As we seemingly near “Internet of Things,” critical mass, one subject is becoming the favorite topic of the industry for all the wrong reasons: connected cars.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk gets a 60 Minutes feature, Apple launches CarPlay, AT&T and GM are wiring cars for LTE, and—of course—Google is making a strong play as well. What strikes me most is not the ubiquity of this conversation, but how many auto and software makers are so clearly missing the mark when it comes to designing for connected cars.
Earlier this year, USA Today covered Consumer Reports’ annual automobile reviews, highlighting the extent to which the CR tests and scores punished vehicles that—while performing well across the board on all other metrics—failed miserably at the performance and usability of their onboard “infotainment” systems; the digital platforms that are ubiquitous in vehicles today. The analog functions of many vehicles (i.e. knobs and levers to control the heating or cooling) have been usurped in favor of wholly digital platforms that do much more than just provide GPS directions or onboard control of music and entertainment.
Here are a couple of quotes in the article from Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports Director of Auto Testing:
“Ford Fusion is a good one to point to. A very competitive vehicle that looks and drives like a European sports sedan. But a major downfall is a frustrating and buggy control system. We’ve had a lot of complaints about the systems locking up or rebooting or going blank.”
“The Cadillac CTS, arguably one of the most desirable vehicles in its class, drives brilliantly, is gorgeous inside, but has controls that are extremely frustrating. Even adjusting the volume of the radio is difficult.”
The poor performance and ergonomics of these onboard vehicle tech systems contributed largely to the Ford and Cadillac being ranked 22nd and 20th respectively, out of 23 auto brands.
Think about that for a moment. Two very large, very dominant automotive manufacturers—who, by all accounts, navigated the myriad design and engineering challenges necessary to bring a competitive performing product to market—were undercut and penalized for the poor performance and usability of their onboard digital systems.
As a user experience director, it made me wonder how this continues to happen. How do sophisticated, well-funded companies with ample resources continue to struggle to deliver on one of the most basic mantras product managers around the world have embraced: the need to make things simple and understandable for consumers? Why, in a world of computer-generated snack cookies and flying remote-controlled Tasers, is simple still so hard to do?
Here are some of the major pitfalls I see companies and teams falling victim to—overly complicating their offerings or completely losing track of what “simple” needs to be for their respective audiences or users.
Catching a Bad Case of Featuritis
A very common pitfall for teams and product managers is to get caught up in a feature-arms-race mentality. Whatever the website, app, service, or product, it needs to have as many features as whatever else is in the marketplace—plus a few more for good measure. While it is certainly true that feature parity and feature superiority is important, it's equally important to have feature focus and the highest possible degree of what I call “feature performance integrity.”
For many years, this was one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Microsoft products versus Apple products. While they have made numerous strides in recent years, the ding on Microsoft products was that they focused mostly on what was offered from a marketing “side of the box” perspective—it was more about listing ever more capabilities and functional offerings. But what Steve Jobs understood—and drove his teams at Apple to embrace as a core design consideration—is that less is much more than the sum of its parts as long as you execute the hell out of that less. Consumers will reward the product that performs better, is smarter, and more elegant, even if it has half the functional feature set.
When I see clients heading down this path with their decision-making, I like to use the example of a Swiss Army knife that includes every conceivable tool. It clearly wins the feature war within the pocketknife category. But, however much of an interesting conversation piece it is, it fundamentally fails in its basic mission, which is being a pocketknife.
Define the basic mission of the product or service, and be as stringent as possible in determining which features or functions are absolutely essential and those that feel like they are arbitrarily being included for vaguer, less user-centric rationales like “market differentiation” or “competitive parity.” (If you do click through to the Amazon page for the ultimate Swiss Army knife mentioned above, all I ask is that you don’t get so distracted from reading the hilarious reviews people have posted that you forget to come back and finish reading this piece.)
