UX design through fresh eyes.
Ying Xuan, our marketing intern, interviewed the team to uncover the design process taken and challenges faced in redesigning the in-car HMI of a fully electric vehicle.
This year, Daimler and BYD unveiled their newest collaborative product — the Denza 500 electric vehicle. MING’s WeChat group exploded with congratulatory messages. Pictures of the new car and links to press releases were shared around as my colleagues fondly reminisced about the times when they were knee-deep in the project. For me as a fresh-faced intern, the amount of fulfilment I sensed was something new to me, triggering a strong sense of pride for my company.
MING had been commissioned to design the instrument cluster and head unit of the Denza 500. As a marketing intern without prior background in design or much knowledge on it, I was curious about the design processes and challenges that go behind such a massive project.
“Hey, I was told by the Denza guys that the car should be available in the showrooms here. Could we check and then maybe go test it out ?“ Will, (my boss) slacked me one day. I was stoked to be able to experience and see a real product my company had a hand in building! Upon further research and a few calls later, I scheduled a test drive at the Denza showroom in the west of Shanghai and we headed down to experience the car first-hand.
It was cool to see the design elements surface on the screens when we started up the car and the engines cranked to life. Seeing Will and Frank, who both worked on the project excitedly, exploring the car interface, was also heartwarming.
“Wow, these screens were just wireframes and concept boards back in the office.”
After the opportunity to experience the car personally, I was intrigued. I dug through our archive of decks and interviewed my colleagues who had worked on this project previously.
Here is a list of people I spoke to to set the context for the rest of the article:
1. Cem, Business Development Manager
2. Marc, Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder of MING Labs
3. Will, General Manager, MING Labs Shanghai (Senior Project Manager at the time of the Denza project)
4. Frank, UI/UX Designer
5. Quentin, former Senior UX Designer
The first person I spoke to was Cem. We sat in the office pantry and talked about how it all started.
How our Denza story started
While downing a cup of his usual espresso, Cem explained that we were approached by Daimler in 2016 with a goal to redesign the HMI of the Denza car. MING was chosen in part because we could bridge the cultural challenges in the Denza team, where BYD was a Chinese car manufacturer, and Daimler, a 90-year old German car brand.
“Our job was to optimise the logic, user flow, visual design and user experience for the in-car interface within this rapidly developing EV market.”
I could see how being culturally bilingual (founded by Germans in China) with deep expertise in the Chinese market is one of MING’s core competitive advantages.
A Vision for the Future of Automotive Design — Simplicity, Elegance and Intuitiveness.
Step 1: Define the project requirements.
The process kicked off with client meetings to get a comprehensive understanding of the project requirements. Marc explained that first meetings were always crucial to frame the design visions. An interesting insight I got from him was when I asked “what is most important when setting the design vision for digital in automotive?”
Fueled with passion as we chatted, he explained that design for automotive, especially in the digital world, is still immature. Many people think about fancy 3D screens, absurd color gradients, and futuristic sci-fi feels when they consider digital design for cars. However, he firmly believed that meaningful design comes from a user-centric point of view.
“We should consider what is meaningful for the driver, and what is meaningful in situations to achieve an excellent contextual user experience. For example, when you are stuck in a traffic jam or when you are reversing. You only need to see certain things in certain situations. We should bring design back to something more simple, intuitive and delightful for users.”
Marc mentioned that, while it took a lot of back and forth communication between the team and the clients to set the right design expectations, it was important to invest the time to reach a satisfactory consensus between the stakeholders.
“We knew that we were designing not just for a concept or a show car, but a real production car. Everything we do will be on the streets and that makes it very exciting.”
It was inspiring to hear, as I noted down every word he said in a firm and passionate voice, carried by his personal views on strong design.
Understanding who and what we were designing for
Step 2: Customer Discovery, Product Discovery, Client Discovery
I got Quentin’s contact from Will and scheduled a call with him. While we talked about the design process flow, he mentioned that it started with 1) understanding the product, 2) understanding the users, and 3) understanding the clients.
“ It was necessary to first understand the product as it was already existing. We went down to Shenzhen to test out the car, took videos and talked to the Denza team to understand from an expert point of view what was good and bad. Secondly, we analysed reports that Denza had done in the past, qualitative testing with users, and user behaviour to understand the users. Lastly, understanding the clients. We had to uncover what their business goals were and what they were trying to communicate to their customers before we could design the product well.”
Over my call with him, I learnt that to design a product that users love, it is important to get input from both the product makers and the end-users.
