Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Strange I would start an article about cars by talking about the Interior Design Show, but it goes to a point. I had the opportunity to go to IDS last week, as I do every year, and this year was a sad one for design. It all started this winter at IIDEX the largest design show in Canada and the Formula 1 of showing off. This year was, to say the least, like watching a couple of teenagers race shopping carts down a ramp. The innovation was gone. It was like someone said, ‘Oh no the economy is crashing don’t look too flashy!’ This theme of low key sadly went from the Haute couture of design shows to the more provincial IDS show. Standard faire abounded at both. The usual suspects showed up, but only in person, with only the staples of their business on display knowing full well that tried and true will sell. What chance did the auto manufacturers have, hat in hand looking for money, to be able to glitz up their products with great displays at their most important Canadian show?
Import-ant knowledge
It was almost as if an ocean apart from the woes of their own crisis gave the imports leave to be somewhat flamboyant. I really think they just ‘get’ design and it’s ability to do more than just style something. Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota all had bright open airy booths with views to the future. There was no hint at recession, rather they used their misfortune of being in a business driven by the cost of oil as a mantra to show off the challenges they would champion through the superiority of innovation, creation and vision. Standing inside the Honda booth, or Nissan, you felt like there was a bright future ahead and you were already in it. You couldn’t help but be enveloped by the experience. From the shape of the walls, to the detail colours, from the materials and elevation texture, everything set off their products and made them stand out. More than that, as a whole experience package, you were left reaching for your wallet in order to be part of this wonderful future where the dismal goings on of real life couldn’t penetrate. Design touched everything and was consistent with the same message, ‘the bright clean future beyond the short term challenges’. The European offerings were not too far afield of the Japanese, their booths, as bright, yet somewhat less futuristic, gave a great sense of ‘it ain’t so bad’ attitude. A Stoic, ‘we will endure’ feeling which showcased their engineering marvels in a clean minimalist now-future.
De-sign of the times
The effect of the overall visual presentation by the North American car companies was very very different. Their booths were like fogs where even though they were brightly lit, made you feel like the weight of their woes were squarely set on your shoulders. In the case of Chrysler, it wasn’t even lit well. A black curtain back drop, a few plant and signs made it feel like a community cruise night. There was no bright future, no better tomorrow, no joi de vivre. It was as if so much as a handful of glitter might draw unwanted attention by the media. I can understand the point, no matter how misguided, of not wanting to seem like scarce money was being wasted, was translated into minimalist booths. But, the one place we expected to find a reachable American dream was devoid of any excitement.  Although smiles abound, and new shiny products were displayed and talked about with vigour, something behind the scenes made it all feel like hushed tones. Booths, when actually there, were flat and fairly sparse in their groupings. Duo or tri-tones were only used in so far as to portray company colours and green to show concern for the environment. Overhead dynamics and movement were ridged and didn’t help to draw the eye or body towards the parking lot style layout of their offerings. A bit more was given to new releases in the form of their own display backdrop, or turntable but nothing too gregarious. Standing in one of these booths left me feeling like I didn’t want to be part of their problems. It was like arriving late at a party where someone had just punched a hole in the wall.
The story of E2
What they all had in common was their focus on the economic crisis and the environment. Although different approaches, technologies and visual presentations, the message was the same. ‘There are tough times ahead but our products are better for the environment, better for the future, better for your children.’ As mentioned, the imports wrapped their message tightly into their whole brand image. Everything revolved around what they will do after the crisis abates and how they are going to help you bridge it. The domestic companies had islands of environmental consciousness surrounded by pickups, SUV’s and muscle cars, seemingly unwilling to take the whole future thing into the heart of their business model. You would think that after having seen what the Japanese accomplished in the 70’s, they would be quick to pick up on the cues of what everyone else is doing now. Again, the European approach to showcase new technology was to rest on the superiority of their engineering.
The different types of technology shown was interesting in that unlike the gas powered engine, several different methods of creating electricity for power are actually viable. There was even a system which captures breaking energy, stores it in batteries and uses it to power the electrical systems of the car leaving more engine power for driving. There were pure fuel cell hybrids which turned gasoline into electricity to run the motor. There were pure electric vehicles and electric gas hybrids which use batteries that are topped up by a small gas engine. Every company with a program showed off their technology. Interestingly Honda was the only one who showed it off in a true future concept car which took it to the next level. They explored the users relationship with the automobile and it’s changing economies and visually explored it.
