To be honest, designing for cars is not something I thought I would be doing in my career. Personally, I’m more into bicycles than automobiles, so on the surface, I’d probably not make it through most interviews in this industry. But having worked for a few years now as a designer for the automotive industry, I think it is the most interesting industry to work in as a designer today, and I thought that it’s about time that I wrote about why I think this way.
Let me first start with a big disclaimer so that I don’t get in trouble. This is not something that should reflect on my employer. It’s my thoughts, my reflections upon what I do. I mean, it would be silly for me to not have thoughts and opinions on the industry that I work in, so I don’t really know why we have to write these kinds of things, but let’s be very clear: these are just my thoughts. Ok? Cool. Now then…
Discovering a Lost Civilization
When I began working in the automotive industry, it was like discovering an ancient city from some lost civilization, deep in a hot, steamy jungle. When you look at the state of interface designs for the automotive industry, it is not unlike some of the enterprise software companies I worked for maybe 7 years ago.
You could drop a large amount of cash on a fancy sports car today, and your software experience would really be no better than pre-iPhone era mobile phones. No matter what kind of sleek new car models come out, chances are high that the approach to the in-car experience will still be old fashioned. I mean, just look at the thumbnails in the image above. There’s very little that distinguishes a Bugatti from a Dodge.
As a designer, this presents itself as a pretty unique opportunity. With cars, we are on a brand new horizon of interaction and interface design! Unlike other mediums like desktop software, web applications, or even mobile apps, nothing has really been defined as ‘best practices’ for the in-car UI design. There are definitely government regulations that define what sorts of things you can and can’t do, but those regulations are not really UI design principles or things like Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.
Additionally, with new technology coming to the car (many automakers have talked about the value and importance of the ‘connected car’ for example) we are really on the cusp of all kinds of new opportunities for designers and engineers to come together and build some really amazing things.
The Way We Were
Back in the day, the car was just a machine, a mechanical object. The fact that it could get you from point A to point B in a modicum of comfort and style was plenty for what people needed from the experience.
Over the years, things began to shift. As Americans began to move away from cities and into suburbs, the experience with the American car shifted away from just being a means of transportation, and other factors began to play a crucial role. Economy, comfort, value, performance, these all began to play a much bigger factor.
Later still, the car began to take on deeper meaning within American culture. Less and less was it just a machine for transportation, and more and more, cars themselves occupied a place within the pantheon of American pop culture. “Muscle Cars” like the one in the ad above, reflected the rebellious bravado of American youth. Cars had to have an attitude about them, not just practicality, and they had to have the horsepower to back it up!
Nowadays, cars mean something very different than in those early days of the automobile. They are sometimes the ‘promise of individuality’. Other times, they are ‘a new level of innovation’. As the mentality around cars evolved over the years, the product itself evolved along with it, sometimes, like in the ad above, even questioning whether they’re even cars at all. In more modern (and expensive) vehicles, there are advanced assistance features that can even reduce the need to operate the car yourself. The car experience has definitely changed in modern times.
Experiences are not products
I already wrote about this before, but to really start rethinking the in-car experience, we need to understand what people are doing before they get in the car, and after they leave the car. Outside of special vehicles, track cars or off-road adventure vehicles, most of the time, the drive and the car itself is not really the focus of why you’re getting into the vehicle. If you need to go to the grocery store, I doubt it matters much what kind of car you take as long as it can get you there and then later on, haul away all the stuff that you bought. So in a lot of scenarios, the actual product experience should recede into the background.
There are a lot of other things to consider as well. There’s all the things people are doing right before someone starts up the engine (like seat belts and adjusting mirrors). There’s the drive itself, and all the possible things that can happen (like phone calls and text messages). There’s all the stuff people do after they’ve parked (like getting stuff out of the car, making sure that it’s locked, etc.). So there’s a lot of things to think about to help make people’s lives easier, better, more enriched, etc., especially if we want to find ways of making this feel more like ‘background noise’.
The other seemingly contradictory aspect of this is that when you design an interface for the car, you have to approach it from the standpoint of someone not looking at it. For desktop software or mobile apps, traditional interface designers can rely on the fact that the user will be staring at the screen for a vast majority of time until the user has completed their task. But in the automotive space, we can’t rely on that being the case. If anything, we should anticipate someone only glancing at the screen in moments, not minutes. Designing an interface that you glance at occasionally means vastly different considerations.
