How McLaren designs user-centred products

As a Design Strategist at McLaren Applied Technologies, my job is to ask questions, to understand people, businesses, and technology so that we can design things, better.

But design research is a messy process. It’s often exhausting, emotional, frustrating, and underappreciated. This means that it's difficult to embed into an organisation effectively. When done properly, it can change an organisation’s goals, change people’s lives, and become the most rewarding work you’ll do.

From unearthing insight in human performance to analysing airport behaviour with Deloitte, understanding the end user using data collected from research is a fundamental stage in our design process at Applied Technologies.

Experience and insight gained over decades of elite motorsport competition, and more recently, pioneering projects in the automotive, public transport, and health industries has developed our ability to find solutions to problems in the right way.

"Understanding the end user using data collected from research is a fundamental stage in our design process at Applied Technologies."

However, we realise that the products we create have come to exist within an increasingly complex world. Consumers interact with what we create over time and their expectations are always changing.

To ensure our product development is successful we focus on understanding the evolving needs, values, and behaviours of users using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

For example, when conducting research for our partners in health, we’ve been visiting the homes of patients, immersing ourselves in their lives. We then iteratively evaluate our designs by taking them back to the patients to understand how they would use the product and how it would impact their lives. In doing this we’ve effectively de-risked the medical product development process.

"To ensure our product development is successful we focus on understanding the evolving needs, values, and behaviours of users using both qualitative and quantitative methods."

Here are three principals which guide our user-centred design strategy:

1. Encourage autonomy

In a growing team and large company, McLaren Applied Technologies promotes a culture where people aren’t afraid to challenge an approach or suggest a fresh perspective. With autonomy comes control. Small and agile teams can move quickly, make decisions on their own, and can continue to drive iterations at a high velocity. This approach is key for conducting design research.

2. Look after the research teams

Working in health brings its own challenges, it becomes more important than ever in looking after the team’s wellbeing. The research studies we undertake can be exhaustive and draining. Exercising high amounts of emotional intelligence and listening to powerful stories can be difficult. Let’s not forget that quite often, this may be the first time a participant has had a chance to vent, and it’s our role at that point to listen to them and translate their views into actionable intelligence.

"McLaren Applied Technologies promotes a culture where people aren’t afraid to challenge an approach or suggest a fresh perspective."

It’s difficult to not let these stories influence you, or allow bias to affect the insight you’re trying to deliver. We spend a lot of time ensuring we share the burden of those experiences with each other. Ensuring that we have debriefing sessions, where we can offer each other different perspectives on what we heard and seen, and share these stories with the extended team.

3. Ideas live longer than insights

We deduce themes, insights, and opportunities from what we’ve seen people do, or heard people say during user studies. This synthesis process can be difficult to navigate. The fear of uncertainty and not knowing the answers can understandably derail research when in business you get rewarded for having the right answers. We only compound this when we hand reports over with insights and opportunities.

We’ve produced better results when we keep up the momentum and get to the solutions quicker. Solutions are exciting, they can be shared across an organisation. Capturing those solutions as artefacts that embody the uncovered opportunity means that they can be played with, understood, and experienced by people from across the business. In turn, they live longer.

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Collaborative Creativity

Today the boundaries of design are rapidly dissolving. At university I was aware of the confusion this caused, particularly in trying to explain what it was I do to friends and relatives. However I kind of believed that once I started working it would all be cleared up. Yet the term product design is becoming more ambiguous with every day that passes.

It would be crazy to imagine one person being an expert in more than one of the expertise included under the term ‘product design’ today. With even just expertise in one of those areas being difficult to imagine. But the overlap is good. It’s good for creativity, and our combined point of view, at the end of the day we all care about one thing, the customer. Right?

Personally I believe that while I can work across the different areas of product design, my passion and expertise lie in design research and engaging with people. Expertise of individuals combine into exciting creative teams able to break down and create solutions around any challenge.

This collaboration is at the heart of design thinking. Inter/trans-disciplinary teams that approach challenges with creativity and an open mind. Curiosity and exploration of a given challenge will yield results that couldn’t yet have been imagined. Instead of skills of this team the key to the teams success is that every member of the team is excited and interested in the challenge, in turn each will make themselves useful — learn the skills needed at any given point in the project.

Last year at Wunderman we pitched for a lot of new business. In the process becoming quite good at it, we quickly learned that the power of small mixed teams to be creative. They can explore ideas quickly, making quick prototypes and testing them even just on passers by to generate feedback and iteration. A different world to a war room with 20 people shouting at each other to get their point across.