Tragic Vaudeville.
If there is one thing to be learned from the biggest consumer consumption marketing machine, it is that a weak package, with poor experience design, no matter how great the offerings, will fail to inspire people to desire your products.  As with the interior design show, the auto show has numerous components that have to go together to create a compelling experience. There is of course the product and the technology as well as the promotional items. But there is also the lighting design, the texture, movement, walking patterns, points of interest, communal and private areas. All the things of good environmental design, great architecture and usable space. Each of which also have to combine to create an entertainment which draws you in, tells a story with you at the centre, gives you joy and won’t let you leave.
Every aspect needs to be designed. Be it by an industrial designer, environmental designer, graphic artist or architect all working together under one large experience design. The big picture needs to be drawn, planned and executed. Picasso only works because one vision brings it all together.

The Direction of Change.

Just Drive She Said.
Who is designing cars for me, the Mid Gen X who grew up on the birth of the Internet, console games, new wave and an anything goes freedom never felt by any other generation? I’m talking about people who feel the Beatles are not classic rock but closer to geriatric rock, and Deep Purple is a colour not a band. We, on the early end, lived the Jam, Wham or Depeche Mode and on the young end, still constantly look for the next new band. So-called retro cars are all the rage now with each of the American manufacturers offering their rendition of muscle. Funny how retro means different things to different people. To me it means the ’80s; to the car makers it means the ’60s. Even a couple of the import companies had chimed in with remakes. I wonder though, in all that these cars stand for, reflect through their design, or conjure images of, how are they supposed to relate to me?
Drive my car.
Cars like the Camaro, Mustang, Chevy HHR, PT Cruiser and Challenger are all my dad’s cars, better relegated to sock hop playing AM radio station cruise nights than my driveway. The peace, love and flower power of the mini and the Bug, my mother’s cars, just don’t chime with where I am going. People this age, being in their sixties or seventies are not buying new cars to relive some part of their lives any more. Also not considered by these examples, less in the Mini and Bug, is the relationship between the vehicle’s performance and the way my generation lives, grows and attains the things we deem as valuable. We don’t do as our parent did. That eye on the prize, one way, straight line reach out and grab it style of life and learning. We are more about round about routes to what we want, multiple paths to a goal which isn’t clearly defined but grows as we learn and grow. We change direction at a whim and are comfortable with our choices, good or bad. We look for cars which reflect this. Going 0-60 fast a quarter mile at a time is not interesting to us. We want to feel secure going around corners as a reflection of our lives and lifestyle choices.
Don’t you want me.
Then there are the models which came into their own during the ’90s and are still in production now. I’m talking of the Civic and Accord, the Mazda 3, Lancer, Pontiac G5/Chevy Cobalt which as far as I can tell is a Z24. Sure they grew up, got more sophisticated, lost some of their cheapness, and inexpensiveness. But I sure didn’t put posters of them up on my wall back in the ’80s wishing I was cruising to school in one. Like most gear heads my age, I dreamed of a Lamborghini Countach or the Magnum PI Ferrari. I envied those with jobs who drove a Nissan 280ZX or a Toyota Supra. I wanted the bike from Akira with all the technology of a Q masterpiece. After waiting 20 years could my dreams be answered? From first glimpse at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2001 of the square jaw and open mouth, to the 2005 concept car which by now looked as if it were a real transformer, I held my breath they would bring it here.
A new orphan urban integrated.
The Nissan Skyline was an unattainable pinnacle of Japanese power. It was shown off in tuner magazines before the term tuner even existed. My stomach knotted up and my lip curled just thinking about the Skyline and how it was the one car, where no matter how much I earned, I could never have living in North America. Guys in Japan pounding out 1000HP from an R32 car that looked the business. Just looking at the car you could tell it did corners, and that you could probably intimidate anyone with American muscle into giving up at the line before even launching. When the fifth generation R34 design came out it was a sleek brick of a car with low stance that looked like it was hunkered down to the road. From the flared fenders and strong hip line to the massive intakes in all the right places the design said fast. When you looked at the lines of the car, you could see the earlier models. You saw where the car came from. And, you could see the way in which its boxy form seemed to have been sculpted by speed so fast it had melted the solid steel into its final shape. This was a car that could seat four, had a trunk big enough to fit a sub box and a rack of amps and still have room to spare.
