How We Can Improve Automotive Design Through User Experience

Do automotive design teams truly consider the driver when approaching the design table today? Obviously all do to some degree, but most come up short by quite a lot. It might also be the case that it isn’t directly their fault though.

When I describe the process of designing for the driver, I’m not writing about designing the next track day car. Most people aren’t car enthusiasts; however, most people do care about their cars to some degree, even if the only thing that they say really matters to them is reliability. For those who might identify with that last statement, I have a bit of news. You probably care about more than you think.

The process of design goes far beyond the mechanics and the interior. Every bit of a car needs to communicate and interact with the next to create one homogeneous object. That is no easy task. Those who forget to consider the driver, the catalyst of all of the interaction taking place, will find themselves with a mediocre machine at best.

User experience rejects the notion that users should compensate and work to meet the machine. Rather user experience aims to meet a user, in this case the driver, at his or her level to eliminate the need for compromise. Let’s take a look at meeting the driver at her level specifically.

This is my kind of handbag!

"Where Do I Put My Pocketbook?"

According to the University of Michigan, women surpassed men in the number of drivers on the road in the United States in 2012. Well over 100 million women drive on American roads each year. That’s a staggering number when I realized that the simple needs of many women have yet to be met in automotive design.

My mother has complained that most cars do not accommodate for a pocketbook or other types of bags that need to be close to the driver. I agree. Although women who drive manuals might be "clutching" onto them more so than men, automatic transmissions still account for the overwhelming majority of cars found on American roads. These cars have a problem that Jaguar and Chrysler have already noticed. The stick used to change gears in an automatic car is honestly just wasting space.

Jaguar and Chrysler have moved to a dial that changes gears electronically. For the person who only changes gears at the very beginning and very end of a drive, this is ideal. The extra space was used to place controls, like seat heaters, in a more accessible space. Perhaps, this space can just be used to enlarge the compartments adjacent to the cup holders, as the floor is just too dangerous of a place to put a pocketbook, or anything for that matter. Nevertheless, how are car designers supposed to know who wants what in their cars?


"Current Research Tactics Don’t Hold All The Answers."

You’ve probably been bombarded with surveys online asking you to rate a purchasing experience or a service. Some surveys deal with the quality of their employees from the customer’s perspective, but others focus on the quality of the actual product.

Previously, a car was the brain-child of an engineering team. The customer’s only say was in sales figures. For some automotive manufacturers, this may still be the case. Today, customer feedback is arbitrarily considered by some design teams to be some holy entity. "If the customers get everything that they asked for, we’ll certainly beat out our competition." While customer input is vital, an absolutist view will put innovation on hold and allow competition to excel.

That guy totally practiced his check marks before he arrived at that masterpiece.

Customers provide insight. If surveys are crafted carefully, they can provide fantastic information pertaining to the user experience. The problem is when professionals start treating the customers’ suggestions as to how to fix the problem as gospel. Conducting proper research on fixing the identified problems is just as important as the initial research that identifies them in the first place. Engineers can make some absolutely astonishing things happen, but nothing will get fixed for the soccer mom or the young physician’s assistant if the engineers aren’t supplied with an adequate research team.

Imagine how ridiculous the Bible would be if Jesus just spent the whole time adjusting to the suggestions of others.

"What’s The Solution?"

The first rule of user experience is that nothing is ever perfect. Outside trends in society affect users, something we can see with the evolution of smartphone compatibility with cars and just about everything else. Users are always changing. Cars need to change to meet their drivers.

The first step is discovering who the driver is. This can be done by analyzing customer data for the previous model in the case of a continuing car, such as the Toyota Camry or the Mazda Miata, both equally loved by car enthusiasts. Using this data to design a car that will be better than the previous model is important. This can improve two special categories of sales that make the people at the top of the automotive food chain with lots of money very happy people - retention and conquest sales.

Funding research = better cars = better sales = more money for research. In a perfect world = cyclical success.

Retaining customers means getting a Toyota Camry owner to buy another Camry or at least another Toyota. Conquest sales are when owners of one brand shift to another, such as a Nissan Altima owner replacing his car with that Toyota Camry. Since both have very similar specs at very similar prices, selling one over the other to someone who doesn’t care about what’s under the hood means selling the experience of owning that vehicle, be it a Camry or a Miata.

Marketing departments do a great job of showing how owning their particular model can provide you with some wonderful memories and thrills that entice you to believe that this particular car is the car for you. User experience professionals give you that same feeling when you’re behind the wheel... if they’ve done their job correctly.

If you don't succeed, which you probably didn't, try, try again. Then, try some more. You're probably about halfway there.

Again, that revolves around knowing who one is designing for. What challenges and problems does this person face? How can we solve these problems? How do we present these solutions for this user specifically?

Constantly harping on these questions is how we arrive at hatchbacks with foot sensors for when you’re carrying groceries. It’s how we arrive at navigation systems that learn your route to work and give you traffic updates without you actually entering your destination. Forgetting to address these questions is how we end up with drivers not even realizing their car isn’t in park, resulting in many crashes and even injuries.

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