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Why Oil and Gas Software Sucks


I’ve been working in oil and gas software for a long time and I have been a geologist for even longer. One thing has remained constant for that time – most software for geologists and geophysicists sucks. I suspect engineering software does also but I can’t speak as an authority.

The root of the problem

The software we work with every day is really complex – the science is complex, the data is complex and the things we are doing with it are very complex. By definition the systems we create to do these things have to be complex, right? Well maybe not. The oil and gas software industry certainly appears convinced they have to be.

The creators of oil and gas software hire PhD’s with degrees in topologic algorithms, spatial design, mathematics, physics, geology, geophysics, petrophysics and computer science. These areas of expertise are, on the surface, the key to the solutions we seek. However, without essential oil and gas experience the software often turns into an exercise in computer science.

My own field of geology has a bunch of responsibility to accept for this problem. The attitude has been to hire a couple of geologists (sometimes right out of school), let them drive the direction of the software and the results should be great. What the industry should have been doing is hiring geologists that know and understand the science and what is involved in finding oil and gas and then let them drive the workflows in the software. A degree in geology doesn’t mean that you know what is involved in finding oil and gas.

Why has this problem persisted in the industry?

We are simply too smart! OK that statement might have been filled with a bit of hubris but we can be our own worst enemy.

The oil and gas software industry has extremely well educated, smart people in it – most people have an MS or PhD. They took paleontology, igneous petrology and a couple of years of calculus and beyond. Throw some user unfriendly software at them and they will chew it up and brag about it. It’s always fascinating talking to colleagues and describing workflows that took days and hundreds of steps. If you did all the steps correct, the results were always amazing but if you made a mistake you had a story about software that you could tell your grandchildren.

Still, it took months to learn the workflows and ultimately some geoscientists became specialists in the software. Those that just needed to use the software a couple of hours a week were in for a world of misery because they never spent enough time using it to really learn it.

Oil and gas software is getting better

About 10 years ago companies started hiring usability experts and today most companies have at least one user experience expert or a visual designer on staff and to some extent it has improved the quality and usability of software.

At a previous employer we did usability studies to determine if the changes we made to the interface helped the user get through the workflow faster and with fewer mistakes. One of the changes we tested was so dramatic, that the improved productivity of the staff from changes on one simple screen more than compensated for the entire cost of the annual maintenance.

Why isn’t everyone doing this?

It actually has to do with several things.

When a software company is young, it just worries about functionality. Does the product have the functionality it needs to compete with the other guys and does it have compelling technology that makes it stand out from the other guys? Usability is often times the last thing on a young companies mind.

An older company usually has an architecture that is locked into and changing the interface is often cost prohibitive to impossible. There are even a couple companies (I won’t mention names) that have attempted it several times but somewhere down that long road gave up and now their software has several vintages of interface that just make it worse by having an inconsistent look and feel within the same package.

Older companies also have maintenance issues. The more features you add to a system the more you have to maintain, the more complex it gets, the harder it is to maintain. Some systems are so complex they have months of testing just to ensure something didn’t break in the process of fixing something else or adding a new feature. One product I am familiar with (again I won’t mention names) has the algorithms and the interface imbedded together such that changing the interface would be equivalent to rewriting the entire package.

Therefore, usability enhancements often end up on the bottom of the priority list – after all, you have to reteach everyone how to use your product again. Documentation has to be rewritten and so do training classes. I am not suggesting that companies deliberately write software that is hard to use (because I know for a fact they don’t) but they do turn training and services into profit centers.

The oil and gas software industry also has a really hard time thinking out of the box. We are an interesting group of people that sometimes does not like change.

Lets look at an example

My recent pet peeve is the file manager/file tree – that thing over on the left that is sometimes a really long list that can have children of children of children. If you have lots of data (like most E&P projects do) it can take you a while to click and scroll to the right specific piece of information.

On my Linux system I really like Filelight. It is a circular treatment of the file system with each slice representing the amount it is taking up on the disk drive. It also has outer rings which represent the children – this allows you to see everything without doing a single click. It also allows you to go anywhere in the file system without having to click through the parents. You can click on an outer directory and the circle instantly changes to reflect just that directory and the sub-directories and files. There is something on Windows that is similar but my 2 minute exploration of it indicated it didn’t do a very good job labeling the directories and files.

oil and gas software filelight

On Windows there is something called WinDirStatsit that allows me to see the entire disk with a single view and with just one click select anything on it. Unfortunately it still relies on the tree and doesn’t label things on the graph.

oil and gas software windirstatsit

So why do we still use the file tree when there are visualizations out there that clearly work better?

