Product Development: Underground Pipe Locators for Utilities
In 2000, my company conducted end-user research for Metrotech Corp’s next generation version of handheld underground pipe locators. (Now Vivax-Metrotech, www.vivax-metrotech.com.) These devices are used by field crews to locate water, electric and natural gas utility pipelines prior to digging projects. We interviewed 35 supervisors and end-users of underground pipe locators at the American Water Works Association annual convention. These one-hour interviews were conducted in groups of three end-users at a time, as we reviewed and discussed in detail various prototype versions for Metrotech's proposed new model.
Results. My four major findings/recommendations were:
Client should promote the line of multi-frequency pipe locators (vs. single frequency) as a specialty tool for situations when crews know they must locate pipes in congested underground areas. I had discovered some marketplace confusion as to the purpose of Metrotech's multi-frequency feature.
Engineers should design a slimmer profile for the locators while maintaining the same weight and heft. Originally, my client wanted to reduce the product’s weight but the message from the marketplace was clear: “Keep the same weight.”
Designers should improve display screen performance in cold weather.
Make the depth determination feature on the locators easier to understand, so that operators could more easily determine the depth of buried pipe. This recommendation included the finding that audio tones used with this feature needed to be made even louder. Although operators wear headsets while locating pipes, they often work in noisy areas and sometimes can’t hear the audio beeps associated with the depth location feature.
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