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Apsara Abeysiriwardhane

Meet the researcher on a mission to put seafarers front and centre in naval design

Apsara Abeysiriwardhane spent over five years working as a naval architect in Dubai and taught ship design for a further year and a half at Kotelawala Defence University in Sri Lanka.

But it was only upon arrival at the Australian Maritime College, when her path crossed with that of Dr Margareta Lutzhoft, that Apsara realised what had been missing during these years.

“Prof. Margareta opened my eyes to the realisation that ship designers simply do not consider users’ needs. Although I had worked as a naval architect for five years, at no stage as a design team did we consult users, nor did we seek out their feedback on our designs.”

Apsara had been fortunate enough to meet Dr Luzthoft, who leads AMC’s research into Human Factors, a fascinating subject that focuses on human centred design and how ships and systems should be designed around humans’ capabilities, skills and needs, rather than vice versa.

Professor Lutzhoft helped Apsara understand why considering how users live and work is vital from the first stages of designing a vessel.

“Spending six months or more aboard a ship, sometimes subject to very harsh weather, the life of the seafarer is so heavily affected by the environment and conditions on board,” said Apsara.

“I realised that the ship’s design affects almost every aspect of life on board: how habitable it is, accessibility of equipment, how easy it is to maintain and operate and how challenging working and moving around are.

“Because maritime design practice today doesn’t explicitly involve end users and how they actually live and work on ships, bad design can make the lives of seafarers uncomfortable, inefficient and even dangerous.”

Inspired by her encounter with Dr Lutzhoft, Apsara was motivated to initiate her PhD research investigating how to integrate users and their needs into the ship design process.

Apsara was already convinced that this needed to be done at the beginning of a naval architect’s education.

“By including human centered design into undergraduate studies can we lay a strong foundation for more human focused future for naval architecture.”

With the subject not currently taught at all at undergraduate level, Apsara needed to start from scratch and put together a systematic methodology for both teaching and measuring the results.

Her research began with a group of undergraduate students, already working in small groups on a design project for their final year of a Bachelor of Engineering degree.

Together with Professor Lutzhoft and colleagues, Apsara began introducing the concepts of human centred design to the students via short lectures and workshops. They were assisted by guest seafarers including ship officers and submariners, who helped bring the realities of life on a ship to the classroom.

The students themselves also carried out exercises on AMC’s training vessel, Bluefin, to help them understand some of the real issues that seafarers face as a result of bad design.

Apsara herself took an active role in bring the issues to life, including acting as an injured person on a stretcher, with the students struggling to carry her from the engine room to the main deck because the stretcher didn’t fit around corners nor could it be carried up the stairs.

“This really opened their eyes to how bad design can be annoying and downright dangerous.”

Apsara divided her research into ‘Action Cycles’, collecting data during each cycle to assess how the students had improved.

‘Data’ in this case included interviews with the students, questionnaires and reviewing the students’ design reports and presentations to assess the extent to which human centred design factors had been included.

After the first cycle, Apsara found that the students had indeed improved, with “most” of the students having made a noticeable effort to include human centred design considerations into their design process.

The students themselves were extremely enthusiastic about what they had learnt; grateful to the researchers at AMC for stimulating their knowledge of the topic and thankful for the opportunity to meet the users of the ships they hope to design for in future.

“We would very much like to have more meetings with users so that designers have a better overview of what users are experiencing with good design and bad design,” wrote one student.

“Human centred design will be a strong aspect of my design in future. Now I know that if I need to satisfy the users of my design, I must include human centred design from the beginning of the project,’ said another.

The seafarers were equally enthusiastic, appreciating the opportunity to have a forum to interface with future ship designers and discuss their needs and requirements.

Apsara sees this as one of the unique benefits of AMC and one of the few places in the world that industry, research and students can work together.

“AMC is the perfect place to carry out this research. Not only because of its research vessels that can be easily accessed for practical work but human factored design needs both academics and seafarers to work together. AMC is one of just a few places in the world where they are so tightly meshed.”

For now, Apsara’s research continues: she’s taking the findings and lessons learnt from the first Action Cycle to improve the second Action Cycle, which is currently underway.

Beyond her PhD, she’s determined to use her finding to continue to promote human centred design, particularly in Asia and her home country of Sri Lanka, where it isn’t being researched or taught at all.

With her enthusiasm and tenacity, we can expect many more naval architecture students to be inspired by her to design better ships for people in future.

Published on: 29 Nov 2016