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If the software is hard to use then you are going to need training

There is a lot of talk about ECDIS training at the moment. In the next few years ECDIS will become mandatory for quite a wide range of commercial vessels. Clearly having this kit on board is of little use if nobody knows how to use it and so the requirement for training is becoming prominent. mca_certificate_240x159

The argument assumes that the ECDIS cannot be used adequately without appropriate training. This is probably not a bad assumption because the usability of commercial ECDIS software tends to range from difficult to verging on impossible. This may surprise you. Expensive software doing an important job on what may be a large and very expensive vessel. Surely it should be designed to be easy and straight forward to use? Oddly enough this is often not the case. There are several reasons for this:

· The standards, specifically ISO61174, does not lend itself to useable software. This is the performance specification for ECDIS. It is over ten years old and is very detailed. Naturally it is based on ideas and technologies that were prevalent ten years ago. Ten years is a very long time in the computer world – we are talking pre-Windows 2000. What is more at the time the standard was written there was not much around in terms of marine navigation systems and chart data. So rather than drawing on best practices and experience the standard needed to present a vision of how the committee thought that navigation software was supposed to be. Now I don’t actually know how the committee was chosen but I would guess that there were very few computer usability experts amongst the members. Even if there were then they were faced with an impossible job no matter how good their crystal ball was.

· So designing ECDIS compliant software that is also usable is difficult in the first place but it gets worse. Given a realistic situation of limited budgets and resources the focus of the development effort tends towards compliancy issues. Usability is a secondary issue since unless the ECDIS can be certified as compliant with the standards it cannot be sold as an ECDIS.

· Actually getting the software certified is a time consuming and expensive business. I am talking many months and thousands of dollars here. It is not trivial. Once the software is certified then it cannot really be changed without being re-certified. This situation does not lend itself to the sort of on-going development necessary to make genuinely user friendly software. In fact it does not lend itself to any sort of development at all. One of the more popular ECDIS systems around at the moment is actually based on Windows NT4. Remember that? Yes, an improvement over NT3.51 but still a tad short of sparkling when it comes to usability considerations.

· Ship owners are a tight fisted bunch. They typically they will not spend a penny more than necessary on equipment so as long as it meets the regulations. At which point it is usually the cheapest system will do. I am not saying this is wrong, running a ship is a fantastically expensive business, but it does tend to make for comparisons based on simple cost rather than other factors. A particular company’s software may be easier to use but if it is more expensive than its rivals then it will be hard to sell.

Hopefully you are getting the picture now. In an attempt to make ECDIS ‘correct’ and sufficiently similar between all implementations the international regulatory bodies have completely shot themselves in the foot. They have created an environment where the bulk of the development effort and costs are aimed purely at achieving ECDIS compliance and all other considerations fall by the wayside.

S-100 is the chart data standard intended to replace S-57 at some point in the future. The groups working on this have recognized that a typical ECDIS can be a bit tricky to use. They have also noted that each ECDIS tends to be tricky in a different way so they have come up with a solution called ‘S Mode’. The basic idea is that every ECDIS has a button which will set it into S Mode. In this mode the controls, menu options, settings and so on will be exactly the same irrespective of which company made the ECDIS. This is such a beautifully naïve notion. It says ‘we’re a bit scared of this software so let’s make it all the same’. Of course any company developing ECDIS will implement S Mode and probably stop there. Where is the incentive and budget to do anything more? Where is the competitive edge? It all boils down to cost, how else do you differentiate systems that all look and feel the same? And so we arrive at a dead end which ensures training will always be required.

motorola-dynatac-8000xThere is only one way to make software more usable and that it to allow software developers to experiment. They have to try out ideas and find out what works. It is very difficult. In fact it is amazingly difficult but we are making progress. There is still ample scope for improvement but at the same time I feel no need at all for a training course in how to use my iPhone. I doubt that many of the millions of iPhone users do. By comparison my last car, which was a few years old, had an early mobile phone in it (this is back in the days when ‘mobile’ actually meant ‘semi-portable’) and no, I could not actually make the first phone call without consulting the manual. That phone and the ECDIS performance standards come from the same era.

Nuno does not come with any training courses. This is not a declaration of irresponsibility but because we don’t think it needs one. It is not technically an ECDIS but it will do pretty much anything that an ECDIS can do and in most cases it will do it a lot better.

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