We structured this paper according to two key themes. First, we evaluate two handheld devices; then, we consider the work practices and operator interactions in oil and gas workplaces. In the following sections, we report on these themes and discuss our findings.
Evaluation of two handheld devices
Motorola’s MTP850 Ex TETRA terminal (as used at Nyhamna)
Handheld radios are used at Nyhamna for permanent communications with the central control room (Fig. 2). In the following, we briefly report on some of the findings from our interview analysis. We focus on four issues: technological complexity, user expectations, workplace design and introductory processes.
Many electronic devices include features that are not necessary in a plant environment. In some cases, such features can actually be detrimental. The digital TETRA radio from Motorola, for example, includes advanced functions such as a ‘man down’ alarm that the managers at Ormen Lange do not need. Advertisements for the product promoted this function as a way to increase operational safety; however, it has disadvantages. The function can be activated even when the radio is stationary—for example, if it is placed on a table for a while—thus causing unnecessary alarms.
Other features, including the integrated text tool, are difficult to understand because the device does not have a keyboard for text entry. Users have to rely on predefined messages from a menu. During our interviews, participants repeatedly stated that such a tool is not needed.
Blauhut (2016) discussed experiences and motoric habits in terms of tactile perceptions of mobile devices, underscoring that spatial memory provides humans with spatial orientation that enables users to find what they expect to be the correct function or button without looking at the device. In the case of the TETRA radio, users initially confused the emergency button, which is located on the top of the radio, with the power button. The users’ expectations were based on their experiences with previous devices, each of which had a similar-looking button (with a different function) in the same place. The workers discussed this problem with Shell and with employment-protection representatives. Based on this information, Shell made a couple of changes. However, any unintentional activation of the emergency button can cost a company time and money.
The physical design of large industrial facilities such as Nyhamna affects the quality and range of radio signals. Radios’ effective ranges depend on a facility’s layout (e.g. the use of open and enclosed spaces), its construction (e.g. the number and thickness of its walls, the materials used and the number of elevator shafts) and its number of base stations. At Nyhamna, coverage is poor in certain enclosed spaces. Because radio communication is critical for plant operation, the loss of radio signals poses a risk to health and safety.
In our usability study, we further revealed critical issues regarding a technology’s introductory and transitional periods. Based on the interviews, we noticed that the operators experienced the TETRA radio differently. Some had no problems, but others continued to rely on their analogue radios instead. However, new technologies and modifications to existing systems are always associated with uncertainty and scepticism among potential users. A clear presentation of the issues that such new technologies address, as well as of their advantages compared to previous technologies, can help generate wider acceptance among those whose work is influenced by these new solutions. In addition, a well-designed transition phase should include sufficient time for testing the new technology. Involving the users of the technology in this process can increase their acceptance of the new instruments. Finally, instructions and training on the use of new technologies can prevent abuse.
The handheld MC 9090ex-K PDA (as used at Nyhamna)
Next, we provide a brief overview of the usability issues related to the handheld MC 9090ex-K PDA. We focus on four problems: ergonomics and overall product design, graphical user interface, the psychological effects on users and workplace design.
Our data analysis of Nyhamna’s logging procedures showed that end users struggled with the handheld device, which was difficult to handle due to its weight, its size and the design and arrangement of its individual elements (e.g. the scan exit window). The product is rugged and compact because it is supposed to be used in harsh environments (see Fig. 2c). In addition, it must comply with the Atmosphères Explosives directives for explosion protection to ensure that it is intrinsically safe for use in explosive environments. However, our study showed that the MC 9090ex-K had a negative impact on operators’ mobility. We identified the operators’ movements and postures in the plant setting via video artefacts and infographics. Against this background, the question arises as to whether future mobile devices targeting the oil and gas industry should be designed using wearable-computing criteria. The main difference between mobile devices such as PDAs and wearable devices is that the latter are worn on the body during use (under, within or on top of the clothing). Wearables thus support hands-free actions, which is particularly helpful in a demanding environment. It is worthwhile for future researchers to use the wearables approach, which focuses on actions taken in the real world with the aid of mobile devices, instead of focusing purely on the operation of mobile devices. In our interviews, the operators also mentioned that certain features of the PDA, such as the keypad, were rarely used. We obtained similar results in our investigation of the TETRA terminal.
