Automakers have been producing concept cars for over 80 years — starting with the 1938 Buick Y-Job. The Buick Y-Job featured the first iteration of power operated hidden headlamps, electric windows and even flush door handles. Since then, automakers have continued this tradition every year at auto shows, where they show them off to the public.
Concept cars serve a variety of purposes. Some automakers use them to display their vision of the future, even 10–20 years out, through radical design concepts. Others demonstrate new techniques or materials that could be used to produce tomorrow’s car. Many of these concepts never see the light of day. Recent concept cars have continued to inspire customers and position their companies as future and forward thinking. For instance, Mercedes in 2015, showed off the F015, a concept car featuring front seats that could turn around to face the back row — a true self-driving car concept focused more on living in than driving in.
So why do automakers spend all this time and money to produce something they may never actually sell? Maybe it’s just to wow customers or to flex their abilities in production.
What I find most interesting about these projects is how you start to see small pieces of these concepts trickle their way down into models that actually get released.
Think about that original Buick Y-Job again and how some of it’s “futuristic” ideas such as power-operated hidden headlamps and electric windows wound up becoming staple features in most cars that followed. Even the flush door handles in that first concept car seem innovative and impressive still today — setting new vehicles like the Model 3 apart. Each particular concept car may never be fully realized, but still, they learn a lot from those concepts and use that information to build in updates and upgrades to their practical cars that everyone can benefit from. This process is what continues to push the auto industry forward and out of just producing uninspired work year over year.
What does this have to do with UI design?
We can do the same type of thing in digital design as well. Design has an advantage in the process of being able to iterate over concepts and prototypes quicker than what it takes to fully build a product. As designers, we should take this as an opportunity to try out more concept work. What if you were to imagine what your product would look like in 5 years—what technology do you believe would be possible then, and how could you use that in your product? Maybe even within the next year or two, what do you picture as being the ideal state of what you’re trying to design for even if it doesn’t seem possible?
Don’t allow technical limitations to get in the way of thinking outside the box.
Several years ago I was able to utilize this technique on a project at Envoy. We were beginning to explore ways to become a multi-product company and create a workplace platform for the future. Without knowing what this exactly would look like, I decided it would be a great time to prototype a concept mobile app. With this concept, we could explore any kind of future products we wanted to, like room booking, door access, etc, etc. — all ideas that took minutes to imagine, hours to design, but zero engineering required. We learned what could work and what might start to feel foreign among the rest of our products. Demoing this concept to the rest of the company built up so much unexpected excitement for the future! We could finally visualize where we wanted to go and the steps required to get us there. Without this blue sky mobile app, I genuinely believe we wouldn’t have been able to get over the hump of imagining and aligning on what could come next for us.
Designing in this way can help to unlock ideas that you may have never realized or been able to explore within normal project constraints. These concepts can also get the rest of your team excited about the future. Just be sure to set those expectations ahead of time when showing others these concepts so that they understand that it is indeed just a concept. Use these ideas to start those conversations and make sure everyone is aligned on where you want to go.
Practical next steps
Doing concepts like this can be very fun, exciting and rewarding! But the most crucial part is knowing what to do with these concepts once we have them — how to use them as a tool.
Keep in mind what automakers do with these concepts. It may never end up looking like this in a few years, but there are things to learn from the process — even if it’s just to influence designs you need to produce for the next real milestone of a project. Perhaps it’s a new visual style that can be used to refresh an older, more dated product. Or maybe it’s an interaction or a UX pattern that you believe will become more important as you scale.
Whatever it is, make sure that you outline the small pieces that you take from the concept that can influence tomorrow’s work and not just the future. Remember that this is still a concept, and it’s okay if it’s never fully realized in the way that you originally outlined it. It could become throw away work, but I believe you’ll learn a lot — not just about that one particular project but also to always keep pushing your work forward in the future.