Notes on PADI digital services

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For just about 10 years now, I’ve been a certified scuba diver. The certification is from the kindasorta industry standard certification organization PADI, who certified me as a so-called Open Water Diver.

In practice this means dive centers are allowed to rent me out diving equipment and services, and I’m allowed to go on dives by myself (or with a buddy) up to depths of 18 meters. It’s what most scuba divers start with. Then later on, you can build on that basis and add on modules – and hence certifications – for things like diving at night or in caves, or go on to become a trainer.

The badge model

For those of us in the web & tech world, this is a familiar model. It’s basically badges: Certain activities earn you a badge, a certain combination of badges level you up. It’s no coincidence this might sound familiar – the Mozilla Open Badges project has drawn inspiration from this model, and Joi Ito has very explicitly and extensively written about how his scuba diving experiences influence his thinking on badges and certification, starting here. (Alas, I can’t quite share his enthusiasm about the tools, but as I said, they didn’t age well. Add to that the bandwidth restrictions we are operating under on this trip, and it explains the different experience.)

It’s a good model. It works. But not all’s well in PADI Land.

PADI digital services are stuck in the last decade

Over the last few days, I’ve watched M preparing for her PADI Open Water certification. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time as it will allow for us to go on dives together while traveling – a near magical experience as far as I’m concerned.    And all the hands-on training, all the personal interactions with our local (PADI certified) dive shop have been great.

Everything online, though, that PADI offers seems outdated to be gracious, and downright messy in parts. This is something that as someone working in the digital industry cannot unsee of course. But there are problems way beyond the professional look here. Issues that seriously impede the experience of any learner, and every diver trying to use their services.

First of all, it’s great that PADI offers a digital version of their learning materials. When I got certified in 2004, I spent several days during my classes in a dim room watching videos and thumping through a thick book. Getting the theory out of the way before your vacation rather than taking time out of it is excellent.

That said, the web version feels almost comically outdated. You can tell that when it launched (in 2007 if the copyright date is any indication) it was state of the art: text, audio and video combined, quick practice tests, chapter-based examinations. Surely it all made sense then, and in theory it still does. But boy, has it aged badly – particularly for something with an excellent, flexible skill tree that’s perfect for self-directed learning.

The main issues at a glance:

  • The web service is very heavy and bandwidth intense – not compatible with hotel or hostel wifi. The amount of time M just waited for the site to load was just ludicrous.
  • There’s no offline sync, making it impossible to use flight or train time productively towards the certification. Again, for an activity like scuba diving that so many do while traveling, not good.
  • The e-learning materials seem to be a 1:1 transcript of the former book/video combo. Rather than rewriting the material for the new medium and making it great, it feels awkward to watch pretty much a slow, animated slideshow.

Also, the material is oddly prioritized, or maybe not prioritized at all. Largely irrelevant details like tank sizes, flashlight batteries and mesh bags for additional gear take up huge amounts of space and time as if they were as relevant as diving techniques and safety. An odd choice indeed, and it would smack of sneaky upsell if there were any links or calls to action – but I saw neither, which is what struck me as even more odd.

Note that none of this couldn’t be fixed relatively easily with the right resource, and of course it shouldn’t stop anyone from getting certified. It does however clearly negatively impact the experience of becoming a scuba diver.

The PADI app

So the e-learning site is dated. What about the [PADI app] (http://www.padi.com/scuba-diving/padi-app/)? Available for iOS and Android, at first glance the app looks modern, well designed, even a bit playful. (I tried the Android version.) The navigation is a bit on the image-heavy side, so at times it’s hard to fight out which button does what, but it’s not hard to find useful resources like knots or hand signals and the like. There are extensive checklists, tools to find a dive center and more which looks like a bit of overkill, but not too shabby.

I was most looking forward to two features, a digital dive log and the ecard, a digital version of the plastic ID card traditionally used to verify for dive shops that the carrier is certified. And that’s where it goes downhill, and steep.

For the dive log, I couldn’t figure out how to sign up in the app. After some stumbling, I signed up on two separate PADI-operated sites (padi.com and scubaearth.com), clicked on a #confirmation email, then through a mile of terms of services. I believe I can now log my dives without schlepping around paper, but which of the signups did the trick I’m still uncertain of.

Then there’s the digital ID. While the PADI eCard is touted prominently in the app, there’s very little information about what it does, where to get it, or why. My assumption was, as stated above, that it’d replace the plastic ID. This isn’t explained anywhere in the app (as far as I can tell). There’s only a note stating that all certified divers and professionals can get one (purchase one, actually) and a URL. The URL is for some reason not linked to anything. While testing the app, I accidentally hit links several times, each taking me to one PADI site or another. Yet this explicit URL? Unlinked. Of you type the URL into your mobile device (padi.com/order-my-ecard – I’m also not linking today give you a better feeling), a page opens up telling you that you can purchase a limited edition eCard, “this is the place to be”. Only it doesn’t seem to be. No price or link or shop, just a form to order replacement cards. It’s a total mess. Oh, and still no info what the thing actually does.

So I googled, and found a PDF file with a FAQ on the PADI site. Yes, via Google. No, not through theirs site. And lo and behold, the PDF confirms that the eCard does what I hoped, so I’m relieved I didn’t just lose 15 minutes. The downside? Still no pricing info. Instead, a note that yes, the eCard works with iOS and Android, but no, the certification cannot be transferred across operating systems: If you switch from iOS to Android (or vice versa) you buy a new eCard – one per certification, that is one for the Open Water, one for night dives, etc. And all of a sudden, well, yes it does smack of sneaky upsell.

I hope that PADI will relaunch their digital services soon. And while they’re at it, uncouple the eCards from operating systems. Scuba diving is a fantastic, magical activity. An app shouldn’t get in the way.