Guest post by Russell Maschmeyer.
On the final afternoon of Adaptive Path's UX Week, Iain Roberts (Partner and Co-Leader of IDEO Chicago) presented his team's remarkable work on My Ford Touch, Ford's new driver interface platform. I sat down with Iain and Gary Braddock (Ford's Chief Interior Designer) earlier that morning to discuss their research, prototyping, and production process and got a sneak peak at Gary's Lincoln prototype.
My Ford Touch is rolling out into vehicles next year, beginning with the 2011 Lincoln MKX and subsequently the entire Lincoln line, followed shortly by the Ford and Mercury lines. It's the most comprehensive update to driver interfaces the market has seen since the automatic transmission. The partnership between IDEO and Ford was aimed a producing a stronger connected platform for Ford drivers--to re-think the driver interface experience from the ground up. The results are pretty compelling.
Russell Maschmeyer for Core77: The goal of this joint engagement between IDEO and Ford was to produce a set of signature driver interface elements for all Ford vehicles produced in 2010. What key insights or intuitions did you have going into this project about what was currently missing or could be improved upon in the current Ford interface?
Gary Braddock: The very first direction we got was: "Do for the automotive industry what the mouse did for the PC Industry." We knew that we were going to add a lot more functionality within the car and that people already saw it as confusing in some cases--as challenging and not consistent. There was already a task at hand and overlaying this new interface on top of that was going make it so there's really a lot going on there. We needed to understand everything from the ground up; understand what we already do, and then understand what this new piece was going to bring.
C77: In the course of your research, what did you find were the key features that needed to evolve?
GB: The first stage of research discovery--really understanding what people saw. I think, for me, the biggest part was that we were already dealing with a Ford customer base that was so broad. We had people that were early adopters of technology, and at the same time we had to sell cars to people who were tech averse. This is a challenge I think now every consumer electronics company deals with. So there were the conventions and the norms that a lot of people were familiar with that they wanted to stick to; they didn't want to change them. Then there were others that were just complaining about "Well, I have this accessibility. I have it on my cellphone, why can't I have it in my car? What's the big deal? What's the big hold-up?"
C77: So there was a general feeling among consumers that there was a certain set of basic experiences that was lacking in terms of connection?
Iain Roberts: People are increasingly bringing more of themselves into the car, whether it be devices like the iPhone--which wasn't around back then--or cell phones or their own navigation devices or iPods or whatever. They're bringing a lot of stuff in. I think, to Gary's point, the challenge that we knew we were facing was: how do we enable that? How do we allow people to stay connected to their lives while driving safely? Because we all see it: people driving without an integrated system acting dangerously. Our challenge was integrating with the Sync platform in a way that provides seamless accessibility.
I think the really interesting point for me was in the very first program. The one where we ended up with the white prototype. As a team we moved from "It's about an interface" to "It's about an experience." With that program it was also about Sync as a platform. How do we provide connectivity in the car that allows me to plug in a variety of different things. So we looked at it from function to experience, and there were a lot of ideas that came out of that. The challenge for Gary and his team was taking that plethora of ideas and figuring out how to produce millions of something.
C77: I'm curious why certain features were adopted while others weren't between the final prototypes and the finished product. The differences between the final advanced prototype and the final design were noticeable.
IR: Visually, maybe. I think we always knew that what we delivered was intended to inspire an audience within Ford to go and make something that was different than what they had made before. Which is a fundamental challenge. If you look at the new way of thinking about the instrument panel--layering the information on the steering wheel with a tangible user interface and accommodating a fairly substantial glossy, interactive, visually stunning touch screen in the center console--those were fairly new things for Ford to be considering. It's all well and good making everything work on the center console, but I don't do that when I'm driving. I need my eyes on the road.
