High-stakes Design in 2018: Lessons from the Automotive Industry

Richard Heale
Jan 15, 2018 · 4 min read

As an experienced designer, most recently working in big data, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the impressive teams and big budgets. A recipe for success? Unfortunately not. This is usually how it goes…

  • Teams are disappointed that the last X months/years have yielded a product that just isn’t very good

The reason from my experience? There was never a strategy, so it was impossible to design the right solution. The antagonist? A release-2 culture which kicks decisions down the road.

Design in high-stakes environments

Let’s compare a digital and physical product for a moment, imagine a car.

Car manufacturing is expensive, lead times are long, and the stakes are high. If you mess up news spreads quickly — damaging your reputation, or much worse.

The automotive industry has to get it right, and understands design is critical to the process.

Automotive design roles are prestigious and highly competitive. Even in large manufacturers only a handful of people actually get to design the car. Most are relegated to comparatively minor, but still valued jobs, like modelling a door handle. Precision is everything, you have one chance to get it right before that car roles off the production line. You can’t move the radio volume button or steering wheel into release 2.

Moving from “can you make it look good” to “how do we make it work”?

The software industry has largely brought designers in during the final stages to “jazz it up” or “do a UX”. With the decisions already made, the question unasked and unanswered is ‘what’ are you jazzing up and doing a UX on in the first place? Mercifully, approaches are beginning to mature, in no small part due to billion-dollar product failures, and our refusal to endure anything less than a slick digital experience.

With trendy tech advocates and (more importantly) money at stake, Design Thinking is building momentum with the ‘C-suite’. But it’s still not an easy sell…. Design is often dismissed as ‘colouring in’ and accused of time wasting. Jony Ive said it best.

“Designing and developing anything of consequence is incredibly challenging. Our goal is to try to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution, you’re not aware of how hard the problem was that was eventually solved.”

So how do we change things?

Capitalising on shifting attitudes

For design to be taken seriously in software, we need to raise the stakes. It’s an opportunity to overhaul quality and resolve years of challenges! Here are my thoughts on where we start:

1. Establish mutual respect by championing design from the beginning

It’s a designers’ responsibility to educate team members about what great design is, how it’s been achieved in the past and the value that comes along with it. Until software becomes a design utopia, don’t assume everyone else has had the same experiences or perspectives as you.

The first few months are crucial. Take the time to walk people (sometimes kicking and screaming) through what you will do and why you will do it. They’ll love you for it later when you’ve circumvented mistaken requirements and expensive, potentially irreversible development.

2. Ignore the siren song of ‘release 2’

Imagine if like car manufacturers, you had one chance. Commit to ‘designing right’ and call time on ‘release 2,3,4…’ — a hollow excuse disguised as endless optimisation and second chances. Eternal iteration is a great ambition to strive for, but more often than not it’s a way to placate team members.

When faced with design by committee, mixed messages and shifting priorities, stick to your guns if it’s important. Otherwise expect your job to fall through the cracks in a long-forgotten JIRA list.

3. Preserve your product (and sanity) by testing

You wouldn’t want to drive a car that hadn’t been road tested, and your audience doesn’t want to be lumbered with ‘Bob in IT’s great idea’. Software design seems to be a refuge for people who like to take a punt, give it a go, have a stab. It’s a risky and unhelpful attitude which undermines entire products with a few assumptions.

There’s no excuse not to test little and often. It’ll resolve conflicts, avoid unanticipated poor performing ideas, and generally give the final result an edge over competitors.

4. Good design is everyone’s job

Nobody can stay motivated all of the time, particularly when you’re in the midst of an epic project. When your energy is depleted, you need to pick your battles. Plan for the inevitable and build a team who believes in your design vision and is equally committed. It’ll be easier, and the team will become future ambassadors of great design.


SPARCK combines the best creative innovation of a strategy house with the experience and capability of a leading, privately owned, technology consultancy, BJSS, with over 900 technologists. We help companies shape and deliver new products and services — and create their future.

Get in touch at hello@sparck.io



We are a Strategic Design Consultancy. We help ambitious clients to create the future. We are SPARCK.

Richard Heale

Written by

Product Designer at futureproofdesign.org



We are a Strategic Design Consultancy. We help ambitious clients to create the future. We are SPARCK.