User Experience Research & Motorcycle Racing

Kevin Richardson, Ph.D. / Monday, January 28, 2013

I race motorcycles. I’m also a 20+ year veteran of user experience research. Believe it or not there are similarities. When I race, I have my knee on the ground as I lean the bike through the turns and I’m doing 150mph down the straights. And there are riders who are much faster than me. My parents do not approve. My family worries. Friends and colleagues think I must be an adrenaline junkie, feeding off the danger. Not true. Racing, like User Experience (UX) research, is all about understanding the parameters of the system within which you operate, identifying the goals you are trying to achieve through your interaction with that system, creating a design that supports those goals and, perhaps most importantly, mitigating risk.

Infragistics Racing Practice at NJMP

System Parameters

Try finding a racer who whacks the throttle wide open for the entire length of a race. Trick question – there aren’t any. Without an understanding of the relationship between acceleration, traction and lean angle your race will last approximately one corner. These are some of a racer’s system parameters. Users also have system parameters. They include things like the physical environment, task requirements, system constraints and user capabilities. Let’s not even talk about time and money – there is never enough of either…for racing or research.

Goal Identification

Every racer knows exactly what they are trying to achieve when they get on the track. I don’t mean “Win the race!” Racer goals are focused on things like “getting the inside line into Turn 1,” “leaning forward to keep the front wheel on the ground as I come over the hill approaching Turn 5” and “getting the bike turned before the tar patch in Turn 10 so I’m on the fast line going into Turn 11.” These are the things I’m trying to achieve and they determine what I do and how I do it. Users have goals too. They have overarching goals, like “Should I buy or sell the stock in a particular portfolio?” They also have sub-goals, like “How is the value of the US Dollar trending this Quarter? How is the value of the Euro trending this Quarter relative to the US Dollar? How do these rates of change compare to last Quarter’s rates of change?” Creating a usable and useful design requires a detailed understanding of users’ goals.

Design Creation

I have maps of the tracks I race on in my garage. On many evenings, I find myself out there for one reason or another and I study the map for the upcoming race. I visualize certain combinations of corners, the gear I want to be in, the RPMs I want to be running as I lean the bike into the turn, where I want to get off the brake and onto the gas…and how that sets me up for the next turn. My wife wonders about me but I’m really creating designs in my head that will enable me to get around the track in the shortest period of time. As a user experience research professional, I help create designs to allow users to accomplish their goals every day. With the help of talented designers, I create intuitive interaction models, screen layouts and information architectures. Users want to do their jobs and move on. An interface based on a deep understanding of user goals and objectives should be both innovative and beautiful. Above all, it should be useful.

    IG Racing goes to New Jersey Motorsports Park

Risk Mitigation

At its core, getting a motorcycle around a track quickly is an exercise in mitigating risk. Every action I take is measured by a simple cost benefit analysis: How much faster will X action allow me to go compared to the likelihood of X action leading to a crash? Can I brake later at the end of the straightaway? Can I lean over a few degrees farther? Can I get on the gas earlier?

Designing an innovative user experience requires a similar decision-making process. We need to understand both the obvious trade-offs (“Does the physical environment support X design?”, “Do users have the necessary background and training?”) as well as those that are more subtle (“If X design combines what was previously a multi-step process into a single step, how will that effect goals/tasks that were outside our initial scope?” “How does our design change the nature of a user’s job?”).

Finish Line

The race never ends.  That’s the allure and the challenge. Racing and UX Research are a balance of art and science, technology and beauty, skill and bravery. There are always ways to improve, whether the goal is to create a more useful and intuitive interface or to shave 2 seconds off your best time.  It’s why UX professionals and racers (even amateurs like me) do what they do.  

Kevin Richardson has been working in the area of user experience for over 20 years. With an advanced degree in Cognitive Psychology, he has experience across business verticals in the fields of research, evaluation, design and management of innovative, user-centered solutions.

Kevin’s experience includes web sites, portals and dashboards, enterprise software and custom business applications for medical, pharmaceutical, communications, entertainment, energy, transportation and government users.

On the weekends, you can find Kevin on his motorcycle, riding for Infragistics Racing at a number of different racetracks on the East coast.Infragistics Racing - Ignite UI JQuery Controls

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