Robot High School.
When the Z roadster became a stylish poster vehicle for the Nissan’s turnaround, nobody knew what a Nissan was supposed to be. Now, Nissan’s brand is much less muddied, and the GT-R is more likely to refine, rather than redefine, the company’s image. The new GT-R is boxy, with thick, chunky rear haunches and flared front-wheel well arches. Shiro Nakamura, the chief creative officer of Nissan, has noted that the GT-R’s square lines and vents were influenced by Gundam robots. “The GT-R is unique because it is not simply a copy of a European-designed supercar, it had to really reflect Japanese culture.” He directed three design studios, one in Europe, one in North America, and one in Japan to dream up the next version of the vehicle. American designers contributed a more rounded set of contours on the rear three-quarters of the vehicle, softening the stark, flat trunk lines which were drawn in Japan. The European designers influenced the roof line of the car, adding a hard kick in the C-pillar unlike in any other current Nissan vehicle. “There are no big cues for Nissan here,” says Nakamura. “This one will stand alone, because the GT-R is built from its own design language.” The company Polyphony Digital, creators of the Gran Turismo series of racing video games, were involved in the development of the GT-R, having been contracted to design the GT-R’s multifunction display.
Baby Driver.
I’m looking forward to having some time with this car as I really like the lines, the weight and the overall form of its sculpture. The way in which a sculpture leaves the ground is as important as the sculpture itself. I am also looking forward to seeing if the in-car computer display goes that extra mile and forges a new path. I am interested to see if the interface was as thought out as the rest of the car. Too often the correlation between the virtual and the physical is ignored or left as a side thought. Done right, and this will be the car to redefine cars. If Nissan and Polyphony Digital put half as much thought into the interface of the multifunction display as was put into the form of the vehicle, this car will mark a point where super cars will be described as before GT-R or after GT-R.

Insulting the customer into opening their wallets.

A trend has emerged over the last little while in television advertising. More and more I have noticed that commercials rely on showing a person who doesn’t use the product or service to be a loser, an idiot or pathetic. The trend is to make the male actor the one to be on the receiving end. Everything about the depicted person is undesirable, from receding hairline, to sloppy clothing to lack of respect from friends or family. Why do advertisers find it necessary to resort to this type of marketing? What prompted the shift from benefit driven education of a customer to belittling? Is is a symptom of society’s self image or the cause of it? How will it change now that web 2.0, 2.5 or even 3.0 are on the horizon?
At some point over the last 30 years men went from the bread winner and supposed decision maker within a family unit to the butt of jokes. Call it the Simpsonification of the family unit or some other term, either way, advertisers realized that women were the real purchase drivers. Women were the ones who needed to be convinced that the product or service was for them. I find it interesting that when you look at the differences in psychology between men and women, that they would have chosen to do their ads in such a way. I can see men liking the three stooges low brow comedy used today to sell a product, but not women. So why, if women are the ones being advertised to, are these base parodies used?
Both with men or women as the protagonist, we see this trend. Also interesting is that for the most part, the products or services are those which a man would be the most likely to initiate conversation about purchasing. Seldom do we see this type of tactic when the product is something a man would purchase on their own. Think sports cars, shampoo or ‘just for men’ products. This is not to say that it doesn’t occur. Take the Gillette mach 3 commercials where some one’s decision to use or purchase a product is affected by a famous athlete. Here we see the hero being physically pushed into purchasing the product. Or the Just for Men beard and moustache colour. Three famous football stars one of which is old and grey with no game.
We do occasionally see this intellectual simplifying in representations of women in commercials. Usually though, the simple personality is the one to pass information or educate someone else to the product benefits. Take for instance the commercial where a woman has a secret about the three cheese mix she uses. She asks her, simple, friend if she can keep it secret. She says yes and before even turning around passes along the information, breaking her promise. Intellectually we relate to the hero in the commercial, we can be her if we buy the product. But, even if we put ourselves in the shoes of the simple woman we don’t feel offended as she becomes an educator, a teacher of the product and therefore a secondary-hero if you will.