Graphical user interface
Display legibility depends on surroundings, lighting conditions and (particularly) screen technology. Nevertheless, a well-designed interface is of great importance in ensuring that a device can be used effectively. Designing text presentations and visual content for small-screen devices poses a special challenge, as the factors listed above can all affect readability. The Nyhamna field study revealed that environmental factors—in particular, direct sunlight and rain—play an important role in the use of the PDAs. Designers and engineers must therefore develop product concepts that address the specific needs of operators who work in demanding environments. Another challenge is the lack of screen space. This leads to a need for dynamic space organization, which is one of the most difficult aspects of design, as the amount of information that must be communicated is usually high.
Psychological effects on users
In the sections on the TETRA terminal, we stressed the importance of introducing each new technology to achieve better user acceptance. This can be illustrated via an example: Some of the operators were concerned about possible side effects of PDA use, in the sense that it could have a controlling effect on the workers. The practical application of the PDA in the plant setting included functionality that allowed for control over inspections and for tours to be precisely monitored after the data had been transmitted. However, the main purpose of this application was not to monitor users but to ensure that facilities and equipment are inspected periodically (in turn ensuring that the plant is operated in a safe manner). The social and psychological aspects of information technologies that record data must be considered when launching new systems. The use of the PDA is a safety matter; thus, it is important to communicate the device’s purpose and benefits to users and to provide them with valuable context.
Our study on the data-logging processes at Nyhamna showed that barcode tags were not always easy to identify. They were mounted on various components and equipment that was arranged in a physically complex environment; construction, assembly and surface structure determined each object.
In summary, although the implementation of a mobile data logger has improved previous inspection procedures (by replacing paper-based checklists), there is still room for improvement in terms of efficiency. The organization followed the Nyhamna field study with an evaluation of the organization’s entire data-logging project. This project improved the logging rounds. Nevertheless, the company abandoned its use of the PDA device, and in 2017, Nyhamna’s operators went back to using checklists.
Work practices and operator interactions in oil and gas workplaces
In the following three sections, we provide insights into work practices and operator interactions in oil and gas workplaces. Our studies of Ormen Lange and Hammerfest LNG revealed three main problems related to (1) paper-based practices, (2) the Hammerfest LNG plant’s orientation guides and (3) mobility.
Paper-based practices Although the observed work domain is technologically advanced in terms of process automation, nondigital objects are still important in current work processes; they often serving as links between the digital world and the real world (cf. Heyer 2009). For example, workers used pocket notepads to write down information (e.g. numbers of work permits, part numbers and notes) that they later entered into a digital system using the desktop computers available in the plant’s offices and workstations. The work permits existed in digital form in the enterprise resource planning system but were printed out to provide operators with paper documents. The documents were physically archived when the work was complete, after all required signatures had been appended to them.
The Hammerfest LNG plant’s orientation guides At Hammerfest, Statoil cooperates with various contractors, particularly in the context of repair and upgrade work. This means that Statoil does not employ many of its own operators and that first-time operators (e.g. vendors or assemblers) frequently work there. The plant’s design is logically and physically complex, involving compressors, valves, high-pressure pipes and explosive materials. Although experienced operators know their work areas, first-time operators are not familiar with the plant and thus depend on local-orientation aids to support their perceptions and activities. The plant’s lack of orientation guides imposes could lead to potential dangerous situations for operators and could cause time-consuming work processes.
Mobility In addition to the strict design requirements for electronic devices used at such plants, the area’s weather conditions, the facility’s complex infrastructure and the equipment’s intricacy all impact the operators’ mobility. As we noticed in our video collages, field operators are supposed to be flexible, both when moving around the plant and when performing tasks. This often forces them into unnatural and uncomfortable body postures. Figure 3 gives an impression of how operators perform their actions.
