Will Ford learn that software isn't manufactured?

Ford Motor Company has just convincingly demonstrated that being an excellent industrial manufacturer doesn’t automatically mean that you are an excellent maker of digital technology. Despite Ford’s improvements in manufacturing quality, their overall ratings fell precipitously this year due solely to the poor software interaction on their dashboards. A recent article in the New York Times discusses Ford’s plummeting fall in user rankings this year, focusing the blame on their new touch screen interface.

Ford Display MyFord Touch on new Ford Edge—heavily criticized in J.D. Power's research and "frustrating" according to Consumer Reports.

According to the article, J.D.Power, the auto industry arbiter, dropped Ford’s ranking from 5th to 23rd, and subsidiary Lincoln’s ranking from 8th to 17th place. J.D.Power acknowledges that both Ford and Lincoln’s fit and finish are excellent. It was the “annoying” behavior of their driver-facing interactive systems that caused their ratings to plummet. Other reviewers concur, as Consumer Reports yanked their “Recommended” rating from Ford’s new 2011 Edge model.The automotive industry calls in-car digital information systems “telematics” and these include navigation, telephone, Internet, climate control, and entertainment. Drivers use telematics to communicate and control almost everything in their cars these days other than the accelerator, brakes, and steering.

Ford’s troubles follow a familiar pattern of older, industrial companies struggling with digital age problems. The challenges of digital technology, particularly its human-facing aspects, can’t successfully be addressed with technical skills rooted in manufacturing. What's more, the organizational structures of the industrial era can become counterproductive when applied to the people who make digital systems.

Neither can those manufacturing companies dodge the problem. Digital solutions are so much cheaper and more flexible than mechanical ones that they will eventually come to dominate the entire company. Companies who can master the challenge of software’s unique nature, and particularly of how humans interact with it, will thrive. Ford is learning the opposite lesson.

In my 1998 book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, I posed a riddle for the information age: “What do you get when you cross a car with a computer?” Common sense will tell you that you get a smart car but, as usual, common sense is wrong. You get a computer with a motor and wheels. The dominant behavior, the behavior that the user perceives, is no longer the behavior of an automobile. Now it is the behavior of a computer, and making computers behave in non-annoying, let alone enjoyable, ways is a unique and very difficult problem.

Automobile manufacturing companies like Ford need to acknowledge that they are no longer making automobiles with attached computer systems. In reality, they are making computer control systems with attached motion mechanisms. The digital computer is increasingly dominating the driver’s attention, even more so than the steering and brakes. If auto makers don’t give equivalent attention to the design and implementation of these digital systems, they will fail, regardless of the quality of the drive train, interior furnishings, and other manufactured systems.

A major obstacle in Ford’s way is their failure to understand that software design and development is neither an engineering problem nor a styling problem, and that all of their significant expertise in these disciplines won’t help them with telematics. An even bigger impediment is Ford’s failure to understand that the very structure of their product development teams, optimized for old-school engineering-and-styling, stands in the way of fielding effective digital development teams.

Teams that can effectively build successful software systems are very different from industrial product teams, and they require different kinds of support from the organization. Digital development teams are small, composed of interaction designers, developers, and testers. They are trained to work together and they need an unfamiliar degree of freedom to find their correct path. This freedom is problematic within older manufacturing organizations because it usually transcends long-standing political and organizational boundaries. The telematic dilemma is a good illustration of the problem.

As currently experienced by the person driving, the modern automobile cockpit is the control nexus for several complex information systems. Each of these systems is arguably more complex than simply maneuvering a car down a road. These telematic systems include GPS navigation, telephone and internet communications, environmental controls, entertainment controls, weather reports, traffic reports, performance evaluators, timers, proximity detectors, auto maintenance sensors, tire pressure sensors, event recorders, and rear view cameras.

While interacting with one of these telematic systems can’t harm you directly, it can be extremely dangerous by distracting you from the road. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of designing telematic systems that are not distracting, yet that is exactly where Ford has fallen down.

Ford and other car makers currently conceive of the auto cockpit as a car-control station, rather than as a car-and-systems-control station. In the existing cockpit control paradigm, the steering wheel is the largest and most prominent control. It is located right in front of the driver, up close, and the fact that it partially obscures the dashboard isn’t a problem because the only attention-critical information displayed on it is the speedometer. All other telematic systems are relegated to the center console, out of the driver’s line of sight, and positioned far forward enough to demand that the driver shift his body position to reach it.

Manipulating controls on the center console means taking hands off the wheel and attention off of the act of driving. This fact alone should make clear how dangerously wrong this arrangement is, but the center console controls are those of a digital computer, so they are complex, hard to use, unresponsive, obtuse, and frustrating in the extreme. I believe the main reason why these systems don’t kill more travelers than they do is simply because most drivers turn them off in exasperation.

Once you recognize that a modern automobile is a collection of digital systems in a traveling package, you can instantly see that all telematic systems must be placed directly in front of the driver, up close where he can interact with them without having to grossly realign his hands and attention.

This means that the dashboard in front of the driver becomes an important interaction device. Not only must the driver be able to read the central display, but he must be able to manipulate controls on it. It simply cannot be obscured by a large steering wheel.

Side Sticks

There are many solutions to this problem, from aviation-style side-stick controllers to Formula 1 racing car style steering wheels studded with dozens of controls and many more solutions exist on the drawing board. Modern cars can be equipped with inexpensive screens and LED readouts that keep the driver informed without forcing his attention off of the road.