Everything is Essential for Everyone
This is a cousin of featuritis—falling into the trap of thinking each and every possible functional need or feature needs to be supremely prominent on the home page or start screen. Anyone reading this who is a member of the design community will recognize how this commonly plays out, with raging debates among teams (or with clients) over how many items can possibly be crammed above the fold. These debates are a complete distraction.
Effective products are wise to embrace an 80/20 rule, the notion that 80 percent of any user population or customer base has an immediate need for about 20 percent of your actual features. This rule of thumb isn’t new, but with the seismic shift in digital experiences that have moved far beyond the desktop, to tablets, phones, wearables, and connected cars, it has become increasingly more critical to keep in mind.
Assuming Simple is Only a Domain of Designers
A near-universal question repeated to design teams by product managers or stakeholders is: “Can you make it very simple, like Google.” Who could possibly argue with that? Like Mom and apple pie, this type of shorthanded design “direction” has embedded itself in the shorthand of providing design direction.
Well, here is the quibble with this particular piece of feedback. Simplicity of experiences is inherently not limited to the exclusive domain, control, and influence of the design team. Our peers on the product management and business stakeholder sides need to understand the equal role they play in this equation.
Let’s take the Google example to its logical conclusion. When launched, Google’s innovation did not begin and end at the surface layer—its clean, uncluttered, Zen-like home page. At the time of Google’s introduction (and yes, I am old enough to share this from first-hand experience), Google’s home page stood out in contrast to numerous search engines with home pages cluttered with menu systems, search “filters” and, mostly, advertisements.
But Google defined the focus for its product: the actual technical performance of the search algorithm. Their spare design was an open invitation to visitors compared to the AltaVista, HotBots, and Lycos offerings of the time: “Use us, We’re different. We’re easy.” But that promise was not simply interface-skin deep. It delivered. They backed up the talk of that simple invitation with the walk of their advanced, breakthrough engineering: a superior search algorithm. People approached it because it appeared simple, but they used it again and again because it was powerful. It worked. It made a promise it could keep.
That is an essential truth of any new product, whether it is Google or Ivory Soap. Make a promise and deliver on it. Delivering on that promise is about so much more than the interface or consumer layer of the product, which is why the appreciation of what we all collectively have at stake when it comes to bringing products to market is so important. Smart teams don’t simply pay complexity forward, leaving it all in a final “heap” for design teams to grapple with and sort out.
The auto manufacturer having the most success in this arena, according to the Consumer Reports results, was Tesla. What’s telling about the Tesla story is what appears to be one of the root causes of its success: the decision to keep its core design and engineering capabilities closely held within the organization. This recent MIT Technology Review Q&A with JB Straubel, Tesla co-founder and CTO, is telling in how it describes the incumbent advantages they feel they have over other car companies that have outsourced or sub-contracted so much of their design and engineering capabilities in order to grow or preserve margins.
While the example used in the Q&A relates to innovations in areas such as superchargers and lithium cell battery packs, the correlation is clear: areas of focus with high complexity, such as the connected car, benefit when control and discipline is highly centralized and managed. It‘s much, much easier to control and steer design and engineering outcomes towards success when all of the disparate systems—with their inherent, underlying complexities—are dealt with as an integrated problem that needs solving. This is the strategy that Apple has pursued with its approach to mobile device design engineering (the hardware aspect) and the various intersecting software systems (i.e. the operating system, iTunes, etc.).
Everything Old is Everything New
Richard Branson, the founder and visionary catalyst behind everything in the Virgin brands portfolio, has the perfect quote to serve as a code to my musings on this subject:
“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple.”
Simplicity is hard, and simplicity takes discipline. And the tidal pull of shiny, new, elaborate (fill in the blank in terms of the underlying motivation or rationale) has an inherent, built in bias to navigate you away from simple. So be vigilant, be focused, and keep your collective eyes on the end goal.
When designing for a connected car, you have so much that you could include. Not just the basics of entertainment like how to adjust the radio, but information about the performance of the car itself. The key, however, is determining what’s really important. What do most drivers want and need, and how can you include a flexibility that allows for the more enterprising car owner to get their information fix?