Why Detroit Needs User-Centered Design

U.S. car makers could learn a thing or two from the design minds and methods of Silicon Valley.

Last month, I attended the Connected Car Expo at the L.A. Auto Show. This was my first CCE/LA, and I went to better understand how automakers are thinking about the future—specifically the emerging relationship between automobiles and technology that is poised to transform both business and society at a massive scale. From autonomous vehicles to augmented reality, ubiquitous sensors to machine learning and pervasive computing (to name just a few), the future of the connected car is up for grabs.


Meanwhile, the automotive industry is stuck in the mud—an aging aristocracy paralyzed by its own hubris, infrastructure and inertia in the face of external disruption spanning hardware, software and services. Now is the time for big thinking and focused strategy—neither of which were on display in LA. Instead, automakers are making small bets and big claims, while evidencing the sort of feature-focused innovation that characterizes the way things have always been done. The race is definitely on, but the path is unclear.


Fuzzy Autonomy

Nearly every major automaker has announced plans to deliver autonomous vehicles between 2020 and 2025. A panel on the topic reinforced the importance of trust as a fundamental building block of autonomous systems, yet also acknowledged that “There will be accidents” along the way. When asked about the “handoff problem” (safely managing shifts in control between car and driver), the panel suggested that cars must provide adequate transition time, and drivers will simply need to get better. Such a naïve sentiment illustrates how OEMs are not addressing the complexity of our transition to AVs, particularly when it comes to first-generation systems that will require significant human monitoring and interaction.


The recent Tesla example is a cautionary tale, and an example of how failures in the human-machine interface (HMI) not only lead to poor user experience (UX), but may ultimately be life-threatening. Thus, the transition to AVs is very much a human evolution grounded in designing a complex and nuanced relationship between the machine and us—regardless of how good the machine may be. For automakers, this means adopting a more rigorous human-centered design process and a holistic approach to product experience that puts the user in the center, not just in the driver’s seat.

Rise of The Bots
A recent IBM survey of 175 auto executives concluded “Automotive enterprises must adapt to how consumers can access vehicles in new ways and use them in their digital lives—and how cars now fit into an increasingly complex web of transportation options.” As services like Uber and Lyft redefine individual car ownership in urban settings, it’s not surprising that OEMs are also experimenting with new business models, evidenced by recent car-sharing programs from Ford and Chevrolet (in London and Manhattan, respectively).

And yet, these seem like small bets that betray a reactive strategy compared to more ambitious, outcomes-focused thinking from government (of all places). The Los Angeles Mayor’s Office introduced a coalition to ready the nation’s most car-centric city for an autonomous future, with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2035. The President of the LA Taxi Commission advocated a vision for TaxiBots—a fleet of small driverless cars that would create equal access to mobility across the city at costs comparable to public transit. Earlier this year, a French study suggested that autonomous taxis could reduce automobile congestion by as much as 90%. As all these forces collide—technology, infrastructure, regulation and policy—government will have to move quickly to enable future mobility at the scale of the city. This will be no easy task.


For OEMs, many existential questions pertaining to automation were left unanswered—like who will make these new types of vehicles which are optimized for sharing? How will changing trends in individual ownership impact demand, and inspire new services? Who will design and provide these services and software? How will regulation will shape the industry? And most of all, how will the fundamental business model change?


What is a connected car, anyway?
Speakers from JD Power and Strategy Analytics presented research indicating that, simply put, consumers are confused about the connected car value proposition, and many have never even tried many of the features in their vehicles. Kristine Kolodge, from JD Power, presented a new framework for quality, evidenced by a shift from the absence of defects (the old definition) to the emergence of value grounded in trust and usability. For automakers, this is both good news and bad news. The good part is that safety and engineering fit squarely within the OEM domain. The bad part is that usability and delight—particularly when it comes to complex HMI systems—does not.

Enter Google (and Apple, Microsoft, Amazon . . .)
The Android Auto team spoke about the product design process—reflecting on the unique challenges of brining mobile UX into the car, where it must function as a second priority to the focused task of driving. Compared to the tortured, dated UI that characterizes most OEM offerings, the Android experience is familiar, elegant and purposeful—exactly what you would expect from Google, and evidence of the vast distance between Detroit and Silicon Valley, in both mindset and capability.

Emanuel M Schwermer/Getty Images

Detroit could learn a lot from the tech companies, particularly when it comes to iterative design, research and prototyping—a process familiar to anyone in UX yet alien to automotive. The Google presentation was the only moment where the focus was on designing for users (active participants) versus consumers (passive participants). In one of the least inspiring moments of the conference, a panel of industry experts awkwardly explained the definition of MVP (minimum viable product), but failed to go any further in detailing how and when a “lean” approach to product development would be most relevant (hint: in developing solutions to HMI, particularly when dealing with automation).

Considering the market position and technological advantages of Google and Apple in mobile, it’s hard to imagine a different future for the center stack, if not the entire digital platform. As vehicles gain connectivity, the value proposition will gradually shift from hardware to software, and from object to experience. As vehicles become autonomous and rely on new technologies like machine learning and AI, the software and service layer will become even more valuable—ultimately rendering the car a passive device through which a largely digital experience is delivered. It also means that software and services will be the most critical paths for future innovation. For Detroit, that’s not a bright future.

High Gloss, Low Tech


Immediately following the Connected Car Expo was the LA Auto Show, an automotive spectacle in the purest, most voyeuristic form. It underscored the fact that the OEMs are great at building cars—beautiful icons that stir our emotions, evoke rich mythologies of driving, connote power, and confer both individual and tribal identity. The cars were presented as an unapologetic union of aesthetics and feature-driven performance, polished to perfection—but ultimately mute in terms of the promised experience. As a final dash of irony, an area named “Tech Zone” was relegated to the basement of the convention center, deserted and without anything on display.

Remarkably, the fundamental definition of what a car is—and means—hasn’t changed. The auto show reflects who we are, yet it feels like an increasingly nostalgic concept. The romance fades in traffic, and there is a clear tension between the car of today and the future of mobility. Will we feel the same way about autonomous vehicles? About a car service? About software? What’s the path between now and then, and how will automakers evolve? Will the industry be able disrupt itself—and indeed an entire culture—in the process of making the leap?

For automakers, this will require a significant evolution grounded in a clear innovation strategy, complimented by the acquisition of new skills and technologies to build a sustainable, future-focused business model. It may involve remaking the current value chain altogether. If Detroit can adopt a true user-centered mindset, it might once again capture our imagination and build the next great products—and services—that people love.


About the author

John Rousseau is Executive Director at digital design and innovation consultancy Artefact. In over two decades of consulting, he has worked across multiple disciplines with a wide array of clients to bring clarity, meaning and utility to products and services, experiences and systems