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The UX Explorers at Ford

by Steve Tengler
7 min read
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An interview with Parrish Hanna and Chris Thibodeau, the heads of experience research and design at Ford Motor Company, on the future of UX for the automotive giant.

Looking back, the early 21st century will be considered the age of UX Epiphany. For nearly fifty years, we languished with knobs and buttons where styling was only the consideration of plasticized curves.

The last decade, however, has seen an onslaught of new user interfaces and associated modalities bringing a paradigm shift about a company’s holistic product; sleekness is measured when it is electrically alive as well as mechanically alive. Dr. William Gribbons said it best in his article The Four Waves of User-Centered Design.”

“In the most demanding markets, user experience became part of a product’s brand and was carefully orchestrated across every touch point with the customer.”

In response to this recent explosion in UX, Ford Motor Company has hired folks like Parrish Hanna and Chris Thibodeau—Global Director of Human-Machine Interface and Executive Manager of Global Product Planning for User Interface, Connectivity, and Infotainment respectively—to react and reshape Ford’s user experience.

Hanna’s past was non-automotive having spent years in the connected world with Motorola. “I came from consumer electronics and telecommunications, where you are always looking for a captive space in which to work, like a kitchen or living room. Automotive has that captive space, which makes a big difference. The challenge is to help the user with other elements such as dealing with comfort, efficiency, interactions like navigation, making a call, listening to music, etc. layered in a single space and controlled in multiple dimensions, not to mention adjusting things like momentum and braking. A great blend of physical and digital design challenges.”

Thibodeau, on the other hand, comes from a long history of automotive product development (Visteon, GM) with teams including user experience designers and researchers. “It takes a two-prong approach to plan and design effectively. Silo engineering is not the way to get great user experiences. Parrish and I help and strive to bring a cross-functional mindset.”

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with both of them and inquire about Ford’s new direction for user experience and the next generation of human-machine interfaces.

TENGLER: The emergence of the mobile consumer electronics market has changed significantly over the past few years. How do you see Ford playing in or matching that growth?

THIBODEAU: I think for Ford it’s about designing a system that has extensibility that can accommodate for these disruptions and changes that are going to occur. [These are things] that you ultimately can’t plan for, but you know you have a design that’s flexible so you can have that great experience. It’s important for us to anticipate that change in our design without knowing what will come.

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HANNA: And then setting up an infrastructure that can support that continuous learning, whether it’s analytics, technical research, ethnography, shadowing, video observation, or all of those types of things. I think everyone is racing for that. That, to me, is the interesting part. It’s still easy to get the data, right? Anybody can get the data. There are a lot of anthropologists, psychologists, usability labs, and think-data specialists out there, but the magic is in the analysis, the synthesis, and how you apply that to your experience for actionable insights. Yes, frameworks will be different, levels of acceptability will be different, accommodation partnerships for over-the-air updates will be different, but to me the magic is in that translation since not a lot of people do that well and grasp the idea that it is completely uncertain.

THIBODEAU: Everybody talks about Big Data and all the opportunities that represents, and for the most part that’s true. But the issue is relevance; the right info at the right time. You can’t analyze everything. Being focused on the tenets and understanding the data you need to fortify those is the key to succeeding.

Where UX is concerned, Consumer Reports has not always been friendly to U.S. manufacturers in the past few years. Does their perception match your customers’ opinions? If not, how do you see those converging?

MyFord Touch was ahead of the industry and, because of that, it took a hit

HANNA: Everyone is hyper-aware of JD Power, Consumer Reports, etc. There are really talented analysts at all of those places. They have good heuristics; some focus a little more on brand, some on usability and efficiency, some focus on safety. They all try to balance those things out, and they are indexing on the same attributes that we are. The challenge is to also elevate your brand continuously, which probably means bringing in new things and sometimes being fairly experimental. To me, the whole driver-assist world is quite experimental and in the learning phase whether it’s your limiter, your gap, your lane-keep assistance, your auto-parking. And how you package them, combine them, present them, interact with them or even [understanding] what a customer expects from them is all new. For the analysts it is hard to judge, so they err on the side of extreme simplicity and ease of use, but for some [customers] extreme simplicity would translate to uninteresting.

