Ford’s Quest To Remake Itself Into A Master Of UX

After decades as an engineering-led company, Ford is now trying to see its cars through customers’ eyes. It has a long road ahead.

The most annoying thing about aging 30 years in 15 minutes was the crook in my spine and the sag in my shoulders. It felt like being stuffed into some smaller version of myself, but I was lucky. “I’m being nice,” said the woman who’d just fitted me into the suit, designed to simulate old age. “I could have given you back problems, too. Now you just have a bit of a belly.”


Just like I was doing now, every new ergonomics engineer at Ford gets a turn in the suit. It’s meant to teach what is probably the most important rule of design: Your customers’ lives aren’t your own, and you’re designing for them. From the outside, the get-up looked like SWAT gear. Tough as it looks, each one of these pieces was designed not to protect me, but to slow me down and simulate decrepitude. The braces on my elbows and knees cut the range of motion in my joints by 75%. Straps pulled down my shoulders and back, while weights, fastened around my belly like a life jacket, simulated a couple more decades worth of french fries. The final, genius touch: a vibrating counterweight on my right hand, to simulate a hand struck by Parkinson’s tremors.

I was told to try and get into a Ford F-150, but I could barely make out what the hell it was I was supposed to do first. My hearing was gone, buried behind a stifling headset. The photographer I brought along was moving her lips in my direction. Maybe even looking at me? I creaked forward in an old man lurch, mouth agape, and croaking at a ridiculous volume, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” To get into the truck, I had to give a leery appraisal of the handholds. Sitting down gracefully was out of the question. I had to point my butt at the chair and collapse, letting gravity do what my knees could not. I was acting old without even trying. Which was exactly the point of the suit: It’s hard to describe what being 70 is like. So you have to make someone feel what it’s like.

Arm braces restrict your movement and simulate the loss of joint flexibility that happens when you age.

Maybe you’re thinking: All that empathy stuff is nice, but cars aren’t exactly bastions of good design. You’re right. They’re jammed up with buttons and knobs and symbols and lights. They get more complicated every year, even as the number of features we use hardly grows at all. Somewhere, between the good-hearted intentions of this suit—which was first developed at Ford 20 years ago—comes the state of the modern car: You might have an iPhone, but most cars feel more like the gadget only your uncle could figure out, growing up.


Yet the state of the modern car is exactly what Ford has been trying to get right. The aging suit that I’d just tried on was a good example of subtle ideas that never quite made it up to the top ranks of company gospel. Ford, bastion of the old-school American economy, is now trying to recast itself as a company built around user experience. It’s finally trying to see its cars through the customer’s eyes. It’s designing for them.

With your senses blunted, every interaction inside the car becomes slower and more cautious—thus putting extra burden on the interfaces to be clear and easy to use.

Why Is Car Design So Bad?

The germ of Ford’s reorganization came a year ago, during Mark Fields’s first months as the motor company’s fresh-faced CEO. Like a lot of new honchos intent on quickly setting a tone, Fields set out to tour the companies he most hoped to emulate. He focused on Silicon Valley, meeting CEO’s at companies like Nest, which didn’t have much in common with a 150-year old manufacturing giant. But a common theme emerged: a zealous focus on being “user-centered.” To understand why that might be radical—even ridiculous—to a car maker, you have to understand a bit about how cars are actually designed and built.

At Ford and all its Detroit peers, cars are meant to be efficient to build, above all. Every car maker behaves like that. But for Detroit, burdened by stubbornly high production costs, that logic was even more suffocating. The surest way to drive down costs while creating efficiencies is to break up the supply chain into as many pieces as you can—to spread the pool of tasks among as many component makers as possible. Consider that from the perspective of the component makers. To be efficient, they need to create whatever piece of the car they’re creating with as much autonomy as possible: Just give me the specs, and I’ll get right back to you with an AC system that you can plug right in with the rest of your components. So cars get built around requirements set by the automakers. Make this knob like this and this wire go here.


That’s the problem. In such a requirements-driven environment, scientific measurement rules the day, because precision is easier to explain than principle—especially if your audience is the engineer who’ll carry on the next phase of work. Cars aren’t user-friendly because there’s no one whose job it is to actually sit in the car and experience it like a customer would. Instead, other factors often win the day, such as the sheer need to put in whatever feature the other car companies are touting. We all live with the end result, in the cars we buy. We spend billions of dollars every year on features that we don’t use. The most generous estimates say that we use only 40% of the features inside the cars. And still we pay 100% of the price. As Parrish Hanna, Ford’s global director of interaction and ergonomics puts it, “Detroit’s operating mode has been a lot of equally balanced voices providing input, with not a lot of governance over what’s in and what’s out.”

You can spy that theme, if you visit Ford’s headquarters. It’s thinly spread across dozens of buildings in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, and quite literally organized like a vast, atomized supply chain. Walking the wide halls of the product development building, I barely saw anyone. It was like padding around the halls of a massive but obscure branch of government, with highly specialized groups cloistered behind locked doors, and everyone inside hidden out of sight behind high cubicles. So while you can often hear Mark Fields talking about “focusing on the customer experience,” you have to wonder how much Ford can actually change— which makes Parrish Hanna’s job sound either exhilarating or terrifying.

