Formula 1 could learn some UX lessons


One of the main talking points following last weekend’s Formula 1 race in Azerbaijan was the technical problem experienced by Lewis Hamilton. One of the engine settings of his Mercedes hybrid engine was in the wrong mode resulting in his car being unable to run at maximum power. It turns out the problem could easily have been rectified by simply changing a switch setting on the steering wheel. Unfortunately Hamilton was unable to diagnose and rectify the problem from the cockpit of the car and the rules prevent a driver’s race engineer from instructing the driver over the radio. In the end, Hamilton had to drive a large portion of the race without maximum power and was unable to achieve the result he feels he was capable of.

Following the race there has been much discussion and many calls for the rules to be changed to allow race engineers to provide instruction over the radio. Equally, some commentators lay the blame at Hamilton’s door for not understanding the car’s settings and controls well enough. Others suggest the hybrid engine technology is just too complex and we should return to simple combustion engines. But none of these arguments resonate with me.

I don’t think anybody wants to see the cars being effectively controlled by an engineer via a kind of ‘technical support’ to the driver so the idea of relaxing the radio rules does not feel right. But equally modern F1 cars are incredibly complex pieces of technology and we cannot necessarily expect the driver to have the required knowledge to confidently diagnose every problem and make the required setting changes. However, the idea of simplifying the technology is also not aligned with the sport’s innovative cutting edge ethos.

But could F1 learn something from the application of UX design? Could situations like that which occurred to Hamilton be reduced if the user experience were optimised to help the driver diagnose and solve problems more easily? F1 teams invest millions in technology to make their cars go just 0.1 seconds a lap faster. But, like any investment in technology, it only becomes meaningful if that technology can be used successfully by humans. As the complexity of technology increases so does the number of parameters and inputs that need to be understood and controlled by the operator to achieve optimum performance. This vastly increases the knowledge required to understand how those inputs affect the performance of the system.

Lewis Hamilton’s steering wheel

Many people think of UX design as being a soft emotional subject concerned with how a system looks or how pleasant it is to use. But UX is much more than that. One of the main goals of UX is to make complex technology accessible to people who aren’t experts. UX aims to bring simplicity, clarity and direction. One of the key benefits of successful UX design is in the optimisation of human performance. Well-designed systems that are created to meet user needs can reduce cognitive workload, allow rapid diagnosis and solving of problems and, above all, allow the user to focus on their task and objectives rather than being concerned with operating the technology.

Hamilton’s problem in the race highlights two key challenges that face many types of business and can affect competitiveness in many arenas:

  •         Technical support from experts is not always possible or is increasingly unaffordable
  •         There is often an increasing gap between the knowledge and experience of end users and the latest technology being developed

Of course technology will always move forward and cannot be un-invented, so to remain competitive whether your business is racing cars or something less glamorous, it is essential to ensure that technology based tools are designed to meet the needs of the user and optimise their performance.

Phil Jenkins, Head of Digital UX at Kinneir Dufort