Everyone knows the filetree and it is engrained in what we do.

There is progress being made in other industries. The mobile phone industry has made huge leaps in the past few years. A few years ago selecting time for a calendar event meant pressing plus and minus buttons or spinning a wheel.

oil and gas software oldschool clockset

Today we have a dialog that allows the user to set the time on an intuitive clock face with a single motion.

oil and gas software new clockset

Is there hope for technical E&P software?

Maybe. Depending on what you want to do. There have traditionally been 2 camps of software.

A lighter weight 80% solution that is a bit more cost effective and because it has fewer options, it by definition, is easier to learn and also it usually has a lower price. This system, unfortunately, is often outgrown so companies struggled with feature/functionality enhancements.

Big toolboxes of many different things, giving users ultimate flexibility in what they might want to do with the system. This tends to favor the expert user who is willing to go through a steep learning curve and master the system so they can do whatever they want – assembling the toolbox in any fashion they want.

The compromise is systems with lots of functionality that either have an expert mode, so you can turn up the complexity or systems that have a toolbox/workflow mode to take new users through a workflow and allow expert users to build workflows from the toolbox.

We are also starting to see systems that have design that was thought about right up front. They pull the users eye into areas where it needs to be. Words that have no meaning to the explorationist have been replaced with useful terminology. Integrated systems today keep geologists, engineers, and geophysicists in the same system which helps with integration and collaboration.

What’s next?

Lots of collaboration. I don’t mean sharing data – every system does that. I’m talking about communicating over a map or seismic section with the geologist down the hall or a partner on the other side of the world. The industry is worldwide no matter where you are working and communicating with your colleagues, partners or consulting experts is going to be a key to successful operations.

Data has always been the key and it will continue to be so. The person that spends less time moving and manipulating data and more time analyzing it will come out on top. Systems will continue to provide higher and higher level analysis. This will allow the geoscientitst to focus less on what the opportunity is and more time on which opportunity to take.

What is Drillinginfo doing?

We are investing today in building one of the easiest and most comprehensive systems available in the market. We are developing tools on modern code-bases that allow more headroom for analysis and more stability for future innovation. We are creating interfaces that break through silos and allow you to do the level of analysis necessary for the stage of the project you are in.

Transform is an E&P decision-making platform that features automatic connectivity to Drillinginfo data and your own propietary data behind your firewall for fast and easy analysis, visualization and integration of Geological, Geophysical, Engineering and Land data. At the heart of Transform is a robust multivariate statistical package for identifying the significant trends in your data.

DI 2.0 is web-based and brings together well completion and production information, directional surveys, rig location and permitting information, and a variety of facies, heat-maps, geochemical, paleogeographic and basin information through a familiar map interface. Available for all subscribers, just click on the DI 2.0 button from the homepage. (Our new layer manager allows you to adjust the order and opacity of the information – it’s pretty slick.)

What to look for in easy to use oil and gas software?

  • Features that are used the most should be in front of users so new users can quickly learn and use the system.
  • If you have a problem, clicking the help button will pop-up a 30 second video that will take you through the steps you need to accomplish your work.
  • Icon pollution – icons should be in a single place, used consistently, they should be meaningful and they should be different enough so users won’t confuse them.
  • Simple terminology – don’t assume everyone has a PhD in geocellular modeling.
  • Simple interface – don’t show things that are not useful or you can’t do with the work they are doing.
  • It shouldn’t let users make mistakes. There are lots of things out there like sliders, dials and other things that prevent the user from mistyping numbers and other entry mistakes.

Your Turn

What do you think? Do you have any software shaggy dog stories for your grandchildren? If you could change one (or a few) thing(s) about oil and gas software, where would you start? Leave a comment below.

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John Fierstien

is the Director of Data Inventory. He has worked as a geologist for several E&P companies and as someone who has been helping to create some of the best tools for geologists and geophysicists to help them find oil and gas. He received his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Geology from Central Michigan University and his Master of Science in Geology from the University of Pittsburgh.