Looking at the above image, most interiors are quite complicated already. Buttons, knobs, switches, all manner of interface elements litter the interior space around the driver. Add to this fact is that the primary task for the driver is to operate the vehicle safely, so the digital interfaces in the car should not add to the possibility of distraction.
There’s also ergonomics. A comfortable driving position is usually also not the same position to operate a touchscreen located in the center stack. A phone, you can just cradle delicately in your hand as you swipe and tap all over its face. Certainly, you could relocate the car’s screen, but how would that affect where the driver is supposed to keep their attention?
Let’s also not forget that the core function of a car is the same as it ever was: to get you where you need to go.
The Technological Road Ahead
So where is it all going? There’s obviously lots more to say on this topic that could fill a whole book. But there’s some obvious technological advancements coming that will change how people interact with their cars to help improve the automotive experience.
Tech 1 – Voice Assistants
No, not necessarily Amazon’s tube, but with the advancement of NLU technology (Natural Language Understanding), especially as it is spurred on by many consumer gadgets, it is inevitable that voice technology will start being more and more commonplace within the car.
The benefit of using your voice (instead of an interface) is that you wouldn’t necessarily need any buttons, or like in the Alexa scenario, maybe not even a screen. Voice interactions allow the user to do things like change their music or set a navigation route without needing to look down at a screen. I brought up the book by Golden Krishna in the last blog post, but the in-car experience is definitely something that can be improved with a reduction or even elimination of interfaces and voice recognition is one of the interaction modalities that can enable this.
Tech 2 – Machine Intelligence
As computing power gets more powerful and in smaller and smaller chips, the obvious use case is to make the car “smarter”. Your mobile phone, for example, is already on its way. iOS has already made a variety of improvements based on machine learning, such as looking through your messages and converting addresses to clickable links that open those locations in Apple Maps. These kinds of details help you feel like your phone (or possibly your car) is an intelligent thing, and not just a mere object.
The other more obvious application of machine intelligence is in autonomous driving. Like it or not, it’s coming. Numerous companies are hard at work trying to figure out how to get cars to drive themselves. The first (and maybe most important) application of this technology is in the shipping industry. Uber (yes, the ridesharing company with HR issues) is just one of the companies working on this problem. I say the shipping industry is the most important because a machine intelligence is far less likely to experience fatigue in the same way as a human driver, which has the potential to make our highways safer while helping ensure that shipments arrive on time.
Obviously this is controversial because any time the topic around people losing their jobs comes up in discussion, it is not something to be taken lightly. Possibly, the companies that solve the problem of self-driving trucks should also put some thought into how to employ all those people who might lose their jobs as well. Anyway, this aspect of it is for another blog post for another time.
Tech 3 – Alternative Fuels
Obviously, the race to eliminate the combustion engine is on. Even before Tesla Motors, the research into alternative fuels has been going on for a long time. Anyone remember hydrogen fuel cells? Anyway, I bring up the alternative fuels (not just electricity) in the context of interaction simply because people will need to change how they refuel their car, which is still an important interaction that people have with their vehicles.
Currently, someone drives themselves to the gas station and in about 15-20 minutes, they’ve refueled their car and are on their way (depending on how busy it is at the gas station, of course). There are many factors that impact how this works.
First of all, there’s the infrastructure of how many fueling stations exist. All along American highways, there are gas stations available at reasonable intervals to help people refuel their cars so they can keep driving. We don’t have this yet for other forms of vehicle fuel, but it will have to come soon enough.
There’s also the oil industry itself. It’s obviously quite large in terms of economics (and extremely powerful in governments around the world as a result), and all of it goes into ensuring that there’s always gasoline available whenever and wherever you drive. We’re clearly not at a stage right now where alternative fuels occupy the same industry clout, and will therefore probably take time to either establish itself or convert these old industries to newer commodities.
But once all these things change, then there’s the matter of changing people’s habits. Today, in order to charge your electric car, depending on the kind of charger you’re using, it can take upwards of an hour or two to fully charge your vehicle. This is of course a huge issue for anyone who owns an electric vehicle. Long road trips are possible of course, but probably the more common scenario is the daily commute drive. Anyway, the point is, refueling your non-gasoline car today is a much different kind of product experience than just pulling up to the pump. In the future, I would expect things to change.
The other question is whether or not some other form of fuel can be established. Electric vehicles is just one option, and the most successful one so far. But ideally we could find an alternative fuel source that would be just as easy to introduce to the customer, that would be just as easy as pumping gas today, and be offered at every corner gas station.