Parrish Hanna, Ford’s global director of interaction and ergonomics

Creating A New Kind Of Organization

Hanna has been at Ford for three years—dog years in Silicon Valley, but he’s a noob by Ford standards, where it’s typical to find researchers and designers who’ve never worked anywhere else since grad school. When he first started at the company, he did a simple test, to take the measure of how hard his job, overseeing all of Ford’s interface design, would be. First, he asked people to sit in a car and cross their arms. Then, he had them look at all the icons and buttons and knobs they could see, guessing what each one actually did. He did it again and again, across all different car manufacturers. And uniformly, the results were atrocious. Ford wasn’t an outlier, but it wasn’t a star either.


Today, Hanna sits in a long, open hangar that feels like an empty car dealership, with full-sized car prototypes shrouded under tarps right outside his office. Just sitting here was a bit of an accomplishment. Before Hanna befriended the new head of interior design, the interface and interiors designers used to sit in buildings a five-minute drive apart. Somehow, those two functions used to be so independent that they didn’t need to be close. The strangest thing about sitting and talking with Hanna here, where nothing much seems to be going on, is how quickly the conversation moves toward the future. Silicon Valley might be almost 2,500 miles away, but from where Hanna sits, Apple and Google may as well be rummaging around in his office, touching all of his stuff.


It wasn’t too long ago that Detroit was cosseted from the churn you’d find in the rest of the consumer marketplace. It made sense. Cars were made on seven-year cycles, and it took so long to deliver one to market that carmakers gave little thought to how a car compared to, say, someone’s latest computer or TV. No more. As smartphones have exploded, one downwind effect is that it’s changed how carmakers view they’re own wares. No longer are cars competing with other cars; they’re competing for our affection. As one designer put it to me, “The car makers are terrified of letting technology into their cars. Because once they do that, does Apple own the experience or do they?” And yet they’re being forced to meet consumers halfway who are demanding that every big thing they buy be as user-friendly as their phone.


Hanna sees two main threats. First is the fact that differentiation among cars is dissolving. Second, cars themselves are beginning to mean something different in our daily lives. Mechanically, cars are already reaching something close to the point of commoditization. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, it’s actually hard to find a stone-cold awful new car. They’re all pretty reliable, and they all have similar features, no matter the price. There’s no reason to think that software won’t be the same, inside cars. “You reach a point where it’s all good enough,” Hanna says. “And then it’s about brand. Just like jeans. They’re all comfortable, they all fit, so why do you change brands.” (He does suggest one alternate path: Personal data, combined with algorithms and sensors, might allow people to personalize their in-car experience.)

The harder problem to contend with is the shifting meaning of what a vehicle is, due to services such as Uber and technologies such as driverless cars which might make car ownership an antiquated idea. “That means expanding the services inside of a car and expanding the definition of mobility.” The car business would become about sell services, instead of selling cars. Imagine a car being less like a box you buy that gets you from one place to another, and more like a computer you sit at, filled with apps for biding time as you’re driven to work. Already, Ford has being thinking about whether a car should become an API that other companies tap into. Whatever does happen though, Hanna says it’s clear that the idea that Google or Apple will simply port their UIs over to our cars is far oversold. “We get romanced by the idea of Apple’s Car Pay or Android Auto. But the complexity of a software OS just isn’t compatible with a car.” In cars, you don’t drag and drop. The interface is mostly seen through your peripheral vision. And any activity other than simply driving is one that shouldn’t be all that engaging, by design. It should be invisible.

That’s mostly the case in Sync 3, Ford’s latest dashboard interface design—the first one that Hanna has guided to market since arriving at the company. When I used it over a couple days, driving a new Ford Escape, it aced the hardest challenge in UX, the No Instructions test. On the first try, I had no problem figuring out the navigation or piping music from my phone—which is impressive given the sorry state of car UX, and a mark of how much nuts-and-bolts UX work Hanna’s team did. But still, Sync 3 is a long way from being delightful, or beautiful. Sync 3 is a transition product. Hanna hopes that reshaping Ford around the customer experience will quickly change not only how Ford sees its cars, but how it sees itself. If he is right, then a more beautiful product is almost inevitable if you create a more beautiful process.

Inside the virtual-reality simulator where Ford tests how drivers respond to new interfaces.

A New Era of Prototyping

Ford’s virtual driving simulator is an almost comically involved machine. It looks like something NASA built for astronauts: Inside a hangar with 40-foot-tall ceilings, there’s a white geodesic dome lofted some 15 feet off the ground atop massive hydraulic pistons. Inside that dome is a full-sized SUV, taken off the road and kitted out with cameras, sensors, and specialized gear. The purpose of all the hydraulics is to simulate the yaw, pitch, and roll that you experience while driving—the whole dome can move more than 10 feet from side to side and tiled up and down, to mimic the feeling of mashing the accelerator or swerving between lanes.

