How to include train drivers in the design process?

How to include train drivers in the design process?

How to include train drivers in the design process? 1024 683 Spii

The conclusions of the previous article on this topic was somehow on a middle ground: we established that including train drivers in the design process of train cabs could be a plus, if done well, but it could also end up in more confusion if managed poorly.

So, the real question is not if it is or it isn’t a good idea to do so. What really matters is HOW to do that. And we want to try and answer it here.

The difference between What and How

To fully see my point, let me start with a story.

Ferrari has been a myth all over the world since it was born, in 1929. 

But at its beginnings, in the 90s, the results achieved in Formula 1 were very poor. Then, the great Michael Schumacher, 2 times World Champion, accepted to become the new pilot of “La Rossa”.

It was not an abrupt change. Results didn’t skyrocket immediately, but year after year the improvement in performance started to be visible, and it gradually led to winning the first World Championship of the “Schumacher’s era”, in the year 2000. 

At that time, I was a mechanical engineering student in Italy: it was simply impossible to resist the charm of this masterpiece of red technology, passion and great results. But this great story of change and success, as the media reported it, was mostly about Schumacher.

Newspapers and other media contributed to the myth of this super German driver, with his scientific approach to fitness and a great level of mechanical knowledge.

The common idea then was for Michael Schumacher to be the best pilot mainly because he was able to instruct the Ferrari engineers on how to improve the car. In this opinion, the technological advancements performed were the result of his ability to “design” it.

One day, two very relevant designers from the Ferrari’s team came to my University, for a typical meeting between top class companies and engineering students. Just the day before, Michael Schumacher and his team mate, Ruben Barrichello, had finished first and second in a championship race, with an incredible performance.

After the presentation of their incredible job, there was space for the usual Question and Answer session.

At that point, one irreverent and very straightforward student asked unabashedly: “what’s your job if Michael Schumacher tells you all there is to do to the car?

A great, embarrassed silence fell over the audience. But the designers gave us an answer that, for me, has been more useful than a lot of other things I learnt in the very same room:

“Michael Schumacher is the best pilot in the world, but he is not an engineer and he doesn’t understand a lot of technical solutions. He never tells us what we have to do.

He is the best because, when he gets out of the car at the end of a race, he is really able to tell us WHAT exactly happens in there: ‘in that curve I had this kind of oversteer, in that other I felt a vibration on the front-right wheel’ and so on.

He gives us a complete overview of the situation, and he explains perfectly WHAT he needs. Understanding HOW to do that, however, HOW to improve the performance, HOW to meet his needs…that is our job”.

In that moment, and ever since then, I fully understood what a great difference there is between WHAT and HOW, especially in the design process.

Photo by Martin King on Unsplash

A proverbial example of User Centered Design

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, Usercentered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.

In UCD, design teams involve users throughout the design process via a variety of research and design techniques, to create highly usable and accessible products for them. 

The story about Schumacher and the designers from Ferrari it is a perfect example of this: the user does his job, which is to use and report WHAT happened. The designers then, thanks to their unique knowledge in the field, can decide HOW to best operate.

Back to our question: how can we include Train Drivers?

It should be clear right now. Including Train Drivers in the design process is not just a matter of “asking for opinions”.

Applying a real UCD process means involving drivers in different ways and at different stages of the process.

  • First of all it is very important to fully understand the real needs of the users. In this phase, the “ideal” situation is to have many “Schumacher-style” train drivers, who are able to explain WHAT is needed. At this point, it is essential to include the drivers, but especially to ask them the right questions.
  • The second phase is one of brainstorming, in which it is important to evaluate all the possible solutions in order to match the needs. In this phase, creativity, courage, and maybe even a pinch of madness are mandatory to explore new possibilities. Train drivers could well be included at this stage, but also people with a completely different set of experiences and skills. The goal is to explore all the possibilities of HOW to do things.
  • The third phase is for Engineers and Designers only: their job is to translate the results of the previous brainstorming into technical solutions, ergonomics parameters and styling designs. Clearly at this stage only highly specialized professionals are needed. It is the definition of the real and concrete HOW.
  • The last phase is the validation of the new design: here it is important to include a relevant group of Train drivers. “Relevant” means an inclusive team with women and men, tall and short people, slim and oversized ones, right-handed and “lefties”. It must be representative of the complete population of the drivers.

It is a crucial moment, in which needs meet solutions, and each WHAT finds its HOW.

Ideally, in a World with unlimited time and resources, we can wrap up the process as it follows:

  1. Understand the real needs from the drivers (defining the WHAT);
  2. Brain-storming (all the possible HOW);
  3. Propose solutions matching the actual needs (design the HOW);
  4. Test the solutions with a representative group of drivers (match HOW with WHAT).

Unfortunately the World is not perfect: resources are limited, time is never enough and train drivers can’t spend their precious time in brainstorming and free of charge consultancy with the industry of train makers. Moreover, testing new solutions in the way saw above requires expensive mockups.

And so what ? Is there a way to include drivers in the design process, or not?

It would seem impossible, and the history of our industry, which mostly avoided inclusion in its processes, would confirm it.

the impossibile
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

It Always seems Impossible, until it is done

We, however, did not agree.

We got to the conclusion that including train drivers in a UCD process for designing new train cabs, would be a great opportunity to improve the working conditions of the drivers.

Clearly, to do so, we needed to overcome some obstacles:

  1. Time: while creating a project for a new train delivery there is a strict timeline and not much time for experimenting new solutions;
  2. Involving drivers is not so easy, due to lack of time and logistics complications (the factory could be in another Country);
  3. Mockups require huge investments in time and money.

A Zen Proverb says that “obstacles do not block the way. They are the way”, and so we decided to work hard to find a sustainable path.

Our answer? We believe it is using the last and most evolved digital innovations. This means leveraging everyday technologies like social media, but also creating disruptive ones that can help us overcome previous unsolvable problems.

Regarding the first matter, we are creating an inclusive social community on Linkedin to involve drivers, solving time and logistics limits. There, thousands of train drivers are already connected and interact daily with us from all over the World.

We believe this is the a key step for real UCD in train cabs. A simple and straightforward way to collect needs, get feedbacks and obtain the information needed to develop new, innovative solutions.

The second key step will be, as we said, a very disruptive technology for testing and validating HMI solutions.
But this is another story, and we will get back to it with detailed information soon.

What do you think of this idea? Would you be available to contribute to the design of new train’s cab by taking part in a survey, a video-call or a focus group?
Let us know in the comments below.

See you next time,
Silvio Zuffetti