a performance feedback system for rowing


While working for a leading racing shell manufacturer, I worked on a team of two to both design and build a new electronic system: measuring and presenting performance feedback for rowers. Rowing coaches often feel frustrated by difficulty in evaluating rowers individually for the purpose of assigning rowers to appropriate boats. Seat racing is most often used for this today: one boat is timed, one rower is switched out, and the same boat is timed again. This method is time-consuming and not entirely accurate.

Coaches also want ways of showing their rowers that a technique or method actually improves their performance. Since rowers are almost exclusively practicing their craft as a unit, detecting individual differences is tricky. PullSmart was envisioned to meet these needs, and a team of two was hired to design and build this system.


To begin and throughout the project, I spent a lot of time with potential users of this product (local rowing clubs became frequent haunts of mine). I conducted very cold and rainy interviews and “in the wild” observations with several rowing clubs, watching them set up, use, and tear down our system over the course of eight months. Being the main contact with our users, I regularly communicated progress and results to stakeholders, advocating for change when users struggled with the design.

I also embarked on rowing ethnographies: taking rowing classes and steering an 8-person boat as a coxswain--not an easy feat! I wasn’t going to make the national team anytime soon, but I learned a lot about the pain points of rowing that I took back to the design.

Over the course of the product development, I managed the project timeline, wrote software, designed the user interface for both rower and coxswain displays, designed the mechanical enclosures for all components of the system, and interfaced with customers for interviews and field tests.


My work on this system defined its initial goals, interface, and functionality. Work continues on the project by others, including building out pieces of the system I envisioned and making changes to the design for manufacturing purposes.


Julie Hobson (me)

Jake Grajewski

user interface

The looping video to the right is the interface I designed for the display screens given to each rower. Below the interface, a crew of four rows in time with the mocked-up interface to illustrate how it works. The design I created here is based on a few key pieces of information needed for individual rowers. Displays for coxswain and coach contain more information and controls, but rowers need only a glance-able amount of information.

The curve is front and center, showing rowers the shape of their power through the stroke. This gives them immediate visual feedback on the techniques the coach is teaching them. When he/she asks them to start with more power or sustain the pressure longer, they can see for themselves the effect of the change.

The interface shown can be switched using a button on the side of the display. While the curve with lower numbers is the default, screens with other designs are also available on rotation. Rowers vary in their preference and coaches often want to try out the effect of different display types. Some coaches fear that the main screen would be a distraction and liked ever simpler modes to keep rowers' focus on the boat and not the screen.

animation of PullSmart user interface for individual rower

In the driver's seat

I never thought that a career in product design would lead me to the wet, cold, and slightly terrifying position of steering a 50-foot racing boat. Eight intimidating young men sweep their oars in a long line in front of me as I frantically try to figure out how to steer this vessel, where to go, and what obstacles might impede our trajectory. All the while, I keep my eyes on the reason for this soggy experience: the prototype in front of me. The coach's shouts and the steady rain vie for my attention as I fruitlessly try to adjust the plastic bags keeping my camera dry and hold it steady to capture the images displayed on the prototype's screen. I realized then that we had been entirely wrong about the most essential part of the design: the user.

In the midst of the chaos of steering the boat, monitoring boat speed, and commanding the crew, a coxswain has no time to control yet another electronic device and watch rowers' individual performance. We had misjudged a key assumption, and would end up having to re-architect significant portions of the system. Somehow, I did get the boat back to shore that day without collision, and I took with me a valuable lesson about sitting in the seat of the person who will use your design. Experiencing the chaotic use environment viscerally for myself was key to the design.

closeup of Julie steering a boat
Julie in the driver's seat of an 8-person racing shell