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

old car and horse

The advantages of including train drivers in the design process (or maybe not?)

The advantages of including train drivers in the design process (or maybe not?) 1600 857 Spii
What would happen if Ford had asked people what they wanted? Probably…this!

Fun fact: more often than not, the people who will actually use an object are not the same that design it. This is true in almost every human activity, but in most of them designers have some sort of connection with the final users – be it surveys, opinions, and so on.

Unfortunately, train design is not one of them. This is why, as we already found out, trains are not designed for train drivers.

In the design of a new Train Cab, and in particular for the creation of a Driver Desk, Train Drivers are not always included in the evaluation.

What is the reason for this? And above all, is it a good idea?

Why including Train Drivers in the design process would be a good idea 

Train drivers are the final users of the Driver Desk. These ladies and gentlemen spend many hours every day in the train cab. It is simply their place of work. As for every office, it is where they take decisions, feel emotions, exercise their abilities. And it is a place they may like or dislike to be in.

For all these reasons train cabs should definitely be designed for them. Actually, driver desks should probably be designed WITH them! They are the people who know best what they need to operate there, after all.

So it would seem like a good idea to involve them in the design process: to ask opinions, collect experiences and advice from those who will be using the product everyday.  


Why including Train Drivers can be a bad idea 

Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Instead, he made a car.

If Steve Jobs had asked people what they wanted, they would have said smaller mobile phones with a greater battery-life.

Instead, he made the iPhone.

Innovators are people who can see things that others don’t, and make them a reality that everyone wants.

So, what about train drivers? What do they want?

Some years ago, I was part of the team involved in the design and development of a new tram car’s driver desk, which would serve the public transport in an important European city. The team included the train builders and the city’s operating engineers.

It was not my first project, but the first time drivers were directly included in the process.

At the beginning I was persuaded that it was a great opportunity for some real innovation, based on the actual needs of the drivers. But instead, they chose a totally different approach: they pushed in the direction of a very conservative project.

The reason was simple: the previous driver desk had been in use for 40 years, so the drivers were used to drive it. Choosing a design that aligned with that would give the project a faster and higher chance to receive a positive response.

Based on this clear requirement, we developed a new driver desk very similar to the previous. During the process we did three design reviews, with three different drivers.

I will name them simply Driver 1, Driver 2 and Driver 3.

They were all very experienced, clever and nice: there is nothing to blame about their professional approach.

The insidious path of following what people want

When Driver 1 sees the first mockup, he is immediately confident with the well known design. He makes some useful comments, and suggests to move the blu push-button from the right side to the left side. So we do.

When Driver 2 sees the second mockup, he enjoys the design he is used, too. And suggests to move the blu push-button from the left to the right.

When it was Driver 3’s turn to express his opinion, guess what? He immediately asked why the blu push-button was on the right and not on the left.

The end of the story is that, obviously, the “new” design was approved. We had met the deadline and drivers had formally been included in the process.

Great Result!

But was it?

The truth is that, from a technical, ergonomics and style perspective, we had created a “new” driver desk that was fully equivalent to the previous one.
Designed 40 years earlier.

So really it was not the best we could aim at.

Imagine if Henry Ford had made a new horse saddle instead of a car.
Or if Steve Jobs had created a new Nokia-like mobile phone. 

Innovation is not compromise. Innovation is…well, innovation.


Now we have to answer the initial question: is the inclusion of the drivers in the design process positive or negative?

Despite the story above, I have no doubts about the answer: yes, it could be a great advantage!

It could be very helpful because they have all the information about the real needs of the final user in action.

Engineers and designers need them in order to really do a great job.

But it’s not just about involvement: it’s more about how you do it. It’s crucial to determine in which way they should be included, in order to grant the best possible result.

So a new important question arises: how can we best include drivers in the design process?

It is not easy to answer, but we’ll try to do that in the next article.

See you next time,
Silvio Zuffetti

Design made in Italy

Design made in Italy 856 852 Spii

SPII progetta soluzioni personalizzate dal 1947.

Dal 2015 siamo centro globale di competenza della nostra casa madre Schaltbau per l’interfaccia uomo macchina.

In Schaltbau Holding AG, SPII significa Strategic Partner Intelligent Interface.

#Tecnologia, #Ergonomia e #Stile sono COSA facciamo.

#Passione, #Curiosità e #Coraggio sono COME lo facciamo.

#FattoreUmano fa la differenza ed è PERCHÉ lo facciamo.

E cerchiamo di fare la differenza ogni giorno, ovunque: #WhereverWeCan

L’innovazione è un processo, non un evento.

Ma – come ha detto John Sculley – “non è mai passato attraverso la burocrazia e la gerarchia. È sempre arrivato attraverso gli individui ”.

Il nostro modo di fare Innovazione è semplice: creatività individuale, gestione del team e approccio pragmatico.

Usiamo creatività pura e libera per raccogliere idee.
Quindi un processo rigoroso per la selezione delle idee coerenti con il futuro che sogniamo.
E alla fine l’impegno ingegneristico per convertire le idee in prodotti.

La bellezza della creatività raggiunge il massimo quando le idee intelligenti diventano prodotti innovativi per i nostri clienti.

E amiamo quello che facciamo con #passione, #coraggio e #curiosità.

Alla prossima puntata,
Silvio Zuffetti



SPII S.p.A. design customized solution since 1947.

Since 2015 SPII S.p.A. is the global Center of Competence of the Schaltbau GmbH for Human Machine Interface.

In Schaltbau Holding AG, SPII means Strategic Partner Intelligent Interface

#Technology#Ergonomy and #Style is WHAT we do.

#Passion, #Curiosity and #Courage is HOW we do it.

#HumanFactor make the difference and is WHY we do it.

And we try to do the difference every day, everywhere: #whereverwecan

Innovation is a process, not an event.
But – as John Sculley said – “has never come through bureaucracy and hierarchy. It has always come through individuals”.

Our way to do Innovation is simple: individuals creativity, team management and pragmatic approach.

We use pure and free creativity for collect ideas. Then a strict process for selecting ideas consistant with the future that we dream. And at the end engineering commitment for convert ideas in products.

The beauty of creativity reach the top when smart ideas became innovative Products for our Customers.

And we love what we do with #passion#courage and #curiosity.

See tou next time,
Silvio Zuffetti