From mobile phone designer to ship researcher

In dealing with the perception of safety on passenger ships, even a lift button plays role, knows Markus Ahola.

Markus Ahola took five cruises on four different ships to find the answers and spent a total of 38 nights at sea. Photo: Markus Ahola

When passengers board a mountain-sized Mediterranean ship, they may get a glimpse of the lifeboats perched on its deck, but will most likely have nothing more to do with them for the duration of their cruise.

'Lifeboats are mounted on decks where passengers typically don't spend their time, but the thought of their presence stays in their subconscious and provides a sense of security,' says Ahola. In doing the research for his dissertation, he spent over one month on Mediterranean and Atlantic cruise ships, observing and interviewing passengers to find out how they perceived ship safety and what things affected their perceptions.

'Ship safety is paramount and has a major impact on ship design. That's why I was so surprised to find that it hadn't been researched from a passenger's perspective before,' he says.

Confidence in rescue

The way that Ahola ended up studying this subject was also a coincidence, or at least a combination of networks, problems in the mobile phone industry and an impossibly curious nature. Nokia's downward slide was just beginning when Ahola, who had been working as a phone designer, heard a friend of his wife talking about a group founded by Master's students majoring in Marine Technology. In this group, three students from different fields were assigned the same topic, which they examined from different perspectives. The fields of business and engineering were already represented - all that was missing was a designer.

Markus Ahola ihas grown accustomed to preaching the gospel of design and user-friendliness, while being surrounded by engineers and money-people. Photo: Minna Hölttä

'The jump from mobile phones to ships was quite a change in scale - and it sounded fun. I had finished everything but my Master’s thesis, and had grown accustomed to preaching the gospel of design and user-friendliness, while being surrounded by engineers and money-people, so my curiosity won the day and I jumped in.'

In their thesis, the threesome explored how spaces within the ever-increasing size of cruise ships could be condensed, such as by using a single space for multiple purposes. Ahola designed an open space concept, which even eliminated some vital structural elements.

'Then, the engineer made some calculations to see if the ship would even hold together,' he recalls with a smile.

After graduating, Ahola was asked to teach a course in passenger ship architecture, which also required that he begin post-graduate studies. At first, his idea was to study how cruise perceptions were formed and how design could be used to influence these perceptions.

'I soon found that safety had to be ensured before any other perceptions could even be looked at, so I decided to focus on safety from a user, or passenger point of view. '

Ahola took five cruises on four different ships to find the answers. He spent a total of 38 nights at sea. In addition to making observations and chatting with people, he conducted 19 comprehensive, situational interviews.  Connecting with people, who were relaxed and in a cruise mindset, was easy.

'Not one person declined being interviewed, even though many wondered about my research subject - safety was generally seen as being so self-evident that, at first, no one knew how to even think about it. ’

Prior to the interviews, Ahola asked the passengers to walk around the ship and make a note of the things that affected their perception of safety. Things related to safety, their visibility and condition received the most attention. The muster drills run by the ship's crew were also mentioned often.

'All of this contributed to the passengers feeling confident that, if something went wrong, they would be rescued,' says Ahola.

Suspicious rails and soothing engines

In ship architecture, the passengers' perception of safety was reinforced by open, transparent spaces, which were still clearly demarcated to make it easy for passengers to determine the nature and functions of each space. Rails turned out to be important elements, and the materials used for them stirred up some surprising feelings.

'For fire safety reasons, metal is used for rails, but their surface is made to look like wood. So, when a passenger touches the rail and it's cold, in their subconscious they're wondering if everything is the way it's supposed to be,' explains Ahola.

It does not take very much to raise doubt and, in turn, increase a sense of insecurity. For example, a malfunctioning lift button might suggest the idea that, if the little things cannot be fixed, maybe the really important things are not in full working order, either. Passengers also gave a great deal of attention to the outward appearance of the crew and to sounds.

'Passengers found the sound of the engines humming throughout the ship's structures to be soothing - a sign that everything was OK. They were also very sensitive to whether the voice making announcements was calm.'

Ahola supplemented the materials he gathered on the cruises with user interviews conducted at the Delft University of Technology. Together with his colleagues, Ahola designed 20 different cabin corridors for the interviews.

'On a cruise ship, cabin corridors take up as much as a quarter of the space used by passengers. Passengers also spend a lot of time there, because people taking cruises tend to change their clothes very frequently. Curves and a view outside also enhance the sense of security. Because the windows on ships are mostly reserved for cabins, the latter point could be addressed by, for example, putting displays in the corridors,' says Ahola.

Ahola also compared his results with ship safety regulations and found precisely the same themes, although from an entirely different perspective.

‘Ship regulations are set with an eye toward accident situations, whereas passenger safety is seen as being a normal state. It should be kept in mind that passengers aren't really able to do anything about their own safety - no one goes on a cruise wearing a lifejacket. That's why the manner in which safety is shown to passengers plays such a crucial role,' he states.

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