Is it a symptom of the society we live in, or are the products or services so lacking in quality, truth and ability to deliver that advertisers have to avoid mentioning these things? Do people really relate to these persona’s in commercials, or is there a subconscious sence of power over someone less than you? Is it all the result of the people coming up with the ideas having grown up in a Simpsons world with art directors too afraid to question the ‘new’ wisdom? What will happen in the future with web 2.x on? I can’t answer these questions but I can make decisions about what I will do to move forward, differentiate my self and reflect society and so can you.
[update 15 Jan 2009 from information published in Fast Company]
“Here’s one good reason: Women buy 57% of consumer electronics (to the tune of about $80B), but influence 90% of all CE purchases. Yes, fellas. If you really want that cool new 60 inch flat screen, you’ll have to get it by your house’s electronic major domo first.
But here’s a far more dispiriting number: the number of women who said they thought manufacturers had them in mind when developing products: 1%”

MMOG – The learning curve and what it has to do with interface design outside of the gaming world.

“The current trend in MMOG’s appears to be make the game so easy and interest-grabbing right out of the gate that even a person with the attention span of a monkey chewing on a flyswatter will be able to keep up and get into the swing of things. Depth of game mechanics is still possible with a system like this, but it needs to be introduced not only clearly, but later in the game, after a player has played enough to be hooked and is willing to put in some extra time to learn about the more intricate game mechanics available to them. “ [Ten Ton Hammer]
Interface used to provide information to a user should be played and fun to use. I have said this over and over again since the early 90’s. We should play our way to the information we want and the way in which we play would provide bread crumbs to the system with which it can increase our enjoyment of our time spent.
Consider the three types of interface this can relate to; Virtual, physical and a cross between the two.
In the first instance, let’s restrict our brief here to a simple web page or application where a simple point and click or tab/enter navigation is used to move through pages of information. Given a number of pages with information on them and a simple navigation system, it is possible to track a users movements through the navigation and dynamically adjust through the learned movements of the user the navigation system to best suit the individual user. A web page, given a western visual understanding of space, can be served in a simple to use and understand navigation style and can be adjusted over time to suit the individual user once a pattern of use is understood. This information can be stored and retrieved for use during future visits whereby we are able to pronounce the navigation preference of individual users making it more intuitive.  Most often this information is only used to track metrics associated with multiple users or to provide user controlled preferences.
Let’s say a user enters a used vehicle sales site. The site provides selection for a number of types of used vehicles, car, truck, motorcycle etc, and three methods of finding the vehicle you want. There is a navigation on the left, a drop down list box and a set of images. This simple offering of three distinct ways of accessing the information provide a massive range of understanding to the user base. Visual users will usually opt for the images, while ‘I know what I want’ users will hit the drop down lists and ‘lookie lou’s’ who like to see lots of data and them make a choice will tend to use the left side navigation.
From a single click we have access to information about the user and can act on that information in serving up the next page and provide a custom interface that seems intuitive and fun.  We also have the ability on subsequent pages to constantly refine our interface for the individual.
If a user uses the standard expand/collapse left side navigation they will more likely be the type of person that is interested in an expanded list of choices, a back/forward straight line experience, but also might be interested in an explanation of some of the lesser known options to help them decide. If a user selects cars, then the system provides navigation options to types of cars, sedan, coupe, convertible… and can hold information on the differences between them. If a user mouses over the sedan option and spends X amount of time ‘reading the mouse over’ and then does the same for coupe but not for convertible, then one can assume they were interested in definition of the terms sedan, coupe and can use that information on the next page should the user select sedan or coupe by providing further or more detailed information about the one they selected. But if they select convertible and didn’t hold the mouse over then we can assume they know what one is and are more likely to just be looking for the next level of resolution in their selection of a convertible car, make/model etc.  Of course we track each of our assumptions and adjust for wrong ones.  If in our example we provide a paragraph of definition information about the sedan or coupe on the next page and the user scrolls past the definition information quickly, we can adjust our assumption that they were interested in a definition and not provide masses of it on prime screen realestate, but perhaps try slightly more in depth mouseovers with a link in them to greater information.
