Redbean - It is always interesting to go into other environments and use the technology that people in those environments use every day. At first the concepts and processes are often alien until you observe how the ‘natives’ use the available tools. Even before this you may not understand either the use or the need for the tool until you are confronted with a real world example that forces you to look for a solution. Once again watching the natives solve a problem and noting their tool selection can help guide you.
Last week I was immersed (literally) in just such an environment. I went sailing. Now I have sailed smaller boats all my life and also a few larger but low tech boats as well. And for many people even a simple boat using commonplace technology developed hundreds or thousands of years ago can be a very alien environment. Especially when the wind starts blowing.
I however was immersed in a fairly new Beneteau 361 in the Whitsunday Islands on the Great Barrier Reef. Being a yacht worth around US$120,000 this was a fairly sophisticated piece of equipment. Sailing boats are designed to provide a self-sufficient and safe existence anywhere on the 70 percent of the planet covered in water. They do this through complex systems of sails for locomotion, engines for power and through increasingly more digital equipment for navigation and communication. And that, despite my years of digital familiarity, is where my ‘experience’ went sour.
The navigation instruments that should be making life easier for a sailor are so difficult to use that most people (who I have talked to) just give up on them or, like Microsoft Word, use only a small portion of the functionality. The interface design is so bad in many of these expensive instruments that it is safer not to use them rather than battle with the arcane algorithms required. We are also seeing this in car nav systems. By the time you work out where you are, you have either run over several pedestrians or hit the reef. The focus seems to be on gaudy bright colours and flashing symbols which provide an interface that is reminiscent of computers twenty years ago. Other similarities to those dark days include a lack of standards, really bad interaction design and proprietary software. It’s like 1990 all over again.
The marine communications industry has many harsh environmental hurdles to overcome including water, salt, limited DC power and distance. Considering this the functionality of their equipment is quite reliable. Yet the first company (and this industry includes some very large companies) who can provide an intuitive and functional navigation system will be on a winner. They badly need the iPhone of navigation. In fact now that the iPhone has GPS built in I might just use that.
Of course the best part is turning all the crap off and just going sailing. It always amazes me just how exciting it is to drive five tonnes of boat through the water at a meagre 10 knots with wind power alone. This is the bit that puts a smile on your dial.