Introduction

Companies in the automotive, transportation and mobility space are increasingly challenged to innovate and define bold visions of the future. This is crucial if they want to stay competitive and get ahead of the market.

One way to go from an idea to a compelling, tangible HMI concept is to apply the traditional design methods of ideation and prototyping.

The automotive space, in particular, is challenging. Despite recent and upcoming innovations, it is highly regulated, manufacturing-constrained and marketing-driven.

Constraints and challenges are the best ingredients for breeding innovation, though, so let’s unpack a typical example of going from an idea to a compelling design prototype. Fast.

Preparation

 

Working in client services, we always try to keep the customer as immersed in the process as possible. So the first step for us would be planning and prepping for a kick-off workshop.

Here are a few quick preparation tips for running a successful design workshop:

  • Goals and participants. Learn more about your participants and their business in advance. Which job functions will be represented? Find out more about the organization’s culture, behavior, processes and knowledge sharing practices. This will not only make it easier to plan the workshop; these insights can also prove relevant throughout the project, helping make sure the end solution will fit. Make sure to let the client’s team know what they should prepare and bring into the workshop as well.
  • User and market research. Research allows you to supercharge new ideas, think in advance about the more challenging parts of the project, get up to speed on new trends in the industry and prepare yourself for the in-depth discussions during the workshop. Consider putting together an easy-to-digest practical trend report. Get the technical team involved too and identify in advance what can be relevant for your customer and the future of the project. Try immersing yourself into users’ lives to understand the people you’re designing for and what’s important to them through ethnography and early casual interviews.
deck of topic cards
  • Deck of topic cards. For some workshops, it makes sense to put a collection of key themes, topics, directions ideas, patterns etc. together as a custom deck of cards. Having a bunch of these will help you to think about the user or project in different ways. For “A day in the life of a commuter”, you may want to create a collection of daily events and prioritize/discuss those. Other good candidates for creating a deck of cards could be: lists of technologies, stylistic directions for how the experience might feel, AI assistant features, etc.

Kick-off workshop

Workshop activities help you learn about the team members’ actual goals, motivations, and challenges.

You’ll learn and align fast on project details, background, history and current progress, if any. You’ll also get a better feel for how bold the ideas should be, and which of the many possible directions should be explored. Here are some traditional methods that can be used to drive the discussion and get to actionable outcomes.

  1. As a workshop facilitator, you set the tone for the entire group. Help customers think of the workshop as a conversation, not a presentation, and that everyone can contribute equally.
  2. Frame a question using “How might we” to capture the open questions and project goals without jumping to the conclusion. HMW questions help you to outline insights and challenges for the project. Use these questions as a base for further ideation.
  3. Once you’ve framed the challenges, you’ve laid the groundwork for an innovative discussion. Now it’s time to facilitate the exchange of bold ideas. Motivate participants to share their best and wildest ones. The key is to make everyone feel like they can share openly.
design brainstorm

4. Conduct a round of dot-voting to narrow down the ideas and prioritize. Grant your primary stakeholders the power of the final decision. 

5. Once things are prioritized, it’s time to identify how the future solution will fit into people’s lives and ideate on the actual use cases. Use Crazy 8s, a fast sketching exercise that challenges people to sketch eight distinct ideas in eight minutes. The goal is to push beyond your prioritized ideas and to generate a wide variety of solutions to your challenge.

6. Once ideas are ready and prioritized, consider further detailing use cases to help determine the functionality, cost and complexity of the system.

7. Do a feasibility check with the engineering representatives to make sure the ideas can get off the ground. If not, look for alternatives that might not be feasible today, but are doable tomorrow.

Now that you’ve prioritized the ideas and selected specific use cases, it’s time to shape these ideas into a feasible advanced prototype.

Post-workshop

Even if you have already returned with feasible results from the workshop, the first thing you need to do is give your results more depth. 

Try to flush out more details on the use cases you are working on by literally illustrating them. During the drawing process, you will see your decision from new angles – even in low fidelity.

Meanwhile, it is time to set up your team, tune cross-team collaboration, prepare your testing workspace and roll to the project start.

When you are working with an existing car’s screen layout, it makes it easier to imagine what the finished product will look like. For future HMI concepts, you will not know or fully understand how it will look and feel in real life, so you’ll need to prototype to scale.