Where a visual user will understand pictures easier, they are often not given them to select from in the next level of navigation. Here is where we have the option to learn from the user and serve up interface on a custom basis. If, as in the above example, the user selects cars through the image selector, then on the next page images of each, sedan, coupe and convertible can be shown. Again these can contain the script for tracking time on a mouse over which can be used as above. It follows in the pattern above, that the next page for make/model can show company logos or images of types of convertibles.
In the case of the drop down list user, because of the nature of these lists the user through selection from multiple lists provides the system with enough information to take the user to their final page, the next page is not the same as the other two navigation pages which still require user input.
We can also track other things the user uses or doesn’t use and make them more or less prevalent on the page. For example, if a user never uses the loan calculator, searches for trucks or always leaves the page for a bank web site, we can simplify and clean up the interface providing easier access to the items the user does use over and over again or to related items.  Think about the last example where a user always goes to a banking web site, well, why not provide a link the next time that takes them there, or a loan calcuator that incorporates rates directly from their bank of choice?
With our second instance, this type of mouse over for information is not something we use in physical interface. The use of labels or icons near the button is used to convey execution result of a a press action. Along with texture, colour, material, lights and a number of other visual cues to convey a physical reaction item, the resulting mechanical action by the object is the cue that you have achieved your goal through your interface with the object. Ie, your drink comes crashing into the receptacle bin.
We can though make use of customization in physical interfaces. Let’s use in our example a set of actions performed by someone interfacing with a device in an auto assembly plant. Lets say the user is installing an object into the vehicle and this object requires that 6 bolts and 6 screws are inserted to affix the item to the vehicle. Now using RFID or a swipe card we can track individual users and store preference information about them and their methods of work. For example if user one likes to install the six bolts then the six screws we can track this and have the machine switch bits for them in that order. If user two finds it easier to install 2 bolts then the 6 screws then the remaining bolts, the machine can adjust it’s bit changing to accommodate the users interface with the item. Given an articulating head on the driver, another parameter can be stored and used such as left or right hand use in the users preference. I.e., bolt 1 and two right hand, screw 1~4 left hand insertion, screw 5 and6 right hand insertion, bolt 3~5 right hand and bolt 6 left hand. The articulation angle of the head, left or right, and the bit selection can be automatically changed by the system to aid in the actions once the users pattern is learned. Learning this pattern is something the device will do over many repetitions of the action in the same way the user will find the best way to accomplish the job at hand. Or, the pattern has to be inputed for each user based on watching the current method of work. In either case, adjustments must be easy to make for the user on the fly for the interface to increase productivity and not be a hindrance. Perhaps the user finds the angle of attack with the articulating head too different and needs to adjust how much it articulates over time for the best fit with their learned motor skills, or with an articulating head it is easier to do the task in a different pattern.
Our third instance, a cross interface, where we use a hard button to create action in a virtual space it could be interesting to have a finger over action for the button through some form of sensor that when activated provides greater information to the user than just a label does. How about you lightly touch a button and the label changes to provide a scrolling text of information about what will happen if you press the button. This would be a great use of OLED or e-Ink labels. What if we provided this option within an elevator. As I finger over the floor buttons during my journey to my known floor, I am presented on a screen with attractions for that floor. Think the old elevator controller of days gone by, third floor, ladies undergarments, fragrances, chocolates and children’s clothing everyone out… Now I may not make use of the button at that time, but knowing what I have passed will give me the option to revisit it at my leisure in the same way as passing an interesting store sign in my car may make me turn in on my return journey.
In the first two examples time spent away from the interfaces causes the user to have to relearn their methods. Given that one can not know how a persons method of understanding will change over a given length of time away we can not hold interfaces to strict formats for individuals with long lapses between usage.  We can also not revert a custom interface to a standard one without pissing off the user to some extent. Think about what happens each time you have to reinstall your OS. Granted all the bugs are gone, which is of course expected, but you have to spend weeks dealing with all the standard quirks that you customized to your preference ages ago and got used to using. As designers we have to track the amount of usage and time between usage and make best guesses as to what will change.
In the first instance above, lets quickly consider a user who looks at cars day in and day out until they buy one then don’t look again for a few years. Well day in and day out we can track all the nuances of a users usage pattern and accommodate them, but after a few years only the highest level of abstraction can be counted on.  And further, perhaps they changed banking institutions.
