The addition of touchscreens to marine electronics has been a boon to boaters across the entire spectrum of experience, from old salt to rank newbie. Why? The short answer is that people from all walks of life have gotten accustomed to the instant gratification of seeing something on an electronic screen and poking at it with their fingertip to make it work. But it’s much more complicated than that.
The makers of your marine electronics system, and, more importantly for this discussion, the one you’re going to be considering in the future, seem to be grateful for the know-how their end users now bring to the equation. But at the same time, those manufacturers are racing to understand the directions in which users’ understanding and expectations for their electronics are moving.
One way to think about the developments we’re discussing is to picture a three-strand nylon line. One strand represents the hardware and all that it brings to the table. In this case we’re talking about multifunction displays with touchscreens that bring together the onboard systems for navigation, sounding, and radar. The second strand of our three-strand line is the software, which includes the operating system and user interface, right down to the basics of whether your background on a color screen is black, white, or some shade of gray, and if the system uses icons or menus as the chief way to navigate. The third strand is the end user of the system. Believe it or not, that end user—and that’s you by the way—is more than keeping up with system developments. In fact, depending on whom you ask, it’s the end user that helps set the pace, torrid though it may seem.
That’s not how it always was, of course. Once upon a time, hardware led the charge. Think about it. Just a few short years ago, you were considered the “electronics guy” among your dockmates if you were good at using two out of three in the chartplotter-radar-fishfinder trinity. And when you bought a new unit, it came with a telephone-book size manual that you had to try to read or you’d never get past just turning the thing on and fiddling with it when the mood struck you.
Now things are different, and no, it’s not because there are people who don’t even know what a “telephone book” is. Instead it’s because the guys who write the software have made the leap from focusing on making the machine do what it should, to making it do what the user wants. That’s a very important distinction and it began in the hardware, with processor power.
Once upon a time, the power of your unit’s processor could struggle to manage a chart, a fishfinder, and a radar simultaneously. Now we’ve got enough juice in the tank to do it all with ease. We even have a little left over to make things look good—as in understandable and intuitive. That’s where the user interface comes in.
“There was one set of expectations created by the iPhone and iPad and touchscreens,” says John Scott, executive vice president for product management and chief operating officer in Asia and Pacific for Navico, which manufactures Lowrance, B&G, and Simrad electronics (www.simrad-yachting.com). “And then there was another set of expectations when they started to bring in multitouch with later-generation iPhones and iPads, and that’s changed the game again.” When Scott mentions multitouch, he’s referring to a touchscreen that recognizes the two or more points of contact with the surface, facilitating such things as pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolling. Multitouch adds a whole new dimension of capability to a touchscreen, and a level of functionality users expect and engineers can apply.
Furuno (www.furunousa.com) recently introduced the MU-T line of multitouch glass-bridge monitors, which allow the user to employ touchscreen control from a pilothouse, but are bright enough and waterproof for use inside and out. The monitors work with the company’s NavNet TZTouch black box system and employ Glass Display Controls, which means there are no physical controls needed.
As I mentioned, the users are setting the pace in marine electronics, and multitouch is a good example of that. If you go from using your multitouch smartphone or tablet at home to a simpler touchscreen on the boat, the intuitive benefit of the technology is quickly lost. It’s what you do with it that begins to hold sway. “It’s like a piano is not easy to learn,” Scott says. “It’s easy to play a couple of notes, but once you learn the piano for ten years it’s got tons of keys.. By the time you’re done with it you can do stuff that’s pretty awesome and it’s clearly not easy, it’s just that it’s familiar. This is why experienced skippers perceive the products they have as easy to use.” The electronics manufacturers have had their decade of piano lessons, and now they’re ready to play a concerto. But to continue too long with the metaphor, some of them use other instruments than just that touchscreen.
