Seattle Studio UX Designer Jason Gorfine recently returned from a trip to the Gulf of Mexico, where he was spending some time on an offshore drilling services rig. (As you do.) It was all part of the UX discovery process, so our teams can help design digital tools that make working on the rig easier – maybe even safer.

Here’s one for ya: Why’d a UX designer spend a week on an offshore drilling rig? The answer: Well, that might need more than a quippy retort.

Here’s the high level: A company committed to advancing the art and science of offshore drilling had a maintenance system that was aging fast. In fact, the original manufacturer was no longer supporting it. So, this company invited us to help define an upgrade strategy and establish a roadmap to get them through the project and beyond.

Knowing that this company has users on both land and sea who depend on this system, we took the opportunity to explore how a redesign of the end-to-end system could benefit. So, while business processes and data architecture teams were sorting through the weeds behind the scenes, we put senior UX designer, Jason Gorfine on the ground to do some research on how these programs were used out in the field. He spent a week observing, interviewing, and discovering where the pain points were and learning how a new system could benefit the company in both safety and revenue.

Because it’s easier for people in an office setting to accommodate processes, Jason started by focusing on the needs of people on the drill. He spent time learning the overall workflow, asking: Who does what around here? What’s challenging about the current system? What environmental factors affect your work? 

The answers to those questions were illuminating.

When an original system is just built, not designed...

A drilling rig has people performing all kinds of roles, across a chain of competencies and skill sets. They all report up to one guy, the chief engineer, who spends most of his time in the office. The people that work for him, though, don’t. They’re all over the ship taking notes, performing tasks, yet they too are set up with desks and dual monitors, that they have to come back to for data entry into the system. What made this even more cumbersome is the inventory and maintenance systems was so poorly designed that one system had to be open while they’re working in the other, so they can copy and paste between them.

Catch that? More hardware was needed because the software wasn’t designed for the job. In fact, in a lot of cases, the programs were not only adding steps, but also making the work harder.

Why fix the UX if the process behind it doesn't work?

Anything that streamlines activity, allows someone to review or analyze an issue as if they were there, and provide direction back without compromising anyone’s safety is a better solution. It’s a situation that pretty much scream out for a mobile solution built to guide someone easily through long, detailed inspections, and efficiently complete a better report from anywhere on the ship. With mobile and wearables, this idea of efficiency and safety is supported.

A better program would let users complete their work and collect better data overall, without triggering unnecessary alarms, and do it in a way that can be visualized later or overlaid with other data for analysis.

Taking mobile one step further for our friends in the middle of the ocean, Jason also considered the people who get clipped into a bunch of harnesses, and then go 150 feet up in the air on a derrick to perform inspections and maintenance. With the current methods, if they see something questionable, they need to call down to a supervisor, who then puts on all of the safety gear and climbs up to the top of the derrick to have a look. With a wearable solution, like Glass, the inspector could take a picture and send it down so the supervisor can make an assessment from his desk.

What’s more: Because these inefficiencies take place in an inherently dangerous environment, each one is more than a financial risk, it’s also a safety risk. And a program designed right can go a long way in mitigating them.

Smaller, better, faster, less – and stay out of the way

The ideal thing, in his mind, is not getting in the way. Having really good business processes that you know cover the areas of the system that don’t apply to you directly, or that run in the background, and catering the tools to the environment.

“I hate toys, unless I’m playing. A toy is for playing, a tool is for getting something done, and everyone loves a good tool who has to use tools. Technology is a tool. A hammer is a tool. I guess I want to build them a better hammer.”

That, in his words, is “the right way to use technology.” And that can lead to better, faster systems that help people do their work and keep them safe in the process.

And that’s a good user experience.