In our second case, the physical motions have to be relearned. We have to take into consideration that physical motion once learned is very hard to unlearn and comes back very quickly, so providing the mechanical movements which corresponded with the physical motions will aid in this. But we must consider why the user left the work at hand. What if they were injured outside of work or worse at work and now have to perform their job in a different way due to lasting physical condition? Is there a way we can adjust the mechanical movements of the device to aid in their physical therapy? Again, the ability of the user to make adjustments on the fly will aid in their ability to perform in a manner that is best suited to their work pattern.
With our final case, baring some kind of method of tracking individuals, customization of this type of interfaces would be very difficult. I am sure you can think up some examples or methods on your own where you can accomplish ease of use. Things like private floor elevator cards, or cell phones used to listen to audio associated with public transit LCD screens.
Although this only touches the surface of how intuitive interface can make interaction with a device more like playing a game and increase the learning curve for a given device, I hope that it inspires you to think a bit about how far you can experiment the next time you are given the task of creating an interface.

The Future of Beta... Iota.

Beta release.  It has been talked about over the last few years almost exclusively in relation to software.  A company designs a piece of software, sends out a ‘release candidate’, then later, releases a patch to finalize the product.  Or in the more modern case, they just never release the final product.  Only never ending patches, upgrades and versions.  This does offer them the ability to not have to have accountability for a faulty, unfinished product… “It’s a Beta.  It’s not finished yet.” or, “We are doing on going ‘in the wild testing’” all of which are well used terms.
We do find that there are two main kinds of Beta releases.  The first, has a set of features, which get subsequent upgrades with new features added and/or patches for the existing features.  The second, that has all the features included, but has certain features which have their abilities turned on at a later time.  We tend to see this type more often as a ‘trial version’ or ‘limited functionality trial’.   This you see in a basic version of Apple Quicktime, where ‘Pro’ upgrade is needed to access certain abilities.  Sometimes, these features are just hidden completely from the interface but if you could run them, they would work just fine.  This was the case with the ‘hidden’ flight simulator in Google Earth.  It was fully there, but you couldn’t access it’s functionality from the drop downs.
This Beta release business model has managed to quickly move from the confines of pure software to that grey area between software and hardware.  That place where the software which is Beta is responsible for the actual functionality of your hardware.  The drivers.  Firmware updates which increase, or expand, hardware’s features.  We see this all the time in computer hardware.  Mostly in processors, or graphic cards.  Through your computers BIOS you can overclock your CPU, make the hardware run faster.  You do tend to see it more overtly in graphic cards where the supplier actually releases an OC video card, or over clocked version.  In the hardware, there is nothing different between the OC video card and the regular version except that the instruction set tells it to run faster.
Now it is interesting to think what happens when we transpose this to mechanical products.  When we start to purposely under perform our offerings in order that we can boost performance later with a simple BIOS style upgrade.  I’m not talking about playing it safe and leaving room for wear and tear, or out of specification misuse from a safety stand point.  I’m talking about designing and building a product where we make it to perform at 110% but only allow it to perform at 90%, and then upgrade it to 100% later.  This psychologically goes to make the customer feel like they are getting something for free.  Makes them feel like the company is giving their old purchase a new lease on life.
Imagine if you buy a new car that has the actual ability to get 4L/100km and do 0~100km in 5.1 seconds with 250HP.   The thing is, they tell you that it only gets 5L/100km and does 0~100 in 6.1 seconds with 200HP.  So here you are with a detuned car and no clue that this is the case.  Now what if the company manufacturing the car releases a patch, or an upgrade that improves your vehicles fuel consumption and acceleration?  Well if you paid for the technology up front but didn’t know the real capabilities, then there is no cost to the manufacturer only a benefit of customer satisfaction.
This could become an interesting trend with lots of new questions to be asked.
Is it ethical for a company to do this?  What would be the backlash should one be found out?  Would it adversely effect a company’s brand image?  Do we as designers and strategists start to design overall solutions to this line of thinking?  Or, do we stand fast and oppose it should it be raised by other departments as a business model?  On one hand we could just play the Beta card.  “It was detuned to fit within ‘at the time engineering and testing parameters’, but after further testing, we found we could safely change the parameters within the current hardware configuration”.  On the other hand, as designers, we aim to make things usable and therefore beautiful, so retarding usefulness detracts from the beauty of our art.