Legendary Failures

January 5, 2018 • ILE LAB • Richard Sheridan

Richard Sheridan’s comment on Boaz Tamir’s post, “Even Toyota Has to Learn to Listen to Its Customers”:

Boaz –

I love the tone you set in the letter. I’m guessing for you there were likely moments of true anger throughout this experience. You channeled it well here.

The problem you are describing has yet to be solved by any of the world’s automotive manufacturers. It’s as if they lose their minds when it comes to the infotainment systems. There are almost legendary in their failures in this area.

You may recall that our Menlo mission states “we want to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology”. One of the most obvious points of suffering in the consumer world is that of the center stack. My wife’s Audi Q5 is almost laughable, except when you consider how much we spent on the car!

I have told one of Menlo’s automotive insider partners that my expectation of our relationship is that one day he will connect us with just one automotive company … give us one shot … and our High-tech Anthropologists® would give you a system that would make you sing, literally and figuratively. This isn’t about how smart the engineers are, or how updated the underlying technology is … this is about understanding the humans in their native environment. An Infotainment system is being operated by someone who is DRIVING A CAR. All standard design rules change under those circumstances. Driving a car is actually harder than flying an airplane under distracted circumstances (at least civilian aircraft). There is much less room for errors based on distractions. Your comment “and I almost caused an accident” is exactly my point.

We were engaged by an automotive firm to design the heads up display. Because it was a high-profile project, they also engaged one of the most famous industrial design firms in the world to craft a competing design. That famous firm’s team was embedded in our client’s engineering labs. We were working out of our office. We did some wonderful High-tech Anthropology work. As our intermediate Show & Tell’s were showing our progress there were visible signs of the disappointment by the display engineers who kept commenting that our designs were using so few of the pixels available on the display (that’s important, right?). Our feedback was that design assessments we were doing with real users suggested that they couldn’t track more than two or three things on the display and drive safely. You’d be fascinated at how simple our prototypes were!

At the final Show & Tell, the bake-off if you will, the two designs were shown side by side. Ours: simple, practical, boring. The other firm’s? Colorful, pulsating, loaded with features. We could hear the oh’s and ah’s.

We had done a good job, I know we had. We didn’t have the reputation of the other firm. We were proud to have even been asked to the table. We knew the answer they were going to select. We were designing for the users of the vehicles, the other firm was designing for the executives making the decision. Oh well.

The project work completed about six years ago. As I’m sure you know it takes a LONG time from design to launch and this unit was no exception. It just came out this year.

And much to our surprise and delight, it was our design that shows up in the advertisements. I have yet to drive one to see how true they stayed to our final designs but the pictures tell enough of the story to confirm their choice. My best guess is that somewhere along the way, the safety team got involved, since this wasn’t “infotainment” but rather dashboard, they probably use a different safety lens since this kind of display is actually more essential to driving. Maybe the safety people assume if you are frustrated with your infotainment system, you’ll just ignore it and not allow it to “almost cause an accident”. This is one of the fundamental flaws in allowing engineers to do user experience design: they forget that we are irrational creatures, driven by emotions, not logic. If your frustration actually caused an accident and you, someone you loved, or another driver were killed or injured because of this distraction, the NTSB report would declare “driver error” as the cause.

Thanks for waking me up this morning into my deepest area of passion!

Rich Sheridan
January 5th, 2018

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