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THIBODEAU: I agree with Parrish. A lot of the reports that you see out there have good reasons for giving demerits to a design. You’ve missed the mark in this one category. Sometimes it’s over-emphasized but, in general, you cannot argue with the complexity or issues that they point out … and we are striving to get better coming out of the chute on those items. The degree that they do focus just needs a little more balance.

HANNA: The reality is we have the same simulators, we have the same test track, we have almost the same criteria for judgment so we anticipate much of that smoothing out over time.

How does the automotive supply base need to change for UX in the coming years?

HANNA: I think it’s more the nature of how (original equipment manufacturers) OEMs are going to interact with suppliers; the partnerships and relationships they are going to have and what OEMs are choosing to be known for. If you have a particular aspect of a user experience for which you want to be known, you should own that infrastructure, you should own that data, you should control as much as possible. There are a lot of commodities and simple functions the vehicles are going to do and suppliers have some great solutions for those. But I think the OEMs are going to pick and choose and have control over their brand and UX roadmap. Some of the more effective suppliers are those that index heavily on inputs and that’s their specialty, or index more heavily on content in the cloud and that’s their specialty. The kind of blanket that, “We can do anything everywhere and own the whole cockpit for you,” doesn’t usually wash and is vanilla with a lot of mediocre ideas coming together versus [suppliers] that go really deep on a specific topic and truly differentiate.

THIBODEAU: There’s a certain transparency that needs to happen between OEMs and Tier 1’s (i.e. direct suppliers to an OEM) where we can talk about the things that are important to us, but from a Tier 1 perspective they can’t sell the one-size-fits-all solution. They need to be able to tailor their opportunities, their skill sets, and the benefits that they can bring to us to our needs so that we can solve the problems we need to solve at the appropriate times. It needs to fit our brand rather than what they are trying to monetize. LumenVox Tuner

Along those lines, the Ford brand has previously marketed towards being known for voice with SYNC. Will that continue to be case? If so, why voice?

THIBODEAU: Voice, in general, has a place in all systems, but it shouldn’t be construed as we want to be known for just voice. We want to be known for a great user experience and, to the degree that it leverages voice, it aligns. We want voice recognition to provide ease of use, but it isn’t singularly the most important piece.

HANNA: Yeah, I think with any input modality, people will experiment, find a comfort zone and use it for specific things. But the question is, “Can we broaden those specific things?” We know [voice recognition] has proven itself to be a good means for input for some things, so it’s prudent for us to continuously improve that and understand the models that work best. But it is one of those primary technologies where the stability and the advancement of technology runs parallel to the usefulness, efficacy, and ultimately customers’ perception.

Ford brought you both in after MyFord Touch—Ford’s Human-Machine Interface platform—launched in 2010. Why? And why you?

HANNA: I think companies are evolving towards more of a consumer experience mindset with more of a holistic, iterative, user-centered way of doing things. And even just the process of how to get there: how to handle it on the business side, how to handle it on the consumer side, how to handle it on the technology side, and then how to negotiate within a large company to actually affect change or a new way of doing things. MyFord Touch was ahead of the industry and, because of that, it took a hit and incrementally gets better, which is part of the iterative process. You could say the same thing for a cluster, a steering wheel layout, climate controls or anything; they continuously get better and [more] reflective of how people approach things.

THIBODEAU: I think what they recognized was that … we both brought a degree of change agent mentality to create an environment that will make Ford successful. Not to the extent that either one of us is the sole answer, but they recognized that they needed to bolster the design community, they needed different experiences, and they needed to plan for success. You don’t just by happenstance end up with a great design; [we] need to go about it in a systematic way and get it woven into our business and cycle plan.

post authorSteve Tengler

Steve Tengler, Steve Tengler is a Senior Director with the Honeywell Connected Vehicle group, where he oversees a global team of engineers, data scientists and designers working on vehicle monitoring solutions such as cybersecurity, prognostics, etc. Steve is a proven expert in the field of the connectivity and user experience with over twenty-five years of experience on some of the country's top automotive teams, such as OnStar, Nissan, Ford and Honeywell.


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