Another option, with regards to autonomous vehicles, does vehicle fuel economy actually get better? Obviously, cars may still pollute, but autonomous vehicles can also take hard accelerations and speeding out of the equation (both of which can reduce your car’s fuel economy) Even further, level 5 autonomous vehicles also allow for things like ride sharing, which can also help optimize people’s commutes. To take the idea even further still, there’s even the possibility of autonomous refueling. I mean, assuming your car is driving itself, and it knows that it needs to be refueled, it could be also possible to refuel your car from the refueling vehicle as you both drive down the highway!
Innovation Versus Production
I do want to bring up this topic because this always seems to come up for designers, but it seems especially a problem in the automotive industry. There is often a very real divide between the actual production of a product and the exploration of innovative ideas. Sometimes this divide is just mental, but other times, it’s like where I work, where R&D and Production are actually different parts of the greater organization, separated by an ocean.
My experience working in an R&D org currently, combined with pretty much my entire career has taught me one very important thing: separating innovation from product is a recipe for disaster. But what do I mean by this?
When these 2 things exist on opposite sides of a very big chasm, you have very little chance of actually bringing a lot of big ideas back into your product. And when you, as an organization, become afraid of bringing big ideas into your product, it’s very easy to allow others to come in and quite literally take your business away from you. We’re seeing this now in the auto industry with Tesla and I predict there’s only more to come for the incumbent companies.
I also like to go back to this interview with Steve Jobs. I’ve added this video to a few of my recent blog posts, but please go watch it right now if you haven’t seen this yet.
So we’re talking about companies that use sales figures as the basis of innovation. It is always something that established companies seem to do. Businesses that have reached a certain level of success, and have management that wants to maintain the company’s position as opposed to reaching for the next big thing. Does it sound like a familiar situation for you?
Most, if not all, car companies are like this (my opinion). It is in part, why you don’t see more advanced thinking when it comes to the in-car experience, and R&D groups are left with the job of “convincing” the product arm of the organization as to why anything needs to change at all.
“Sales numbers are good! Why should we jeopardize that success for some idea that feels very risky to me?”
Nobody has said that outright (at least I hope not), but often that’s the feeling that I get when I hear certain kinds of feedback. And really, it goes back to the beginning of this essay.
The problem, whenever you do discover a “lost civilization in the jungle”, is that introducing that culture to the modern world, at least according to human history, has never really ended well. Clearly, my analogy is quite exaggerated, but this is a very real problem that no big, stable company has ever handled very well.
Quite frankly, there’s a lot of old fashioned thinking, that to build a better car, you need to improve how a car is engineered. I mean, this may be true on a certain level, but we’ve all seen the evidence right?
Companies that are truly design-focused are proven to vastly outdo the companies in the S&P index (228% !!!). This tells you clearly that the automaker that really nails the design of the user experience is destined to succeed. And the clock is ticking…
The solution is to never let the product org stray too far from innovation. Period. Obviously, when you make a product, at some point, your company will be tasked with maintaining the thing that you made. But let’s be clear on this one point:
You cannot make a good product without making an innovative product.
I don’t think this needs much explanation, but it’s not a sliding scale. You can’t cherry pick bits and pieces of different designs and think you’re doing justice to the customer’s experience. That’s just not how you design great products.
Looking across the landscape of automakers, companies still sell cars based on trying to prove things to the customer quantitatively. MPG, horsepower, torque, these are the gigahertz and terabytes of the automobile industry. But let me ask you something. When you bought your phone, did you put it into a matrix comparing megapixels, gigabytes, and terahertz, and then make a logical conclusion based on the comparative quantities of those attributes? Of course you didn’t. And it’s silly to think that this is how consumers should continue to make purchasing decisions. It’s the emotion of the experience that matters, not whether or not a ‘thing’ has 450 lb-ft of torque.
So, what’s next?
Just to end this essay on a more positive thought, I think the future does look amazingly bright for the automobile industry. There are a number of interesting innovations coming that I wrote about here (there’s a lot that I absolutely can’t discuss, when it comes to the company I work for) and we are just at the very beginning of “what comes next”.
But it’s not just about the technology itself. It’s easy to get on the innovation for the sake of innovation train, but in actuality, I’m excited about this, not just because I get to learn about new things, but it’s because of what the technology enables us to do as people. After all, what benefit is the latest techie gadget if it doesn’t actually help make our lives better (juice, anyone?).
And better yet, not only is there interesting new technology coming, but designers will play a much greater role in defining how all these innovations will blend into our lives so we can all get back to accomplishing all that we set out to do. And based on that, it’s a cool feeling to be in at the beginning of something…