How do you lead these creative teams?

I’d quote the good old comforting voice of Johnny Ive here — ‘ideas are fragile’. Well, so are the teams. They need cared for and protected from the elements, they can’t be getting chased for insights when they’re setting up a new prototype, they need to be trusted and left to produce.

This exploration of a subject, or theme, sometimes extremely abstract can pull people in deep. They need to be guided through the ambiguity in places, encouraged to explore further or to step back and take stock of the findings. This can mean setting the right challenge for the team to explore or providing inspiration when needed. I’d recommend IDEOs course on leading for creativity if this is something you want to explore further.

Where do you find these people?

Design thinking has been slowly making its way into design education for some time. It’s appropriate that more and more design programs are exploring the possibilities in between disciplines. Institutions should (some are) teach how to think and attitudes, for the skills are easy to pick up later and responsive to each project.

There are also new courses being set up out-with traditional institutions, again IDEO are providing vast amounts of material online, but on a bigger scale you have organisations such as Hyper Island designing their courses and material so that business and individuals can stay ahead of the curve, when the existing way of learning is dated.

Education isn’t the only place to find creative, intelligent people. Many companies are removing degree classification from their entry requirements, EY just the other week removed their traditional 2:1 ‘because there is no evidence that university equals success’. I’d agree, and I think that’s why we see the rise of more vocational experience based programmes.

And it’s not just young people, everybody is capable of creativity. Everyone has it and can do it, it just has to be fostered. Again, I’d recommend IDEO’s course on leading for creativity, available at

Responsibility in Design and Technology.

More than ever before technological development is outpacing people’s ability to keep up. New headlines every week read that a robot will take over your job and recent examples such as Otto’s automated truck delivery of beer prove that as a future it may not be far away.

Arguably these problems have existed for centuries, but today there is a difference. While the industrial revolution removed some skilled work from the manufacturing process it created an abundance of other jobs throughout the country, it created distribution, towns, villages and an entire economy that didn’t previously exist. Today, removing a driver from a truck doesn’t have the same impact. The knock on effect on hospitality, petrol stations and many other jobs could be catastrophic. The White House, in a report to Congress, has put the probability at 83% that a worker making less than $20 an hour in 2010 will eventually lose their job to a machine. Even workers making as much as $40 an hour face odds of 31 percent.

In design and technology we’ve got to a stage where we can build truly great digital experiences that answer all of a user’s known needs in that moment, yet the reliance on humans to sometimes deliver that experience to users can let a service down. How often would you rather interact with your banking app instead of going into a branch?

People need purpose, but is purpose a job?

Will advances in AI, automation and other technologies leave us free to pursue more creative past times? Even with my love of art school I’m not expecting everyone to down tools and head for that fine art degree just yet. Profits would still be important and distributed, but hypothetically they could be achieved through labor sources from elsewhere. Industries of all kinds would benefit from economies of scale, as future iterations of the Internet of Things could create efficiencies we can not fathom. A world where you lease your new driverless car to UBER is just the start.

The company bringing Bazillion Beings to us has offered that while users may derive value from interacting with bots they create, others may as well — in turn paying a small fee to the creators. Politicians have argued around taxing robots in the future in order to provide the finances it may take to prop up societes. Not many of these propositions seem compelling to consumers yet, and certainly aren’t going to either meet their current salaries or skillset.

One potential may be to provide a universal basic income, where everybody in society would receive an income from a government or institution that would allow them to meet a sufficient standard of living. In 2016, Switzerland had a referendum on universal basic income — with 76.9% voting against.

It seems society might not be ready to quit their jobs to focus on creative pursuits. But why is that? Is it a lack of education of inclusivity?

It is easy to see how even as designers, charged to understand consumers, we can become lost within a relentless pursuit of technology and the possible creation of the products we’ve been dreaming about. But today we designers must consider the impact of our ideas on society.

We need to put peoples’ and communities’ needs at the centre of the systems, services, and experiences we create. In doing this we can ensure that those communities have their opportunity to influence and keep up with change. That’s why design (in its broadest definition) is of value to business.

I remember my Dad hating the internet, technology, and hating Amazon. As a child who just wanted a computer like everyone else I didn’t understand. But now as a designer, I understand his love of bookshops, the physicality of a book, the stories and escapism that allowed him.

The world must go on, technology will (and must) continue to disrupt industries, it might just be time to design more inclusively and responsibly.

Otto Truck

Bazillion Beings


Side note: I wrote this fast, it's going to be my new thing. Any mistakes tweet @seanmcharg and I'll sort them. Cheers.