How far should we immerse ourselves?

11 Nov 2013 6min read

Team Discussion

Multiple authors

In 1973 I qualified in Mechanical Engineering Design from The Polytechnic of the South Bank and went into full-time employment with a cable making company, designing and developing cable making machinery. Pretty boring stuff actually! The extent of human interface design was usually a simple control box with large start and stop buttons, an even larger emergency stop button, and perhaps a speed control of some description. When designing a machine, very little attention was paid to what we now call human factors engineering.

After five years I’d had enough and I moved to a UK company which developed and sold products to the global offshore oil and gas industry – everything from non-destructive test equipment to one-man atmospheric submersibles and remotely operated underwater vehicles. In those days it was a really exciting and dynamic industry – pioneering in fact.

So there I was; five years of experience and I thought I could design pretty much anything. When I was asked to design an underwater ultra-violet lamp I thought, “That’s not hard. No problem.” The lamp was one element of a non-destructive testing system which could detect surface-breaking cracks in the steel of offshore structures by employing a technique known as magnetic particle inspection (MPI).

I got on with the task, sourced a UV emitting bulb (the sort which were in those – now very old fashioned – UV lamps that some people used for tanning), a glass ‘black light’ filter because the emitted UV needed to be of a particular wavelength, an underwater electrical connector and a few other bits and pieces. All that remained was to design the waterproof housing. It had to withstand the pressure at a depth of 140 metres with a safety factor of 2:1.

What with the size of the lamp and the thickness of the housing it ended up as quite a heavy and bulky piece of kit. I had it made in our own workshop, pressure tested it and gave it to our staff diver and submersible pilot, Paul, to test.

“What’s this?” he asked. I told him. “Absolutely hopeless!” he exclaimed and threw it over his shoulder. “Have you ever dived?” he asked. I hadn’t. “What you need to understand is that a commercial diver can use, at most, just 10 per cent of his concentration on carrying out the task in hand. Ninety percent of his concentration is focused on staying alive. It’s a very hostile and difficult environment down there, so he needs equipment which is very easy to use and is as light and as small as possible.”

He went on to paint a picture of what it was like to work as a commercial diver and I began to understand.

The Mk 2 UV lamp was designed and made. This time Paul said: “Better, but still a way to go,” and then, “come with me, I’m going to teach you to dive.”

The dive-tank was outside and open to the elements. It was January, there was a light covering of snow on the ground and about an inch of ice on the surface of the water in the tank. He put me in a wetsuit and typical sport diving gear. We broke up the ice and I tried to get into the water down the access ladder. I managed to get in as far as chest height before hyperventilating, so I climbed out, shivering and numb. Paul admitted it had been an unfair but deliberately shocking experience “…to get your attention.” It worked!

Over the next six weeks or so he put me through an intensive diver training course, the theory and practice of which would be familiar to sport divers, and then on to experience (as far as was practically possible) some typical tasks a commercial diver has to undertake by simulating the conditions found offshore at different depths whilst using the equipment a commercial diver uses.

Why am I recounting this story from over 30 years ago? Because it made it clear to me early in my career that we need to put ourselves in the shoes (or diving suit!) of the users of our products to get a clearer understanding of what life is like for them and the context of use. This is difficult when it comes to medical devices. We can’t and shouldn’t test auto-injectors on ourselves. We can’t use the intern for in-house surgical procedures or remove the liver from the office manager. Instead we have to empathise.

There are lots of different characteristics that come together to create the culture at Team. Attention to detail, the importance of relationships, and so on. But empathy is one of these too. When we are face-to-face with users during usability testing, we empathise with them and with what can be a really stressful and emotionally draining situation. Our designers talk to users and try and understand their world, and the engineers think about the patient during product development: can they operate it, does their condition make it difficult to hold it, is it too heavy, how often will it be used, does it need to withstand life at the bottom of a sports bag or handbag?

We work for our clients, and delivering value to them is of paramount concern, but so is the user’s experience. We can’t separate the client and user. The product has to be commercially viable but it will also have to save a life or make life better. This doesn’t cause conflict, just challenges.

What about the UV lamp development? The Mk 3 version was very successful in the market and a derivative of it is still in use today.

This article was taken from issue 5 of Insight magazine. Get your free copy of the latest issue here.

About Jerry
Jerry joined Team in 1991 and became CEO shortly afterwards, a role that he continued to hold until 2012 when he moved into the Chairman role.

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