Designing a culturally enlightened experience for the car of the future

REDMOND, Wash. — June 12, 2013 — Nothing epitomizes the American car experience like the road trip. For many Americans, the image of a two-lane highway stretching toward the horizon evokes a certain sense of adventure and longing for the open road, to pack your bags and head out with no itinerary or timeline. The opposite is true in Asia, where the adventure stems more from the perpetual traffic jams and unpredictable driver behavior in mega-cities like Bangkok, Beijing and Seoul.

In-car technology has already changed how drivers and passengers interact with their vehicles. The Windows Embedded Automotive team has a vision for helping the car and driver respond more quickly to what’s around them, whether its miles of open road or kilometers of brake lights.

Harnessing technologies such as voice and touch interaction, machine learning, and big data, the team is working toward a solution that can learn drivers’ habits, adjust to their needs automatically, and provide assistance and insight wherever it’s needed — whether helping drivers negotiate tight parking spots or gridlock traffic on the way home.

Striking the balance between creativity and usability

The Windows Embedded Automotive team is coalescing all of this information into a set of guidelines that will help them design technology for the car of the future. Leading the effort is John Hendricks, the director of User Experience for Windows Embedded. Hendricks essentially helps envision how the user experience could evolve over time, which is fitting given his longstanding fascination with what the future holds.

Whether with Disney, Paramount or elsewhere, Hendricks’ career has largely been focused on imagining and developing new products or services. And because of his particular skill set, he’s been responsible for balancing the blue-sky thinking of what’s possible against the reality of what’s feasible.

This is especially relevant within the automotive industry, where carmakers are looking for in-car technology that’s reliable, safe and sets it apart from the competition. Windows Embedded has developed a reputation for providing a healthy balance between those two requirements, and it’s up to Hendricks and his team to constantly be on the lookout for the latest breakthroughs and to anticipate how they could impact the driving experience.

“Our team spends much of its time listening and talking to people, essentially to find out how they use current technologies that are either parallel or wildly divergent to what were currently working on,” says Hendricks. “And part of my job is to find where these different patterns of what people expect, what they know and what they’re familiar with converge with where business and technology patterns are heading.”

Creating better designs by putting yourself in another driver’s seat

Rather than drawing on their own perspectives, Hendricks and his colleagues wanted their solution to reflect the needs and preferences of drivers the world over. With that in mind, they set out to conduct extensive research centered on a series of surveys, diary studies and ride-a-long observations with drivers from key locations around the world: China, South Korea, Brazil, Germany and the U.S.

The focus was twofold: to assess current driving practices and, apart from driving, to identify the most important tasks that people are trying to do in the car.

What the team learned is that although there are certain necessities that all drivers share — such as the need to know where they’re going and the desire to get up-to-date information — there are also many differences in attitudes about what’s considered safe behavior and whether a person is more or less inclined to do something other than drive.

For example, people in China don’t relate to the idea of a road trip in the same way as people in the U.S., instead choosing the shortest route between two cities rather than one that’s more circuitous or scenic. And although radio is the primary source of entertainment and information for many drivers in America, the preferred source for many people in China is digital media such as the music stored on a smartphone.

Another interesting nuance in China, as in many other parts of the world, is that a significant percentage of the car-owning population is made up of business executives and government officials who don’t actually drive their own car. Instead, they are chauffeured everywhere, which expands the possibilities of in-car technology designed for the passengers.

In Germany, the same precision and intensity that characterizes its automobiles is apparent in how people drive. It’s something that people take very seriously, so behavior such as talking on the phone is unthinkable. Drivers have a sense of responsibility to keep the traffic flowing, and expect others to do the same. Germany also has one of the densest road systems in the world, with 650,000 kilometers of pavement. To help drivers navigate all of those roads, the German government set up a radio network that’s dedicated to providing real-time traffic updates.

designer’s informed perspective

Working alongside Hendricks is a team of user experience designers, including Melissa Quintanilha and David Walker. Much of their time is spent observing people, taking note of how they interact with the things around them and applying those observations to their prototypes.

For Quintanilha, it’s almost second nature. Growing up in Brazil gave her keen insight into the culture of that country, but she also traveled extensively as a child, which increased her awareness of other cultures. After earning a degree in computer science, Quitanilha completed post-graduate work in design, with a focus on interactivity outside the traditional mouse-keyboard paradigm.

Collectively, Quintanilha leverages her perceptions of human behavior to develop culturally relevant experiences for users with limited abilities to interact, while grounding her designs in a solid foundation of technical expertise.

“With every challenge, the first thing I do is to observe people in their own environments and see how they adapt technology to fit their needs,” says Quintanilha. “I use my own experiences as a starting point, but going to observe people in multiple countries and multiple different environments helps me to understand other folks and how they use technology.”

Focusing attention on what matters most

Quintanilha’s colleague Walker arrived in his designer role by a very different route and provides invaluable expertise and perspective in what’s certainly the most vital aspect of in-car technology: the safety and attention of the driver.

Before working at Microsoft, Walker was a pilot for Air Canada, during which time he also served as an accident investigator. In this role he developed an appreciation for the importance of ergonomics in cockpit design, and ensuring that dashboard displays can be perceived with a momentary glance.

Walker applies these same principles and a passion for safety to his work on Windows Embedded Automotive. An area of particular focus is designing heads-up displays that project the instrument cluster on the windshield, within the peripheral view of the driver.

Walker is so ardent in his passion that he’s built what he calls a “wood car” in his living room. After a leisurely dinner, he can retire to the living room for a few minutes, or few hours, of tweaking or troubleshooting.

The wood car is also used in the design labs to conduct usability studies of various prototypes. Using measurements, such as eye tracking and actual feedback on the look and feel of the experience, helps Quintanilha, Walker and their colleagues identify where adjustments are needed.

“Our No. 1 goal is to design a solution that keeps the driver in control. Meeting that goal sometimes requires the humility to reduce the amount of information we deliver to the driver,” says Walker. “The whole design process can take several months, but when we improve the safety of the driver, make the driver’s life easier and ultimately provide a delightful experience, that’s when we know we’ve achieved success.”