Prologue: The trauma of our business generation

Most of us with a seat in the business world today are in our thirties, forties and fifties. This means we all share a traumatic experience: everything we learned growing up no longer applies to the world today. Some examples?

Real time. Remember what your mother used to say, “do one thing at a time.” Well, in the business world, speed and processes have become so fast that everything must happen at once, in parallel. The whole concept of linearity, the way human thinking and acting is constructed, has become irrelevant. Real time means you don’t even have time to pause and just think.

Continuous improvement has transformed everything we work on into work streams that iterate infinitely. As a result, you never have that satisfying feeling of finishing something (The equivalent in UX design, the “endless scroll”, has turned out to be one of the dark patterns that literally makes you addicted and causes you to forget your own will to finish a task.)

Exponential speed. All that is accompanied by another component: What we also experience is the speed everything has taken up, and is just about to even speed up faster, as we have just jumped off the bottom of the exponential curve of technological development.

Caught in the storm of the digital transformation, companies are forced to innovate. To question the status quo, the right to exist and their very own business models. They must think big! But all this has to happen within work structures that are stuck in the industrial age. In the automotive industry, these structures bear the weight of a one-hundred-year history. Yet these structures still influence today’s thinking.

It’s no wonder, really, that it’s very hard to overcome the limitations of our own thoughts. Here are three possible ways to do so.


Change of perspective 1:
From product to relationship

The aim of the industrial age was to deliver a product that a consumer wants to buy and own. This holds true today in the automotive industry (and other consumer product or consumer electronic industries). You find evidence of this when you visit a trade fair, say, the Geneva Auto Show. In a huge space there are hundreds and hundreds of vehicles onstage, shown in their best light. The music is slightly louder, the LED lighting has become flashier, staging videos and brand messages. But other than that, it basically looks exactly the same as it does in historical black and white pictures from the 1920’s, with cars rolled out onto carpets.

Every single cell in an OEM’s body is programed to sell a product, from product development and product management to marketing and dealership networks. So when a customer buys the product, the job is over. At the moment of purchase, the relationship ends. What the customer actually does with the product is a black box for the OEM. With a little luck, the customer will return in three, four, five years to make another purchase.

But the new relationship-driven approach is different. The relationship between a company and its customer does not end upon purchase, it’s when it begins! Or rather, it continues. The product experience becomes part of the holistic brand experience. Continuous product improvement and data create the technical platform for this relationship.

The user experience goes far beyond the product experience. Even the ISO norm 9241-210 includes it in its definition: the user experience starts before usage (the anticipated use), carries on during usage, and stretches far beyond after usage (emotional connection to the product). In reality, in actual project work, it’s really hard to overcome product-driven thinking and make way for experience-driven thinking.

This story isn’t merely a romantic one in which the experience becomes the brand and the experience becomes the relationship enabler. The valuation of today’s companies is based on their ability to capitalize their relationships (compare Uber’s market value of 60 billion dollars, based on relationships, more than Ford and GM together). But right now OEMs are staring at a gigantic opportunity. We’ve witnessed physical products stagnating, and soon we’ll see the bubble of exclusively digital services burst. Because a seamless, holistic experience takes place in the digital world AND the real one. The promise of a great digital user experience with airbnb is not worth anything if you end up in a messy real world apartment.


Change of perspective 2:
From silo to team

As an automotive user experience expert, you could do an experiment. Look at an in-series human machine interface, with all its screens and buttons and functions. Based on this info alone, I bet you could draw an org chart of the OEM. You almost could hear a conversation like this one:
Interior designer: “We need symmetry in the car. Let’s distribute functions equally, left and right. Ok? Ok!”
UI guy: “I picked a subtle blue for the HMI. Any idea who’s doing the cluster so I can align the colors? Hello?”
Marketing guy: “Guys – seriously. We are a sporty brand! Please put a ‘Start engine’ button in there. Thanks.”
Ergo guy: “Did you know that people die if they take their hands off the steering wheel? Let’s put ALL relevant functions on it, just to be sure.”
The big boss (HIPPO): “I just drove a Tesla yesterday. Can’t we put a bigger screen in there? And please change the icons so they look like my iPhone.”

Does all this lead to a great user or product experience? No. On the contrary, it reflects the vertical hierarchies and horizontal silos of an OEM. And the user is forced to adapt to it.