Concept Development: Liquid Energy
Step 3: Develop the concept and set the art direction
The art direction was led by MING’s Art Director at the time, Pierrick. Will recalled that the art direction revolved around the concepts of “water and electricity”, matching the brand’s ‘green’ positioning. Quentin was excited when he explained the concept to me.
“Denza 500 uses electricity but also regenerates electricity when you brake! You don’t consume, but actually generate back! It’s a strong concept for electric cars and something very specific. So we wanted to communicate this through motion design”
The concept constantly evolved and improved as we developed mood boards, information architectures and visual designs in parallel.
Step 4. Mood boards, information architecture, visual design, wireframes
It was the general consensus to emphasize simplicity and an intuitive experience. Will told me that one of the things they wanted to get right was the flexibility of the entire design structure.
“In a traditional instrument cluster you have your dials and everything has a fixed position. However, digital gives you the luxury of flexibility to change the hierarchy to some extent. It shouldn’t veer too far from what drivers are used to. In driving, when people pick up a car anywhere around the globe, they should immediately know how it works. Cultural differences rarely apply in automotive design”
His last line was really impactful. It is truly about how we can design the flow, interaction and visuals of the digital elements to create the most sophisticated experience for users.
Client Feedback, Reiterations
Step 5: Communicate your ideas to the client, get feedback from different stakeholders, and constantly reiterate
One challenge that was unanimously agreed upon was that communication between the many layers of stakeholders was a big hurdle.
“We had a real mix of disciplines working with us on the project”, Will mentioned. The different stakeholders were: Daimler from Germany, the Denza team based in Shenzhen, Neusoft, an external supplier working on the head unit development from Dalian, and Division 21, internal BYD supplier working on IC development.
“I remember that communication could be very challenging. There were many stakeholders involved. Feedback sessions consisted of everyone sitting in a room, going through each feature and giving feedback that usually lasted for hours. The developers would give us feedback on the technical or regulatory limitations of our designs, which made some of our design ideas impossible to implement.”
Frank added that feedback sessions in big projects are very important because “sometimes we have logic issues or missing screens.” Hence, feedback sessions were helpful in pointing out mistakes. “We had to change things almost every day”, he said.
Communicating across borders, across different cultures and languages presented a unique challenge for MING. Yet, I realized that nothing is un-manageable as long as we have the correct project management tools and right attitudes.
“There was a sense of achievement when we looked at the end product. The stakeholders would come over saying it was great work, clients were happy, and relationships were very smooth. There was a positive atmosphere and respect for everyone involved despite us being different people from various backgrounds. It was one of our longest projects in a very different industry. Yet, I really enjoyed understanding how it came together.”
It was obvious to me that Denza was one of Will’s favorite projects, and one that presented a steep learning curve and immense satisfaction at the end of the project.
Testing and Production
Step 6: Implementing our digital designs with the hardware.
Finally, the testing and production stage is the part where MING saw our digital designs and screens come to life.
“ There was much negotiation between the design and development team. There exist many design limitations because of the particular system and device the developer team used. Hence, we had to discuss, reiterate, and design according to what was possible while being firm in our design principles.”
The testing took place in Shenzhen, where the Denza hardware manufacturer was situated and where MING worked closely with the developers to come to a sweet spot between hardware limitations and users delight.
After all the hard work, the car was finally produced and launched to market. :-)
My key learnings and takeaways
Over the course of interviewing my colleagues, I was inspired by their vision and abilities.
Re-designing digital touch points in a traditional automotive industry, where the velocity of growth in digital technology has not been matched by car manufacturers, was a unique challenge. This included the extensive safety constraints in the automotive industry. Collaborating with multiple stakeholders also meant bulky design processes and lengthy communication times across layers that proved to be challenging to the agile process.
Yet, disruptive digital designs in the automotive industry have great potential. In-car digital experience is fast becoming one of the most in-demand aspects of automotive design. If the digital experiences of today’s cars are not well crafted, the potential for a delightful consumer journey is lost.
Lastly, this process of understanding how MING completed the Denza project helped me learn about how we work and provide value for our clients. The biggest takeaway for me is definitely the sense of pride for MING, and being able to show the world, through my own voice as a marketing intern, how my company designs products users love and ones we are proud of.
MING Labs is a leading digital business builder located in Berlin, Munich, New York City, Shanghai and Singapore. We guide clients in designing their businesses for the future, ensuring they are leaders in the field of innovation.
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