Promoting a user-centred approach to automotive making

We recently supported the delivery of a major piece of audience research for a leading sports car manufacturer. The project sought to establish who would be in the market for a new luxury vehicle five years from today and posit what they might want from their new car. The work would lay the foundation for a user-centred approach to automotive design, defining design requirements based on what is known about the people involved and the environment in which they will interact with their cars.

The approach was shared openly by the automotive maker and several of the outputs were picked up by news organisations including the BBC. Interest in the work spread to blogs and automotive forums with consensus ranging from a catastrophic waste of time through to a much needed realignment of product strategy.

The reaction to the work was both amusing and insightful, highlighting several of the arguments given for and against a user-centred approach to design. At Only we believe firmly that designing for people is the only way to create good products. In response to the commentary, here I will attempt to debunk some of the arguments leveled against user-centred design and make the case once more for its importance to good making.

“Spend less time on this shit and more time making better cars”

One criticism frequently leveled at product makers especially in automotive, is that they spend so long trying to convince the consumer that their product is in some way unique that they forget to produce anything of any real value.

Certainly it is true that as smaller independents have been bought out by larger manufacturers and as Asian makers have improved their design-ability, the automotive market has become homogenous. Not just in terms of design, the mainstream market now offers several similar looking cars producing roughly the same performance, reliability and efficiency. Pit against the possibility of tremendous advancement in automotive innovation mainstream manufacturers routinely fail to shift technological constraints and dictate market trends in the same way that innovators in Silicon Valley have been in recent years.

But marketing and consumer research need not represent the enemy of progress — by contrast it can support innovation through an in-depth understanding of who products are being created for. Such insight can help firms to prioritise their research and development spend, better understand their customer’s priorities and identify problems and frustrations with existing solutions that can and should be overcome.

Only, the company I co-founded just over a year ago, specialises in using insight and human-understanding as the basis for creative problem solving and innovation. Our approach to design takes inspiration from real people, works within market and technological constraints, and considers every product touch-point an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users. The approach is underpinned by the belief that design has its ultimate goal in the clarification of purpose and meaning — only by understanding who you are creating a product for can you truly create anything for real value for them.

“There’s no point asking people what they want — because they don’t know”

Of course it is true that most people are not able to make the creative leaps necessary to realise what they want from products in the future. Nor are they able to realise the potential of new technologies or imagine what might be possible with technologies that don’t yet exist. Asking a group of focus group respondents what new product a company should make will almost always be a complete waste of time — and therefore in this most literal sense, ‘user-as-leader’ will not lead to genuine innovation.

But the point of audience research is not to gleam product ideas from focus group respondents but is instead to establish a better understanding of the person for whom you are designing. By concentrating instead on questions of motivation, discourse and learning audience research can act as the jump-off point for genuine innovation and creativity.

By concentrating on questions of motivation, discourse and learning audience research can act as the catalyst for genuine innovation and creativity.

In the case of our automotive project we were able to combine sales trend data with future economic forecasts to predict changes in global wealth distribution — as well as geographic source of sales for new luxury cars. Knowing that the greatest opportunity could lie not in designing replacement vehicles for the current customer base but instead for a minority of people on the other side of the planet meant establishing at least a basic understanding of their lifestyles, motivations and value systems.

The same principle applies in product and software design as well as service and industrial design. In order to help people to save energy in their homes you must first understand their current behaviours and their usage patterns. In order to help people in war torn nations to report human rights abuses you must first understand the context in which they must operate. And in order to provide medics with meaningful and complete insight into a child’s health condition, you must first understand how children behave around and interact with their toys.

The key point here is that audience research should not be considered a source of innovation — but it can very often be its inspiration. At the heart of all design activity is the identification of the meaning which the product, system or service offers to people. Without at least a basic understanding of the person for whom you are creating it is extremely difficult to create products that genuinely connect with people.

“Knowing that the buyer of their next car is a rich suburban housewife with 2.4 children won’t help them to make a better car”

Well known to marketers, audience segmentation can be a powerful means of targeting specific messaging at particular audiences. Switching the focus to creation, audience segmentation can be a powerful means of establishing functional needs as well as superior ones such as sensorial, intellectual, emotional and cultural. Taken together, the methodology can provide a robust overview of consumer needs across an entire range of factors — from performance preference through to design priority.

Our automotive project focused on the high luxury automotive market. Analysing the output of over 2,500 survey responses we were able to establish consumer priorities between buyer types across the entire high luxury segment. The output touched upon every aspect of automotive design from style and performance through to stowage space and drive controls — outlining the needs of consumers in each market and forecasting areas of greatest opportunity.

Combining sales data with macro-economic projections enables future forecasts of global sales.

Combining the data with existing sales and macro-economic forecasts showed with confidence the potential impact of producing a vehicle with less power than its competitors; of prioritising seat comfort over head-height; of failing to consider rear passenger comfort; and a raft of other considerations.

Such a detailed approach automotive forecasting will of course be rife with error — but the tool would also support a series of key outputs that can and should go on to form the foundation of future automotive making.

The use of “personas” and “scenarios” as a basis for design can provide greater opportunities for facilitating interaction, imagination and learning. Determining design requirements and defining design concepts based on what is known about the people who will use them as well as the environment in which their interaction will take place will help to widen affordances for interaction, learning and discovery. And promoting specific targeting of emotional engagement during the design process will lead to even more elaborate opportunities for development and innovation.

Concluding comment

The ultimate goal of user-centred research is to promote and deliver customer focus right from the outset of a significant design project. By providing the tools and understanding to support innovation a user-centred approach can inspire opportunity and provide much needed context for the development of products and services.

More information on this project can be found on the Only website