We can’t change a fully-grown structure with a century-long heritage in an instant. But, at least in the project work, we could try to get things moving.

Let the experience lead, not the technology

Companies today are driven by buzzwords. Ecosystems! AI! Sharing! AR! Autonomous! Blockchain! Android! Multi-core chipset! China EV! These buzzwords are influencing our thinking. Everyone’s asking, “There’s this new blockchain trend. What are we doing about it?” But it should be exactly the other way around, led by the experience. “What experience do we want to create? How can technology serve us?” Coming from the experience embraces all silos and gives them a common goal. Coming from the technology separates things the silos, everybody is trying to make their own mark.

Don’t rely on your heritage

It’s odd. The year before Nokia went bust was the most successful year in the company’s history. “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost,” said Nokia’s CEO. “Life’s a bitch, the revolution eats its children,” is how thought leader Prof. Mike Richter put it, who, with his company iconmobile, has seen the rise and fall of the mobile industry, including Motorola’s bankruptcy in 1999, followed by Benq Siemens in 2006, and Nokia in 2013. We’ve experienced it all in the last ten years. Airbnb has become the world’s biggest accommodations provider without owning a single hotel bed, Uber the world’s largest taxi company without owning a single taxi. Just because you’ve been successful in the past, or because you’ve been around for awhile, doesn’t mean you are safe. On the contrary, it’s what makes you blind.

Making your strategy tangible

Look at a typical corporate structure. All relevant UX players, everybody involved in creating experiences, are spread across the org chart, in different departments, torn apart by daily business and feeding the machine: emails, meetings, calls, fulfilling their roles and play-fighting with the colleagues. Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s more about playing business theater than doing real work, solving real problems. The magic happens once you extract these people from the structure and bring them together, at one table, combining their forces to work on actual tangible output, for example a seating buck. The difference in this method is there’s a common goal. Everybody is in the same boat. In a concentrated period of time. They discuss while working, learn from mistakes and iterate. This is exactly how some of the milestone, breakthrough products of the last decades were developed, to the likes of Apple Macintosh, the Audi TT, the iPod and iPhone, and the BMW i3.


Change of perspective 3:
From expert to visionary

We grew up in the industrial age. A time in which we broke everything down into incremental tasks. Everybody on the assembly line concentrated on his or her own particular task. The department was born. And the expert was born, a person whose knowledge reaches a great depth but not necessarily a great breadth. His or her perspective doesn’t go beyond the person next door who takes over the baton. The flipside of dividing labor was that it blocked our view of the whole matter. We have forgotten our ability to think universally.

Actually, not everybody works on an assembly line today. But to date the tradition continues to shape our workplaces – and our mindsets. When you look at typical American cubicles you can almost image that architecture is trying its best to enhance the concept. When you look at people on the streets, sitting alone in their cars or on public transportation, in restaurants, at home, with everybody staring in their smartphones instead of connecting with each other, you have the feeling that we are lost in our own bubble.

This is reflected in the results, in the experiences we are creating. We create perfect components to create perfect products. But the outcome could be likened to Frankenstein.

“I want to fly”

Things haven’t always been this way. In the dawn of the modern age, Renaissance artists invented a new holistic view on the world. When Leonardo da Vinci conduced his famous study about the helicopter, he tried to understand the mechanics, he studied physics and made observations about thermal lift. Famously, he was also interested in anatomy and examined the human body. He studied nature and observed birds in flight. During his studies, he documented his thoughts, did hundreds of sketches and illustrations.

That’s how the story goes.

His approach, however, was different. In fact, it was the other way round. Leonardo did not want to invent a helicopter. Instead, his overarching vision was, “I want to fly.” So he started observing birds and their ability to virtuously use thermal lift. Looking at the human body, he went on to think about how he could make it lift up in the air. To be able to do, so he deepened his understanding of physics and mechanics. What we’re getting at:

Don’t start with a solution. Start with a vision (aka a big hairy audacious goal – #bhag). Follow it vision with curiosity and courage, and stay on top of things.


This post was originally held as a keynote on the »Intuitive Vehicles conference« – Human Factors, HMI and UX, Berlin, April 2018, by Florian Gulden and Julia Peglow.

Intuitive Vehicles
18.+19. April 2018