Including train drivers in the design process

Including train drivers in the design process

Including train drivers in the design process 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