Tackling e-mobility with human-centered design: Porsche and the SUGAR Design Thinking Challenge

Porsche AG
8 min readJul 29, 2019


This year marks the beginning of a new chapter for Porsche. With the release of the Taycan, we’re entering the electric vehicle market for the first time this autumn. This is a step into new territory — territory in which user experience is almost as important as vehicle technology. E-mobility has exposed us to a series of novel challenges and demands, not only with respect to vehicle engineering but also in terms of a seamless and delighting all-electric experience.

About a year ago, we, Markus and Sebastian, teamed up to take on this challenge. But of course, we couldn’t succeed with this mission alone. We’re both working in the field of Smart Mobility at Porsche, Markus focusing on emerging technologies and Sebastian on data-driven services. We knew the SUGAR design thinking network from previous university cooperations — our chance to actually tackle the problem from a human-centered perspective.

Our team for SUGAR Design Thinking Challenge

Students working on the future of innovation: The SUGAR network

The SUGAR network consists of more than 20 universities, including top-class institutions such as University of Science and Technology of China, Stanford University, University of St. Gallen, and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) — all of whom collaborate with corporate partners to solve real-world problems and create impact through the development and implementation of innovative solutions. It’s the largest global design thinking and innovation network, uniting students, universities, and companies across the world for a new learning experience.

The universities run a synchronized educational program, in which small, interdisciplinary student teams from usually two universities learn and apply design thinking to solve a challenge posed by the corporate partner. One academic year long, they prototype, test in the real world with many users and iterate using the feedback.

The Porsche E-Mobility Challenge

About this time a year ago, we became part of the SUGAR network. We partnered with KIT and Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) and formed a team of eight students, who’d work on our challenge for the next nine months: To delight future customers of all-electric Porsches. Sounds difficult? It sure was!

The challenge was to anticipate hidden pitfalls of e-mobility that users only stumble upon occasionally and identify services that can only be experienced in an electric car. Participating in the challenge, we had four particular goals in mind:

  1. generate service and product ideas
  2. learn more about the methodology of Design Thinking
  3. find young talents
  4. experience e-mobility from a new perspective

Understanding the Porsche DNA

Before the challenge officially kicked-off, we wanted our student team to understand the history of Porsche and learn about our product portfolio. Most importantly, we wanted them to experience — from day one — the DNA of Porsche. That’s why we kicked off the program with a visit at our headquarter in Zuffenhausen, including the Porsche Museum, and our Research and Development Center in Weissach.

Left: SUGAR team in the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany | Right: SUGAR team in China

The global SUGAR kick-off event took place one week later in China in October last year, where all teams enthusiastically presented their projects for the first time. Already at that time, the passion and commitment of the students fascinated us — especially regarding the fact that most students put their actual studies on ice to work on the challenge full-time.

The Basics: An introduction to design thinking

Before we deep dive into the phases, challenges, and experiences of the program, let’s explain the basics first. The SUGAR Design Thinking Challenge focuses on human-centered design, which is an iterative approach to problem-solving and innovation. It starts with understanding and observing the users (need-finding), then moves to brainstorming, iterative prototyping, and testing. In general, design thinking consists of two different phases: diverging and converging. The diverging phase is all about exploring the problem space, creating lots of different solutions, testing assumptions, and really coming to grips with the customers’ needs. In this phase, one deals with multiple ideas and prototypes at the same time. In the converging phase, options are narrowed down to the most promising ideas.

Brainstorming at the beginning of the challenge

The diverging phase: prototypes, prototypes, and more prototypes

Identifying the users’ needs turned out to be trickier than expected since the target group (all-electric Porsche customers) does not exist yet. To better understand the possible customers’ habits and overall needs, and to move beyond stereotypical assumptions about e-mobility, the students observed and interviewed battery electric vehicle users and Porsche drivers. After combining the learnings from both groups, they constructed different personas — representations of all-electric Porsche customers — to make the target group more tangible. We identified six essential needs: comfort, safety, curiosity, social acceptance, flow, and contributing to society.

