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Designing the ‘How’
of the thing.

TORONTO, ONTARIOMay 9, 2017

Todd Lawson

How designers need to think about the next wave of technology in automotive.

In advertising, Automotive is often at the top. Whether it’s the polish of the manufacturer’s brochure site bursting at the seams with video and engaging interactions, high production value videos like the recent Honda USA “Paper” stop-motion commercial or traditional marketing like recent Volkswagen award-winning lifestyle print ads that turned handbags into top-down mazes. Consumers expect their marketing to impress them and reflect one of the largest purchases they will ever make. In the past, this level of polish was kept to the top tier. The OEM budget can rival most and the quality of the work mirrors the spend.

Now we are beginning to see technology allow the other tiers of Automotive start to have better design, better experiences and smarter interactions. The reason is a balance of better tech and more focus on a section of the industry that was often tossed aside. The golden egg for a creative vendor is usually the national or international brand, not the retail level. As more and more software makers and creative service businesses start to target these automotive groups, associations and individual dealerships the vendor-to-vender competition equally grows. And as that competition grows so do our visions to push what the platforms we create on can do to reach that mythical goal; the “OEM look”.

Where one-off, large brand sites are few and far between, the need for more complex and flexible portals that will work smoothly on new and old devices with what seems like an infinite number of shapes and sizes for the masses is growing quickly. The more it grows, the more the dealer next door wants something that not only works better but looks better. This has led to a need on building wider, not taller. What does that mean? It means we spend more time thinking about how the design will change than polishing a single version of it and the system that manages that content is now accessed a lot more and requires a more attention.

The rise of client managed digital store fronts over the last decade means today’s automotive dealership is no longer satisfied with asking an agency or web consultant to constantly change and update content for them. They are empowered to do it themselves. A decade of social media, WordPress and Wi-Fi-connected ‘smart-everything’ has given us all confidence that if the interface is simple enough we can do it ourselves.

We don’t design sites anymore. We design the tool that helps you make that site and it is considerably more complex and detailed us to think about. When I started in digital the most an art director or designer had to do was draw a few basic boxes of a wireframe, show it once, then design a desktop version and called it a day. Now more and more people understand how things work and how information hierarchy works. Even if it’s on a simplistic level they get the point. Doing that process with something that creates other assets like a website, a banner, a video, an email, a pdf and so on requires designers to start to think like a technologist – albeit without all knowledge of how to execute code. Where it was wireframe and a design then, today’s designers are now more likely to write up requirements, creative architecture lists, build user flows, create wires, build basic prototypes, design a few key slides and build out Graphic User Interface guides (GUIs) to help define how the systems work. We even see more recent graduates able to equally design, prototype and code.

Mix all that in with an industry as varied in demographic, technical knowledge and region like automotive and you have to design for the lowest commonality while still trying to maintain a sense of uniqueness to the work. Otherwise, everything looks the same out there and your tech doesn’t stand out. Make it as simple as you can for anyone to use it, then make it as flexible as you can for the people who want to customize it. You create an interface with as few rabbit holes as possible – where the user can find something in two to three clicks, execute it quickly and get back to their real job of selling cars, confident that the look is theirs and as good as their manufacturer’s campaign. So how do you design for all these different people? The idea of using a consumer profile like traditional brand marketing doesn’t work very well.

It is more important for us to make small evolutions to the interfaces we create and learn from the people using it. Setting up internal tracking to how and where people interact with a system the same way we track consumer’s cursors and clicks on the front end. When we realize no one in a year has clicked on that button or people go into a section and then come back out too often it means we need to change. But we don’t just make a change to solve a problem. The secret sauce to moving the industry forward and keeping up with what technology can solve with design is to go beyond. Talk to the tech team and work together to think of now the simple solve, but the unthought-of ones that will help the user in the long run to learn and grow with your platforms. You now need to think through the effect of that change. The dependencies from other areas, how the user will interpret your changes, how you will communicate back to them so the understand and appreciate the change. You are literally designing a moving target that is getting smarter and faster with every adjustment if you do your job right. I have no interest in designing for what they need today if it doesn’t help them get somewhere better next.

Soon, we will move into automating our design and with the pace automotive retail is growing in technology it may very well happen here first. Using the same data that we have pulled in from media engagements with consumers to analyze, adjust and optimize marketing whether by a paid team of consultants or a newer automated system – we will start to adjust dynamically based on our own software user’s actions. Design will take on a life of its own once you release it into the world. The creative team will then be in charge of designing options for based on making sure their tools first have basic required features to stay competitive and then adding on top of that a huge library of options organized and cut up into micro chucks flexible design. We won’t create a Vehicle detail page or a home page or an email or a letter. We’ll create a collection of things that perform better depending on the time and place the consumer interacts with it. Creating designs out of thin air. You won’t design a Vehicle Detail Page (VDP), you won’t even design the vehicle gallery, you’ll design all the parts to pull the VDP together based on what their interactions before they reach that page tell us they are interested most in and are most likely to engage with. That way as new technology feeds and offering expand to better build and price tools, the latest 3D car gallery, pricing tools and more dynamic lead forms a design never dies, it only evolves and swaps out old blocks of content for better ones.

This way of designing and thinking requires tomorrow’s automotive digital designers to let go of the control they fight so hard to hold onto. Like when they had to realized that designing a responsive site meant that there was a grey area where the design would not be theirs anymore. The same can be said for platforms we are now designing. Pixel perfect as we like to call it is now based on a much smaller collection of pixels and the rules in place to create what would be a better design. If you dealer, it means very soon you will have to worry less about how your front end looks as the technology will ensure it always looks great and performs at it’s best. If you are a designer and you are trying to envision where your future is, look to concept of adaptive design theories and focus on the ‘How’ of the thing.

How will this react?

How will this change?

How can I provide all the building blocks for this to be anything it wants to be?

And get used to drawing it out, writing it out, explaining it out and then come to grips with the fact that it will never be done. It will always evolve and change. Release after release. That’s a good thing. If there is nothing left you to adjust and make better – you may not have a job.

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