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Tech Insight

We literally put ourselves in the shoes (protective boots) of the users to make a product that really works

Head of Product, Andreas Karampatzakis, explains some of the fundamental ideas and practices that underpin how the SparesCNX product team approaches developing their solution, PROPELLER.

We have built (and are continuously developing) something for a very unique industrial setting. This is an undertaking that requires us not only to have very specific insights about the environment for which we are building, but also a great deal of hands-on experience.

When a team designs a product that is for the typical user and mass market, they can very easily picture someone sitting in an office, using a laptop, or using a smartphone on their morning commute. The usage environment can be comprehensively understood from the collective personal experience of the product team. There are plenty of assumptions about the usage of the product about which you can have a high degree of certainty will apply across most users, use cases, and use environments.

In contrast, what we are doing at SparesCNX is bringing technology into a very particular and peculiar industry. The way that the primary end-user will be interacting with our system is not something that we are naturally very familiar with (unless you have worked onboard a commercial shipping vessel).

As such, what we are trying to do as a company – and especially within the product team – is to allow everybody who is involved in the ideation and execution of the product to get first-hand experience of the conditions under which the users of our solution are working.

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To give an idea of what this involves, the marine engineers that use our solution are wearing safety boots, boiler-suits, protective gloves, a helmet, and goggles. These items are built for safety, rather than comfort, and in some instances might result in a limited field of view, a degree of restriction to movement, and a reduction in manual dexterity. These aspects of the working conditions on board need to be taken into consideration when we work on the product.

Rite of Passage

It is with this in mind that we decided to ensure that everyone on the product team spends a meaningful amount of time onboard. This also applies to all new hires. Within a few weeks of starting, they will get to experience the conditions on board, right down to wearing all the same PPE that the onboard engineering teams are required to wear.

This is something that we are very proud of at SparexCNX. We are putting our product team literally in the same shoes (or rather, safety boots) as the intended users, in order to ensure that our solution serves the users’ needs as well as possible. Only after experiencing firsthand what working in this environment entails can we put our hands on our hearts and claim that we can build the right solution.

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Another insight from our time onboard is that we need to allow engineers to interact with a high volume of spare parts, and quickly. This is how we landed on the combination of RFID on top of QR codes, which is another unique aspect of our solution. Our handheld devices can capture information about thousands of spare parts simply by being waved over the relevant shelves.

We also make it easy to know what a whole vessel is holding (or the whole fleet if you are a fleet director or superintendent, looking in from the onshore portal). Right now you can go into a cluttered spares room and within just a couple of seconds you can have the details of the full current inventory in your hands. You don’t need to carry paper printouts of inventory levels, or checklists (for reconciliations), and you don’t need to go back and forth to a computer station that is typically housed in a different room to the spare parts (these are things that the majority of legacy ERP systems require). This allows engineers to save a lot of time, and in turn enables them to focus on other more important responsibilities, like maintenance, safety training, and more.

There have been many examples of people trying to build products for industries in a vacuum; in the best cases these products do not really end up not being used, in the worst,  they have had catastrophic results.  From a major car manufacturer moving the location of the fuel tank without rigorous testing ending up causing explosions, or poor radiography equipment UI leading to tragedy in the healthcare industry, building products in a vacuum has been shown to result in failure.  We are confident that we are doing what needs to be done to get the solution right.

Maintaining a birds-eye view

Another important idea that we like to keep front of mind is the potential knock-on effects of individual product or feature updates on the whole product/user ecosystem.

We are trying to solve a problem for the engineers, but the engineers are not in a vacuum themselves. What they do has an impact on their supervisors, the company’s financial department, procurement department, all of the people who will also be interacting with PROPELLER’s onshore portal.

We are tackling this by consulting our in-house SparesCNX specialists, while at the same time gathering a great deal of information from interviews with our customers (at all levels of the business) and relevant industry leaders, in order to piece together this puzzle and ensure that as the solution continues to improve, and that all users continue to benefit.

This approach has been critical for us to effectively build the integration between the onboard and onshore platforms, in order to maximise visibility and utility across all departments, without creating any misalignment.

Knowing Our Place

This last point is perhaps a little controversial, but if PROPELLER is being used in the right way, it won’t have to be used very frequently, or for very long each time.

I will be delving into this area in more depth in the coming weeks, but I felt that I would be remiss not to at least mention it in this piece.

Unlike Facebook, Netflix, or Grab, where the more time people spend on the platform the better (for the owners of the platform at least), we don’t measure our success in that way.

Our solution is designed to enable companies to speed up their processes around spare parts management, while increasing visibility and accuracy.  So if people are spending lots of time using the product, we will take a look at why, and where we can tighten up to be more efficient. It’s similar to Occam’s razor, in that the simplest, quickest solution is the right one.

Fundamentally, taking cargo from point to point is the primary goal of the vessels for which PROPELLER is designed. Spares management is a second-order process, part of a second-order set of responsibilities that enables engineering teams to keep these enormous and complex vessels running optimally. Our solution provides support so that these teams can execute on maintenance in a timely fashion, and help drive revenue for the business.

For the whole team at SparesCNX it is a red flag if we see people on the system for more time than is necessary to complete a particular task, whereas if Facebook sees that you’re wasting your whole day looking at cat memes, for them that’s a good thing.

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We are developing our product to do what it needs to do as efficiently as possible, in order to support the onboard teams working on the tasks that keep the whole operation moving. We are building a tool, not an activity.

As we are constantly iterating our product, I would love to discuss the challenges your organisation faces and invite you to a hands-on demo. You can book a session here.

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