The simulator sits on massive hydraulics that move the dome in response to your driving, making the experience feel real.

Hop in, and you can drive across any number of simulated roads, projected on the dome’s interior walls; the scenery all reacts like you’d expect from the real world. The graphics are still chunky and pixelated, and for a minute, you feel like you’re inside a Super Nintendo driving game. But once you start moving, the feeling of actually driving starts to tickle your senses. No one needs to tell you not to veer into the oncoming lane. You’re afraid to veer into an oncoming lane, just like in real life. It’s here where Ford tests things like the lights that flash when you veer our of your lane, or how long it takes for a distracted driver to snap their attention back to the road. They do it to me, asking me to read off numbers from a screen below the dashboard—and then the truck in front of me slams to a stop, and I barely notice in time to avoid hitting it. Game over!

It’s hard not to be impressed by all of this. Like a lot of huge research tools, it’s the product of a decade of work from a single team, headed by Ph.Ds. Impressive as it is, Ford is showing me this simulator knowing that I’ll be amazed. And it tends to reinforce the vast gulf between testing and designing. The latter isn’t about choosing between option A and option B, based on the data. It’s about rigging things up, seeing how they feel. Software designers know this. They iterate all the time. So do industrial designers, who’ll mock everything up in a million 3-D-printed variants before sending anything to a factory. And yet most car companies don’t do this at all. Under Hanna, Ford’s been working differently. They now create lifelike models of their in-car interfaces, in laser-cut foam and 3-D-printed plastic, then rig those up in cars, and actually drive them around. Hanna doesn’t say it, but you’d guess that there was a lot of grumbling when the idea of driving around barely working prototypes was floated around HQ.


But Hanna does admit that Ford is still trying to figure out just how you can an actually represent a user’s point of view, inside an organization. Does it mean tapping a chief experience officer? Or some other way of working, some system of checks and balances that reorders how decisions are made? “Good design is organizational efficiency,” he says. But change can be maddeningly hard to pull off, because any big company has its own inertia, which can sap a new idea that, by the time it comes for the worker bees to work, nothing has changed. “It’s hard to say, ‘Here’s the governing body, and here’s how we decide what goes in and what comes out.’ And what comes out is just as important. That’s how you give priority to how people are really using something, instead of what your competitors are doing,” he says.

That last part, Hanna says, is telling. Ford used to focus on “benchmarking,” or comparing all the features of competitors and simply adding in what they didn’t have. Today the company is starting with UX principles—what the consumers’ mindset is, what they expect of an interaction, what they expect of a car. Thus, rather than adding features, the features may disappear or be rethought based on broad UX ideals such as seamless transitions between your phone and your dashboard media. CEO Mark Fields’s top deputies are singing in tune. As Hanna describes it, a couple years of coaching—with consultants such as Ideo, and also through courses at Stanford’s—have effected a change in how the brass evaluate projects. “Our executives, whenever you present to them, they ask what the user-experience principles are,” says Hanna. “Then they ask how you’ll bring those to life.”

Maybe the best example of that new mindset is how Ford has been creating “mobility experiments” set up around new user experiences, ranging from on-demand busing to a peer-to-peer car sharing arrangement that lets owners collect revenue from their cars. The experiments are as much about shifting Ford to providing services instead of just selling cars as they are about prototyping new ways for Ford to think about UX.


I recently asked Fields whether all these design-focused initiatives, even if they arrive with his blessing, have a chance to change a company so big and so old as Ford—a company built for economies of scale, which arrive because people are siloed. In his telling, effecting such change is delicate: “It comes back to our senior team challenging people not to take anything for granted,” he says. But also, making things seem familiar. He couches this new rush into user experience as a return to “making people’s lives better”—and thus, Fields hopes to make this new ideal into something that feels familiar to the company. “That allows us to challenge our cultural norms,” says Fields. “But it takes time.” Maybe his keenest insight is that success, in any one of these ventures, isn’t the point. Rather, the point is the new process, and the new way of thinking it represents. “We have to value successes but also the things that didn’t work as well. That’s how we will learn new things.”

We have reached a strange pass, in the annals of industry. Silicon Valley has cottoned to the gospel that user experience is king. It’s a lesson learned simply because mobile apps and software have become so ubiquitous that a well-designed service is now one of the only things that keeps customers loyal. And so Silicon Valley convinces the CEO of Ford, a 150-year old manufacturing company, of this truth, which it invented to deal with challenges of making money off of software. And the Valley is not wrong! Mobile phones have actually changed what we demand from our houses, or offices, our cars. Mobile is eating the world, but it’s also changing how we see it.

The problem then for Ford, or for any company that would like to shift the way it thinks about crafting products, is that in Silicon Valley, where companies are made overnight, change is relatively easy. Don’t like the status quo? Start from scratch. What’s not so easy: Convincing a company with over 187,000 employees to trust in a new process. The most intriguing companies to watch as big business gets obsessed with design aren’t the startups, but the behemoths. It is companies like Ford that are really testing the boundaries of what design can do.


All Photos: Corine Vermuelen for Fast Company


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.