“I think there was initially a resistance to the touchscreen interface with boaters mainly because of the environment,” says Chris Gatland, a user-interface designer for Raymarine (www.raymarine.com). “I can understand it: It’s easy to design a slick touchscreen interface sitting in a nice office, but when you’re being thrown around on the sea in harsh conditions, some people don’t want to be reliant purely on a touchscreen. So that’s the main reason why we’ve kept an element of hard-key control in our products. We have a hybrid user interface in the e-Series and it’s helped to streamline the product development—we use that same platform across all of our form factors with slight tweaks.”
Users who come looking for touch may be surprised to learn about the technology involved and how it affects the manufacturer from both an engineering standpoint and financially. “We obviously have a whole bunch of consumers who are buying at price point,” Scott says. “And what’s happened over the last couple years is a lot of touch solutions have become cheaper than putting buttons on the product. So sometimes when a company tells you they’ve put touch on it, it’s not necessarily to create the best user interface. People may think touch is a new technology and therefore the product is better, but also they’ll think there’s a lot of cost. Customers should be thinking about what’s best for their usage—we try to do this in the design.”
Actually if you think about it, adding another separate control system obviously would add cost to a unit. “The rotary controller on the Simrad products is a really, really high-quality rotary controller,” Scott says. “And we know through all the testing that we’ve done that the best way to tune sonar, radar, or anything is using that rotary controller, especially when the boat’s moving. Yet that rotary controller costs more than an entire cheap touch solution. But when a customer walks up to that in the showroom, he would never work that out, it’s just not intuitive. The rotary controller doesn’t look like that much—it doesn’t look like new technology—but the value on the water is proven.”
Finding what technology, new or otherwise, end users want—and actually will use—is a key part of the equation. “At the early stage [of developing updates to the user interface] it’s all about clarifying the market need,” Gatland says. “And sometimes that would involve going on research trips to sit alongside people on their boats and asking them questions and generally observing things. The people we accompany have a tremendous amount of experience in all kinds of boats.”
Garmin (www.garmin.com) does a similar kind of research and uses data from OEM partners as well. “By studying how different people use our products, we can identify areas that could be improved upon,” says Karen Sowers, a Garmin software engineer. “Since Garmin strives to maintain ease of use even in the roughest of conditions, we have multiple points in our development that we aim to get feedback on usability of new features and products as a whole from internal employees, customers, and other partnerships.”
Raymarine also draws data from its customer-service and product-support teams. They’re trying to find out about the real user experience. “So probably the most important kind of quality to have as a designer here is empathy,” Gatland says. “The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to forget your own prior knowledge of these things and try to really hone down on what’s the most important functionality, how to make things as user-friendly as possible for the majority of customers.”
That’s a challenge. The engineers want to load your unit up with new functionality as they update the software on a regular basis. “For every release there will be a wish list of work that we’d like to do, which is fed to us primarily from product managers,” Gatland says. “In a portfolio of products, there’s no shortage of ideas, new features, and enhancements to existing features, new use cases, and new parts of the market to tap into. And if we had infinite resources, we’d like to do all of this stuff, but it really comes down to some hard decisions. And at some point there’s a cutoff: That release is defined and we get to work.”
Now it all has to be engineered and made accessible. “A touchscreen allows you to put a lot of stuff on the screen and allow a customer to have a very flat menu structure,” Scott says. “And that’s why everyone, Apple, Windows, and Android have all gone to icons. You can fit 30 icons on the screen and they can still look clean. If you look at all of our new products, it’s very easy to transition from a tablet. You have a whole bunch of recognition methods: People recognize shape, they recognize color, and they recognize text. The icons let you do all three, so depending on what your recognition mode is, it’s all there in front of you.”
And it has to be intuitive to use for one simple reason, a challenge for marine electronics that many other market segments don’t face. “The reality in the marine industry is that many users go away for three months or six months from the boat and forget stuff,” Scott says. “That is really important, because you never go away from your phone or your PC for three to six months. People say, ‘It’s not as easy to use as my phone or my computer.’ Well if you’re using it every day like your phone and your computer I think you’ll find it might be. But we don’t have that luxury in our industry, which is why the user interface is even more important.”
So the best way to ensure that your electronics become easier to use? Keep using them, and your boat, as often as you can.