Set up a workspace that allows you to put yourself in the future driver’s shoes. Initially, all you need to build your environment is cardboard and your imagination. These materials are low in cost, and definitely a lot cheaper than making a size & scale mistake that gets carried over to the prototype.

Don’t hesitate to test your ideas on an actual car as well, with your design printed on the paper. It can dramatically impact your perception and decisions. 

For the late-stage design validation, it is better to prepare a more advanced setup for testing. An extra plus if it could include the ability to change the steering wheel position, so you can test the design with left and right-hand driving.

Allies 

When you are working on an automotive future concept, it is hard to guess technical or ergonomical limitations on your own.

To work correctly with all technical or conceptual limitations, you need information. To get information, you need allies.

The first allies you need to have contact with are the client’s HMI engineers. This will help you avoid surprises related to technical feasibility at the end of the project.  

Contact with the vehicle designers is also a must. Even if you won’t be able to see the actual new vehicle concept, they could still give you some valuable feedback.

The third ally can be marketing SMEs. They are responsible for brand communication, so they define the image of the vehicle, its character, and the critical features you should pay attention to. 

This symbiosis of your design ideas and feedback from your allies should guarantee a good finished product.

Prototyping

The detailed design process and tools will vary based on the design team involved. But the core deliverables typically stay the same. 

  • The first stage starts with the wireframe designing & continues with wireframe prototype validation.
  • Stage two involves creating a moodboard and determining the visual direction.
  • The third stage is creating the design concept and designing the whole user flow.
  • And the last stage is user testing validation and design finalization. 

Now let’s pinpoint the design tools. Design tools should be determined from the standpoint of what the client expects from you at the end of the project and how you will test your decision with users. The basic design tools (Sketch, Figma, Invision, etc.) will work well if you want to move fast and test for things like esthetics, clear legibility and information presentation, etc. If you expect deeper testing sessions (e.g., if you want to display the product on the car HMI, test navigation and dynamic things like notifications, joysticks and steering wheel controls interaction), it is better to use Axure or bring in the engineering team to quickly build a highly realistic, interactive prototype.

For the animation tool, we use After Effects to show how the story unfolds, how the interface dynamically adapts to the driver’s actions, and how external factors impact the digital experience.

User testing

This part of the project is sometimes overlooked. However, testing with real users can play a significant role in validating and justifying your design decisions, so we always strive to include it. It is scalable, so running a small-scale user testing phase will still yield great results.

If you can run user testing with people from a wide range of cultures, you’ll be surprised how many new things you can discover about local peculiarities and global similarities.

Setting the testing environment depends on many factors, and there is no one-size-fits-all  approach to user testing. However, you should try to do your best and be prepared for all scenarios, (e.g. the iPad might not fit into the steering wheel panel, the tape may not stay fastened to the tablet, etc.) To avoid these potential pitfalls, you should schedule at least one hour for setting up the user environment, plan everything a few days in advance and do a test run on site. 

If you can’t test on a real target audience, try at least to conduct in-house testing with other teammates to validate your ideas. Whatever you do, try not to skip user testing.

Key factors to consider in automotive design

When designing future automotive experiences, we frequently go back to the basic challenges of drivers’ day-to-day lives. 

Try to think about all the steps in the user journey (before entering the vehicle, during, and after the trip), not just the in-car experience. There are usually a lot of variables to account for: the number of people in the vehicle and their relationships, trip goals, car parameters, status, class, connectivity, etc. With these endless variations, telling stories can be a way to communicate new ideas and introduce new technologies with safety regulations in mind.

The final future vision prototype is the result of a dynamic and collaborative process. All the stakeholders are aligned, winning ideas are presented in the best light and everything is ready for the final demo, top management review, industry event or further technical validation. Key is progressing with frequent reviews and iteration to reduce the number of edits needs at the most costly final phase of advanced prototyping.

The final demo presentation should feel like a real-life situation. For example, try to show the design cluster in an actual vehicle. Alternatively, consider a video that looks like a promotional ad for a new car HMI.

By thinking freely at the beginning of the ideation process and discarding constraints, teams can come up with unconventional solutions. Choosing the best ideas, prototyping and iterating are the essential steps towards creating exciting futures.