Organizing stuff at the South Pole
Disclaimer: This is not technically a UX case study, but it’s still really fun, I promise! It’s an example of the type of organizational work and information architecture I did in my previous career.
Context & PROBLEM
In 2012 I was at the South Pole. I was working as a Materialsperson, which means basically I worked with stuff—and there is a LOT of stuff in Antarctica. Warehouses and stockrooms and berms and drawers and airplanes full of it.
We liked to keep track of the stuff, and we did the best we could, given the short season and the high volume of inventory. Most simple tasks are pretty challenging there. The station sits at about 10,000 feet altitude. It’s very, very dry (did you know Antarctica is the world’s largest, coldest desert?). In the summer, when I was there, the temperatures maxed out at a steamy 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Your fingers go numb, you have to use a pencil because the ink in pens freezes, and gusts of wind would blow your clipboard right out of your hands.
During this season, I performed a deep inventory of one of the storage berms (one of about 20 berms) which was home to most of the Heavy Shop and Power Plant equipment and parts.
Take it all apart
To do this project, we first removed all of the crates and boxes with loaders, setting them aside so the heavy vehicle operators could reform and grade the berm, basically carving a neat, 3 foot tall snow platform that was fifteen feet wide and hundreds of feet long.
I removed anything that was obviously trash, and parts for vehicles that were no longer on station. I opened lots of boxes that had dubious contents and counted, labeled, or laughed at the stuff inside, and if we were keeping it, re-banded and crimped it.
Identify Things that ARE missing
Our database listed about 1000 different kinds of machine engines, CAT track shoes, bolts, cylinder heads, coaxial cable, fuel hoses and other things like that. After taking EVERYTHING off this berm, opening many and recounting all of the crates, researching their contents and shipping documents, putting everything back on, mapping and recording and crosschecking it, I discovered that we were missing 598 kinds of stuff. That means tens of thousands of individual things, including:
three huge engine heaters
two whole snowmobiles
one $92,000 generator for the power plant!
It’s not like people put this stuff in their suitcases and took it home, they just used it and didn’t write it down.
Identify Things that ARE THERE, whether they should be or not
There are things that do not belong with the Power Plant and Vehicle Shop equipment that I found, including dumbbells for weightlifting, some very expensive science equipment, and 200 pounds of Ramen Noodles from 2003. I think it probably tastes the same.
Put it back together
When it was time to start putting things back on the berm, I got to use a few different CAT loaders. The 277 is a responsive, zippy little vehicle that is pretty fun to drive. It operates with a joystick and feels like a really big toy with a rollercoaster-like safety bar. Its name is Emma.
The 953 is a bigger loader named Sundog. Sundog is a huge, rickety loader that has two speeds: a super crawling slow, and an alarmingly jumpy fast that caused one or two stabbed boxes.
I sorted and stacked the things into categories as well as I could, leaving as little space as possible to prevent snow drifting, a major challenge. I learned a lot working out there by myself, about operating the loaders and the differences between the machines.
I put lots of items on the berms, and dropped some of them, which was really frustrating.
COMMUNICATE and record
And then it was done!
I updated the database to make sure no one went looking for something that didn’t exist.
I also made a map so the next year’s team would have a much easier time with their annual inventory (in Visio. Don’t judge. I would have killed to have Sketch or Axure, if I’d known what they were). Here I should mention that in the winter, the sun is down for six months, the temperatures drop to -100 degrees Fahrenheit, and SO MUCH SNOW blows around and buries everything that we’d spend almost the entire summer season unburying it.
So if you need a UX Designer who can also drive heavy equipment, give me a call.
Note: the original version of this was posted on my blog in 2012. You can check it, and a lot of other fun Antarctica-related stuff, out at brownpaperblueink.com.