Through interviews, observations, and prototyping, our team uncovered user insights and identified some hidden pitfalls of e-mobility — 52 pitfalls in total, such as blocked charging stations and not being able to explore an unknown destination. We created and tested 32 different prototypes addressing the pitfalls. Conceptually, the prototypes fall into four different categories. These categories correspond to different stages in the diverging phase.

Some of the 32 different prototypes

About our White Horse, Dark Horse, and Funky prototypes

White Horse prototypes are low-fidelity prototypes that are easy to build and fast to test. The students used the early-stage prototypes to get a better understanding of the challenge. At this stage, it was crucial to discover not only the obvious wishes and desires of customers but also those hidden needs that users are typically not able to directly state.

Critical Function prototypes address specific user issues. With these prototypes, we could address and test a series of specific questions. At this stage, we focused on charging and ranging issues related to electric vehicles. The Charge & Coffee prototype, for example, was conceptualized to improve the charging experience by offering coffee at charging points. Through testing various prototypes, the team learned that they need to find solutions that make the daily lives of electric vehicle users hustle-free.

Photo by Stephanie Braconnier on Unsplash

The Dark Horse prototypes challenge previously made assumptions and force the team to think outside the box. The goal of this phase was to broaden the team’s perspective and encourage them to think bigger, as it is important to see potential even in the craziest ideas.

In this phase, we repassed customer feedback and used insights from user observations and interviews. With all the new insights at their fingertips, we re-defined the core needs — adding pleasure, image, convenience, and control — and constructed four new personas. Things slowly took shape when the team realized that rather than trying to solve pitfalls, we need to find solutions that create excitement and fascination in all-electric Porsche drivers.

The Funky prototype aims to integrate and combine promising elements of previously developed prototypes into a holistic concept. Creating and testing more prototypes, the students re-defined the challenge:

How might we delight electric premium sports car drivers with a seamless, personalized, and convenient Porsche experience?

Throughout the program, we met with our team every two weeks for exchange, feedback and coaching. We were always available to provide the students with further information or contacts. Besides that, the global teams had several opportunities to present their findings to a broader audience. The fall presentation was held in December in St. Gallen as the first of two interim presentations. In March, fourteen international teams presented their prototypes in Karlsruhe at the KIT.

Our Porsche team at an intermediate presentation

The converging phase: Welcome to CIRCUIT — Happens under the hood so you can unwind

Finally, after almost six months of need-finding, prototyping, and testing, the students had found the idea they were looking for: By focusing on road trips, they could create excitement around all-electric premium sports cars and enhance the electric driving pleasure. We created the CIRCUIT prototype, an application that allows customers to enjoy seamless, personal and an end-to-end road trip journey. CIRCUIT is all about electrifying the road trip experience: it provides suggestions for trips and sights, connecting the fun of driving with a experience while charging just happens under the hood.

CIRCUIT prototype and team

Closing up, the students presented their final prototype to audiences at the Broadway Studios in San Francisco, USA and at the Würth Haus in Rorschach, Switzerland in June this year.

After that, we invited our team to present CIRCUIT and their learnings of the program to all interested Porsche colleagues at Porsche Digital in Ludwigsburg.

Needless to say, we are still thrilled about the prototype our team developed — but this is just the “icing on the cake”. It was incredibly fun, challenging and exciting to support this engaged group of students throughout nine months of intense design thinking. A big thank you to KIT and HPI, it was a pleasure to work with you!

Markus Knopp, Smart Mobility Plan & Innovation
Sebastian Czora, Smart Mobility & Big Data Product Owner

Markus Knopp, Smart Mobility Plan & Innovation at Porsche AG, and Sebastian Czora, Smart Mobility & Big Data Product Owner at Porsche AG.

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