In addition, operators must pay attention to each of the many pieces of equipment they carry when in the field. They are usually equipped with tools (primarily worn on a tool belt), technical safety devices (such as gas detectors), portable radios, headsets, PTT adaptors, measurement instruments, mobile phones and paper-based equipment (such as blueprints and work permits). Moreover, they must wear protective clothing. At Nyhamna, during its 4–5 years of use, the MC 9090ex-K mobile computer affected some operators, negatively influencing their mobility. Due to the device’s weight and size, it could not be easily worn on the body. Instead, operators had to hold these devices in their hands for a long time. From a technical perspective, we assessed human mobility and evaluated the handheld equipment’s technical aspects that support mobility. From an interaction-design perspective, we considered operator–device interaction, which includes technical, design, and human factors.
Further insights into operations activities
Devices such as PDAs have complex functions that do not fit with the ways in which plant operators perform their actions. When we observed Nyhamna operators on their inspection rounds (in which they recorded process data), they used bicycles to get from location to location. Before the operators could start logging data, another worker asked one of them to sign a work permit. As the PDA was too large to be worn on the body or to be clipped to a belt, the operator placed the device on the rear rack of her bicycle before signing the work permit for her colleague. Then, when the group was about to continue by bike, she almost forgot the device on the rear rack. This scenario shows that current barcode-scanning equipment poses challenges for operators, particularly in terms of safe storage when it is not in use.
The study on PDA’s usability also showed that its scanning procedures became cumbersome if operators, for example, could not see whether they had hit the barcode or not [operator: “If you see here now,… here the scan… the lack of light that we have… you do not see what’s up… if you’ve hit or…”]. Both the display’s legibility and the red laser’s identification ability depended on the visibility and lighting conditions (see Fig. 4a).
The most obvious problems with the PDA were its size (231 mm × 91 mm × 105 mm) and weight (approximately 1 kg). However, the product was designed for use in hazardous environments, which means that it must be rugged, compact and protected from becoming an ignition source. It is thus a challenge to make it smaller and lighter. During work, operators normally held their PDAs in their hands (see Fig. 4b). Strong wind affected the scanning procedures, making it became more difficult for operators to steady the device and scan it.
In addition, although the use of wireless technology has increased over the past decade, paper-based methods for task performance are still common in the energy industry. For example, on a cold and windy day, we observed a plant operator carrying blueprint pages of A3 size (297 × 420 mm, as defined by the ISO 216 standard) with drawings of pipes and valves. His tasks were to measure gases and remove the hydrocarbons from a specific valve that was going to be replaced. He later labelled the inspected valve using a red, laminated sign. Our informant noted that he had to browse through up to 10 blueprints at times in order to find the right valve or pipe for such a task. This scenario shows that there is a need for improvement in the current work practices, especially considering the weather conditions in the area.
Based on our findings, we suggest, first, that mobile devices should provide intuitive, tactile product cues (e.g. the geometric shapes and textures of product components) to ensure that users can quickly access primary product functions.
Second, regarding the question of how successful designers have been at providing devices that support practical use, we argue that the impact of human motion on interactions with screen-based computer devices has not yet been sufficiently explored for hazardous industrial settings. In the case of operator–device interaction, operators’ ability to perform bodily movements was determined by not only the device’s size and weight but also by the workplace’s architectural structure and design, the area’s weather conditions and the plant’s safety regulations. This, in turn, affects the ease with which the devices can be operated. Our findings support Hückler’s statement that, ‘if a product cannot be used because it is incomprehensible or because it interferes with or even prevents its application, then it cannot work technically—it will not even be put into operation; the primacy of use is essential’ (Hückler 2000: 153; our translation). With this in mind, it is worthwhile to examine alternative solutions for today’s PDAs and handheld radios. For example, smartphones equipped with radio-frequency identification could be mounted on the inside of the wrist and used instead of bulky PDAs, or headsets with integrated functions for selecting radio channels and setting the volume could replace traditional handheld radios. In Fig. 5, we show a simple concept based on Motorola’s MTP850 Ex TETRA terminal; third-year undergraduate students at Østfold University College developed this concept. Considering the challenges described above, the students focused on the actual product determination: voice communication. The concept is characterized by its wearability (wearable accessory), tangibility (physical controls) and simple operating structure.