • How to help people overcome natural human shortcomings, and improve performance.

Wherever information technology interacts with people it must be designed to be compatible with the way people naturally think and work.
If the way we collect information undermines the efficiency of the data-entering user we have caused a problem to solve a problem.
If interpreting or finding decision support information preoccupies the user then we have added an obstacle while trying to assist the decision.
If we use computers for reminders and referencing to enhance our performance, we must not simultaneously introduce a memory access process that preoccupies the user.
One may ask why can't we rely on people getting used to the workings of each software system used in our company so that its operation is subconscious.

This is, no doubt, the right solution.

However software that is readily manipulated subconsciously by users is not widespread especially if it provides broad functionality.

To illustrate this, observe how rarely busy multi-tasking users access company software applications.

  • How often do senior managers and other multi- tasking users use powerful software systems?
  • How often does a senior manager use a maintenance and spares purchasing system to verify why a vessel has an above budget spares expenditure?
  • How often does the same senior manager access this system to verify why a dry-dock specification includes work normally done while vessels are trading?
  • How often does a superintendent check the current maintenance schedule to verify the need for a large spares requisition?
  • How much money do you need to spend to train ships masters to understand the new crew payroll system?

The more processes and features covered within a software package, the greater the challenge to achieving subconscious system operation. Above all it requires the design of a system with strict adherence to cognitive principles. The matter becomes more and more serious when including staff turnover, multi tasking users and a broad array of processes involving software.

So before your company makes a decision to add complexity to people' s work through a new software system, weighing the expected benefits with the additional burden may well be worthwhile.

Here are some initial pointers:

  1. Ask a current customer of the prospective system you are buying how many people in the company use the software. Consider this in relationship to the intended range of users.
  2. Ask the users which features are often used and compare to the total available in the system.
  3. Ask a user of a prospective system how easy it is to get officers on board to use the system. How much training is required?
  4. How close is the quality and quantity of data obtained from on board to that sought by the company?
  5. Ask an actual user how often the system is referenced for reminders and decision support data, compared to referencing e-mails for the same purposes.
  6. If the answers you get remind you that the company you contacted is building an array of poorly connected information silos, ask yourself if this is what you really want.
  7. What is the benefit of such data silos?
  8. Will you really get value from this data if it is so rarely referenced in decision support?
  9. Are the features and reports that you are expecting dependent on higher quality of data entry than normally experienced using this software?
  10. Would it not be more cost effective to invest in information technology that is constantly being accessed to support decisions?
  11. Would the data not be more current if it was entered as a natural by product of people’s daily work?
  12. Finally ask some of your mariners to rate comparable software packages and consider minimising the unnecessary ergonomic obstacles by using the "Task Assistant".
  13. Think of how many times the information you desire to extract form the software is prone to ergonomic obstacles for those in your company involved in feeding the system.
  14. Think of the benefits of minimising these ergonomic obstacles, especially for highly valued ship officers.

The Task Assistant uses a single consistent user interface throughout. This user interface is based on the familiar tasks of each user and the underlying tools references and follow on actions needed to expedite processes and assist in decisions.

Most users can work the system the first time they try. Furthermore an unfamiliar observer, even in the first demonstration, can understand fully what is being shown.

Try that with other software applications.