DeepSea Challenge and User Interface Design

mlDwaD2This past weekend my husband and I took our 8 year old son to see the IMAX movie DeepSea Challenge. While I was disappointed that they didn’t show more ocean creatures, I was in awe of what James Cameron and the Deepsea Challenger team was able to accomplish as they set down on the bottom of the Mariana Trench! Designing a one-man sub to explore the deepest point of the ocean floor is truly a marvel.

I can’t imagine sitting alone in the tight quarters of a sub as it descends 6.83 miles (10.99 km) below sea level. It brought my man-machine-interface training back into the forefront of my mind as I watched James get situated in the cockpit. He appears to be a tall man and I could see he knew exactly when to stop to keep the back of his head from bumping the ceiling above his seat. Just one of many ergonomic challenges, I’m sure.

Then I became curious about the decision to use flat panel touch screens. How did they make sure the controls he pressed were intention versus an incidental press (a downside of using touchscreens). Was the screen a cover for a button panel that provided tactile feedback when a button was pressed? Was there a pattern sequence that had to be followed before initiating a command? It was all so fascinating.

The use of two joysticks to control the sub was interesting as well. It reminded me of the old Atari Tank Game causing me to wonder if pushing the 2 levers forward made the sub go forward, pulling them would reverse it, and turning in the direction of the forward most joystick would make it go left and right.

It was clear the team trained well trained for many catastrophic situations. Watching the fire drill in the cockpit was one thing. It was another to witness the software systems failure during a test dive off the coast of New Britain Island. In every situation James Cameron showed the utmost confidence and competence. This can only be achieved by an amazingly cool headed user, a well-trained team, and a well design user interface.

Good design facilitates the user’s ability to make good decisions quickly. In consumer products it hides the complexity and limits the information to what is under the user’s control at the time. Great design focuses on providing information at the time and in the way the user expects it (better known in the UX community as user workflow). The complexity of this effort required systems training for all involved in the missions. However, I’m sure careful thought was given to complex flow of information and facilitating the problem solving.

I assure you that none of these thoughts went through my husband or son’s minds. They were simply captivated by the awesome feat the Deepsea Challenger accomplished, as well they should be. But for what it’s worth, I was equally mesmerized by the accomplishments of the sub’s system designers. You guys rock!

How about you? What did you find the most fascinating about the movie and expedition? You can learn more at


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