Formula One steering wheel

Circumventing the conventional steering wheel is mostly a cultural problem. Cars have had these wheels for a hundred years, and changing such a fundamental control mechanism upsets people’s ideas of what a car is, or should be. Then again, that’s exactly what digital technology is in the process of doing, so it is entirely appropriate that people’s notion of rightness is being challenged. When older, senior executives express their reluctance to alter the steering wheel paradigm, younger engineers get the message: “The steering wheel stays.” Thus the newer technology is unsuccessfully wedged in the interstices left by the persistence of the older forms.

There are other, even greater organizational obstacles that perpetuate those interstices, quite literally. Ford is loosely structured the same way that its automobiles are structured. There are separate groups responsible for the drivetrain, the body, the physical cockpit space, and for the cockpit instrumentation. Those instruments are typically supplied by outside vendors, so the cockpit team assigns each one some physical space their product must fit.

This method of specifying reserved space for an outside vendor was developed back in the day of dashboard radios, when Philco or Motorola would supply an appropriately sized AM or FM radio to fit space allocated by the company. A modern telematics system plays a much more important role than a simple radio, and this arm’s length model is simply no longer effective. For a telematics system to be effective, it has to be fully integrated with all parts of the cockpit to the point of displacing the steering wheel. This means that the design and implementation of telematics systems is integral to the design of the entire cockpit, if not of the entire vehicle.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, it was efficient for an automobile company, with core competencies in big manufacturing, to outsource dashboard electronics to specialized vendors. but now those little radios have become all-encompassing telematics, and Ford, whether it likes it or not, has to integrate the design of its electronic solutions with the design of its manufacturing business. It's the riddle for the information age again: Ford isn’t a car company with digital capabilities, but it is a computer company with big manufacturing capabilities.

Designing and building a better automobile cockpit is the tip of the iceberg. The biggest task facing Ford and other car companies is changing the way they think and the way they work.


Hi! Can you analyze some screens of Ford system in the next articles? Or make a comparison of different car dashboards? Alexander from Ukraine
Kai M
Interesting article. It reminds me that I use my iPhone for car navigation instead of the one built into my car, because it is so much better integrated with the rest of my digital life, and when mounted in plain sight on the windscreen, easier to use as well. I wonder what you mean with "one must be able to manipulate controls on the dashboard"? Just as iMacs do not have a touch screen, I cannot see physical controls there being practical. But as screen controls manipulated either from the steering wheel or from the middle console I completely agree. I guess the steering wheel will stay with us for a bit longer, and will then completely disappear as cars become self-driving.
we did a project for a key automobile industry supplier about 5 or 6 *years* ago on what the dashboard & information spaces inside an automobile should look like. it's a reflection on the industry that none of it is still reflected in current automobile design. i'm afraid that until the industry changes, no real innovation on the digital front will take place... it's becoming increasingly clear to design researchers like me that unless we have strong & clear partnership deep within the business hierarchy and partners who are willing to change the business itself, we're (too) often a time & money sink for our clients. sometimes i feel like saying: "don't hire us. get better designers and support them properly!"
Bob MacNeal
Whenever software professionals extol the virtues of Lean Manufacturing, I think of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy & Ethel work on the assembly line of a candy factory, then I wonder what quantity-based slapstick has to do with people interacting with a visual representation of information. Auto manufacturers are far from mastering telematics. Toyota might have given birth to Lean, but one look at the slapdash telematics on my Prius proves Toyota isn't paying attention. Someone at Toyota must have deemed an intuitive dashboard display & controls to be one of the original seven wastes.
Kyra Edeker
As an agency-based UX designer I see this as an interesting case of an agency/industry collaboration going down in flames. IDEO touted their work with Ford on this interface in 2007: http://www.ideo.com/work/myford-touch/ (a fast turnaround in implementing design for the slow-moving auto industry). Where was the failure? IDEO appears to have worked by the user-centric-book: contextual inquiries with 'normal' drivers, pilots and race car drivers; multiple rounds of design; physical prototyping and testing; etc. Did they pick their users poorly? Where they overly ambitious or not enough? Were they stymied by Ford requirements (as in your example: it has to be of a certain size in the center console)? Did Ford only implement part of the designs or muck with them so they became unrecognizable? Or perhaps it's that no agency (or client budget) is able to sustain the focus that an internal digital design team would maintain in order to test and rework as needed over the course of years. I've seen more than one client struggle to translate high-flying design hand-offs into something that works in reality without consistent agency stewardship. Maybe IDEO got out of the car while it was still rolling.
In case you weren't aware, Microsoft does the software for Ford Sync. The problem is now self-explanatory.
Curtis Michelson
@Kyra, I totally agree, and can't help but think IDEO is blushing in embarrassment at this point with the poor car ratings based on the telematics ux, and even this blog article itself. I think it would be most enlightening to hear from IDEO about where the process went south. I'm guessing what was implemented was not what was imagined. Just right off the bat, you can see that the size of the text on the control screen is too small, and too many elements. IDEO is too good for that. Cooper, dish some scoop here. What do you know?!
IDEO is known for delivering solid interfaces, but at the end of the day Ford is the one building it. Ford decides what to change, remove and move forward with.
Maybe it is the design process: the designer should get out of the office, sit in the car moving at 60 mph on a winding highway with afternoon traffic while designing this thing. Then most problems will be self-evident.
Rick Klingensmith
Seems like a good job for a tablet of some kind, iPad - Kindle etc. Each manufacturer can have their own interface programs but you can modify the tablet however you need to suit your needs. It would require manufacturers of automobiles, tablets and auto accessories to standardize interface hardware. Pretty impossible task I guess but we've had IP working for years.
Chuck Gartland
Thank you. Over the last year we have been adding network capabilities and web interfaces to our traditionally analog display products. Getting the interface right has not only been more difficult than any other factor of the product design, but there is the added complexity of defining "right" for different segments of customers. Set it an forget it, configuration tweakers, monitor & control software developers, and language culture issues of selling in to about 85 countries.

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