Basic spacial mapping of things on the right hand side of the steering wheel are about me: my stuff, my phone, my communication, and my navigation. The left hand side is about my car & driving information. We use color in the menus to provide peripheral vision cues so that when I'm driving along I know that I'm in a certain menu because I see the color change. I know I'm in "Music." It still operates the same way [in the production version]. The information architecture is very similar, and we've been testing recently with some of your marketing team in NY. People were like, "Wow, this really works." You can almost do it blind, which is exactly what we wanted to happen. The visual difference [between the prototype & production interface] is there but the underlying essence is still pretty integral.
GB: At the early stage of the project, that was what we were after. We were after the principals by which we were going build from. What IDEO created for us was simply the physical method of communicating all of those concepts. You can't talk about a concept if you don't have something that works. The shapes and forms were not so much the idea, it was the principles by which we were going to build on.
IR: And what you don't see--which we're going to allude to in the presentation today is--we delivered a guideline document that was 400 pages thick about behaviors. Honestly, we want executives to fall in love with something and go make it happen and a book doesn't make you fall in love with anything.
C77: How drastic of a shift was this for Ford? What was that translation from 2009 to this new My Touch Platform?
GB: In 2009 everything was generational, but it wasn't generational in a holistic sense. It was generational based on a radio. You were fighting for this automotive standard size. It's a certain length and width and the aftermarket dictates what the size is. We had to stay within that. What you saw was cramming in as many features as you could, because every feature was a revenue opportunity, but you had to stick with the same space. So you're really confined. Really we just outgrew those norms throughout the vehicle. It was really a point where enough is enough. We really need to take a step back and understand what we're offering to people.
IR I think from my perspective, the big leap that Ford took that a lot of auto manufacturers haven't taken yet is they began to look at this interface experience as a platform, rather than as an individual thing. So they recognized the fact that the stuff we bring in--the technology baggage we bring into the car--changes at a 6th month refresh rate. The computers you put in cars don't. One, they're four years old by the time they hit the market and two, they stay there for 10 years. So you have to have a platform.
GB: I remember on the first leg of work with IDEO, we talked about this new product from Apple that had this whole touch surface display that might be coming out or might not be coming out ...
C77: It's amazing to think how short of a time ago that really was!
GB: Yes! It was not that long ago. So you had a whole culture where people were just not interacting with their handheld devices that way, now everyone's got one.
IR: I remember Jim (Ford's director of electronics and electrical systems) standing up at CES two years ago talking about--and this is the moment where I thought, "These guys have got it!"--Ford's "Beamed In, Brought In, Built In" strategy. This idea that they're not going to try to build everything in because this (points to his iPhone) brings everything in. This is the "Brought In" strategy. Sync allows me to bring it in. We've got the heart, but sometimes this (iPhone) is the brains. Ford's building the platform in to support that technology. But if you think about that as a strategic change from "We have to own everything in the car" to "We're going to provide a platform from which we can deliver new experiences," it's radically different and I believe that this first step is just a first step.
C77: You mentioned the refresh rate of our devices now. What sort of special considerations did you have to take in your platform approach to accommodate that really rapid change?
GB: There was some talk at one point that whatever the device is we should have that UI on the screen for people to use. We quickly moved away from that because we realized that wasn't going to work. It's just not the way to handle it. You need to separate the UI from the individual product and deliver a voice activated UI that is universal.
C77: In the course of your research, you discovered that people preferred controls in their traditional spots, despite being able to place them anywhere. It's fitting that it reminds me of the Henry Ford quote: "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse." How do you balance the need for usability and market acceptance without just giving people a faster horse?
IR: For me the take-away was less about placement. More about the fact that we are layering a new digital experience into a car. The average age of a new car buyer in the US isn't us... it's older than us, because cars cost money. So we need to build this on top of a level of familiarity that invites people in. Just because we have a huge touch screen doesn't mean we should stick everything in it. So you start to see that in what we produced, we portrayed it as the very iconic knobs and dials at the bottom just to make the point: "Guys, there should be tangibility to this too!" But you see that in the MKX you'll see later. There's still tangibility and tactility to it. We need to provide things that are familiar to people in order to get them on the learning curve.
