17 Aug 2017
Peter Rowand
Marketing and Business Development

From a philosophical product management perspective, we follow the teachings of an organization called Pragmatic Marketing.  They are the gurus of product management, and one of their best teachings is an acronym called “NIHITO” (Ni hee toe), which stands for “Nothing Interesting Happens In The Office”.  What they really mean is in order to design a great product, you have to get out of the office and meet the people that you’re building for, so that you can truly understand how, when, and where your product will be used.

For the past 17 years, we’ve been going out into the market and meeting people in the workboat industry. We’ve spent countless hours interviewing people over the phone and on site. We’ve met with captains, mates, deckhands, tankermen, owners, operations managers, port engineers, port captains, dispatchers, auditors, safety managers, purchasing agents, accountants, billing clerks…. The list goes on.

I’ve personally been on boats and in offices in Copenhagen, London, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Gothenburg, Sydney, New Castle, New York, New Orleans, Mobile, Portland, Savannah, Charleston, Seattle, Vancouver, Paducah, St Louis, and points in between. Our product team has spent so much time in New Orleans that it’s like our second home. We don’t need GPS anymore to get around, and we can tell you where the best restaurants are. We’ve logged and documented hundreds of hours with folks from the workboat industry, getting to know the people we’re building software for, and it really pays off.

Our product team is driven first and foremost by the desire to create a product that’s “simple and a joy to use”. As part of that mantra, we start with what the software world calls “User Personas”. If you toured our office, you’d find “Persona Posters” everywhere. We use them to help new hires get to know the people that we’re building for. There are posters for “Peter the Port Engineer”, “Dave the Dispatcher”, “Lee the Line-Haul Captain”, or “Monty the Mate”. Each poster is meant to reveal what a typical day in the life is like for these people. The posters show a photo of the person in their environment, along with their work experience, computer experience, job description, daily challenges, etc. It really helps our new hires relate to the people we’ve been fortunate to meet and understand what they ultimately need from us to solve their problems.

A great example of how these personas get turned into software is our “Maintenance Overview” which is designed for Port Engineers. Typically, a company with a large fleet will have several Port Engineers, each in charge of a subset of boats. When Peter arrives at work in the morning, he wants to check on the status of his boats.  (He will have received email alerts of any critical items that he needs to be aware of before he reaches his desk).  So he starts his day by logging into Helm CONNECT and going to the Maintenance Overview. This is the area of the software that is designed specifically for him to live in so that he doesn’t have to jump all over the system to do his job. He’s presented with a simple overview that shows him, graphically, everything that he needs to know about his boats. And if he needs to drill into the details of a particular boat, he can click on one of the icons or click directly on the vessel to see a list of everything that’s happening.

maintenance overview

(In this screen shot, the port engineer has opened the maintenance overview for his boats.  He can see that the “Helm Commitment” has 1 “unplanned task” that he needs to deal with.  He can also see that there is one overdue task (in red) which he will need to ask the crew about. In addition there was an engine reading warning (in orange) , which has fallen outside of the specified tolerance that he set).


maintenance overview - “out of spec” icon

(In this screen shot, the port engineer has clicked on the “out of spec” icon in order to further investigate the out of tolerance engine room reading.  He sees a mini graph that tells him the exhaust gas temperature on the port main engine has been consistent for quite some time, but has started to rise rapidly in the last few readings..  This early warning allows him to take preventative action).

But it doesn’t stop there. Designing for the people that we’ve spent countless hours with is just the first step. We then need to test the design to make sure that the flow is intuitive and meets with user expectations. To do this, we set up beta trials and record user interactions so that we can see when users get “stuck” and can’t easily figure out what to do next. We have an internal rule that we call “the 12 second rule”.  If we are observing a user interaction and we see them getting stuck for more than 12 seconds, then we dig in to come up with a re-design that flows smoothly.

The maritime industry is a fascinating industry to build software for, filled with exciting travel, interesting people, and challenging environments.