One of the main ideas was the layer of content; bringing content into your vehicle in a way that Ford had never done before. What would it look like if Ford mashed up with Yelp!? A lot of the feedback was "I trust Ford to get me from A to B safely, but I'm not sure I trust Ford to be telling me what the best coffee shop is around here. I want the people I trust to deliver those experiences to me." There was a level of learning for me in that.
GB: You want it to come pretty simply. You don't want it to come with a hurdle or a challenge. That was one of the reasons why, in certain cases, we stuck with conventions. But we also did bring in capacitive switches, as you'll see in the MKX. I've put 400 miles on the MKX in the last couple days. So I've really been doing a lot of driving and testing everything: the things like the [capacitive touch] sliding volume and fan speed. Those are things that people have very little familiarity with. That's something that nobody really asked for, but we're testing it with this one.
Were there any particular challenges with applying a single design regimen to an entire line of cars?
GB: Oh, absolutely!
IR: That's one for you, Gary.
GB: Huge challenge. Our vehicles are wildly different. Their interior space and reach zones and the driver spaces are very different. To reach across an F-150 to something in the center stack is much different than on a little Fiesta. That was one consideration. Just physical package space. Second was the fact that we have global responsibilities now to customers in different places where their acceptance of technology can be different than in the US. So we had to temper that. There needs to be some consideration for people who want to do this type of interaction and want this type of feature set and others that don't. We really had to make sure that we balanced that.
C77: Well, I'd love to take a look at the car!
C77: One thing that's really evident in person is that this interface looks a lot cleaner. the whole interface from left to right. There's so many fewer knobs and dials.
GB: If you compare this to today's MKX and you look at what's happening in the center area there's a radio that's about that big. It's loaded with controls and you have a separate climate control that loaded with controls and it's really a lot of similar looking buttons that you have to stare at the graphic to tell what you're doing. There's a lot of good division here of functionality, where I've got my audio controls here and my climate controls here. And there's groups of three basically. Three's a really good number for somebody to remember whether it's the one on the left, right or middle. Those simple ways of dividing up the functionality is what we added.
IR: People were saying "Aren't you worried because it's voice activated and that it would compete." But the reality is that we're providing redundant systems. So that I can activate it through voice control, I can activate it through steering wheel, and I can activate through the screen. I can activate a number of different ways so that we're not being so prescriptive that you have to learn. If you find a way that works for you, that's great! That's what I think is really beautiful about tangible, the digital, and the voice interface working in harmony.
GB: There's a lot of times when I'm driving and there's a function that I just do here and there may be a situation when I'm in a parking lot moving around my hand happens to be on the shifter and I operate something on the touch screen. So there's a lot of different ways to look at it. Some of the other things we have here are different ways to communicate the information. Looking on the left hand side [of the dash] I can look at my display modes. I have my fuel and miles to empty--very minimal. Or I can add a tachometer to that and look at my RPMs--if I want to. I can add Temperature of the engine if I want to or my all-wheel-drive. Very simple graphics.
IR: One of the most powerful things about this is that we've got the speedometer as tangible, two screens and another console screen. Every other manufacturer is living in beta on this in some regard. If there are changes you've got to go out and buy a new car. But if there are changes to be made here, it's software.
GB: To be honest, this SD card was mailed to me at the hotel. It was an upgrade for the Navigation system. This has a different navigation system than the original. It doesn't have the map nav, it's a variation that gives you turn by turn [on the main dash]. So, it's an upgrade. I've got new features that came through SD. Customers will be able to do this when they've had the vehicle for a year or a few month's and they want to upgrade to something else, this [SD card] is going to be the method to do it.
C77: Great work! I'm excited to see how consumers react. I want one!
GB: I can help you with that (laughs)