You drive me crazy — considering the brand and human experiences of autonomous cars

1024px Google s Lexus RX 450h Self Driving Car

Photo: Steve Jurvetson

When Google’s self-driving Lexus cut off Delphi Automotive’s self-driving Audi, forcing it to take “appropriate action” by aborting a lane change, the near miss between them was reported in terms of the technology and liability. With the exception of Reid Hoffman’s thoughtful piece, Driving in the Networked Age, the brand and service experience of driving has been largely ignored in the public discourse.

Neville Anthony Stanton’s post on The Conversation led to a Twitter conversation between myself, Dan Hill and Tom Coates questioning Stanton’s rather dry account of man versus machine. Stanton raises the questions of responsibility and insurance and how human’s will never rival a machine’s ability to drive, but that seems to ignore the history of driving and, indeed, other forms of transport before that.

The automative industry has spent decades and a fortune on shaping the brand experience of driving and that’s not going to go away overnight, nor are those manufacturers going to want to lose control of it as we lose control of our cars.

Driving styles are algorithms

The Google-Delphi near-miss was really about a clash of algorithms.

That the Google car was a Lexus and the Delphi car an Audi might be superficially irrelevant, but people drive Audis, BMWs, Porsches, Volvos, Hondas, Toyota Camrys or (the poorly pluralised) Lexuses for a certain kind of driving experience and because they represent a certain kind of personality. As manufacturers evolve their own self-driving cars, can we expect these characteristics to form part of their algorithms? For example, might we expect a Camry to drive perfectly within the speed limit and never cut anyone up? Or a Porsche or Audi TT to have a sports mode, heavy on the acceleration and uncomfortably fast around the corners, since computers don’t lose their nerve and slow down? Might BMWs live up to their reputation and be programmed to tailgate the cars in front while flashing their lights and being sure to cut in at the front of filter lanes?

Clichés for sure, but long-standing brand experience clichés. Witness Toyota desperately trying to change their boring brand with their “bold new” 2015 Super Bowl ad and BMW trying to shed their petrolhead image with their i3 2015 #hellofuture Super Bowl ad, when the honest reality is of BMW is more like their “Adrenaline” ad.

If all self-driving cars are programmed to be the perfect, law-abiding driver, what is the point of owning one brand of car over another? Every car is, functionally, the same – it’s a box on wheels that gets you from A to B carrying more or less people or stuff over smooth or rough terrain depending on its class. The experience is, of course, a key differentiator. Is it sporty or sedate? Can you hear and feel the engine or is the ride smooth and silent? Is it leather luxury or can my kids eat chips in the back?

As we know from smartphones, tablets, computers and operating systems, all of which are functionally very similar, this is where UX, service design, product design and computer science blend together to make the difference for end users.

Navigation algorithms are brand experiences

The battle between in-car navigation systems and smartphones has largely been won by smartphones. The various integrations, such as CarPlay, are the supposed death knell of car manufacturers’ own systems, but self-driving cars might take back much some ground here, unless an open set of self-driving car protocols and APIs allows smartphone manufacturers and developers to hook into those systems.

Self-driving cars need their own navigation by default. Will we see traffic jams of one brand of car, as all their systems re-route to the same roads? Will we see certain brands make gains in the market because their navigation is superior to another?

Audi, BMW and Daimler are buying Nokia’s mapping service, Here, precisely because of this issue, writes William Boston in the WSJ:

The car makers feared that Nokia Here’s technology—the most advanced digital map of the world’s major road networks—could fall into the hands of Google Inc., Uber Technologies Inc. or Apple Inc. That would put auto makers at risk of losing control of information systems inside the car that are vital to self-driving cars and future automotive safety systems.

My experience with Audi’s, for example, has been one of decent cars with entertainment and information systems that are two decades behind. For the most part, in-car information systems are regularly disappointing, if not downright confusing. An argument for cars trailing behind current UX standards used to be that people don’t change their cars as often as their mobile phones. Your 15 year-old Camry is the driving equivalent of a Nokia 8250.

Many people lease cars in a three-year cycle, however, and whenever I rent a new car, it is always shocking how poor the UX of the dashboard is. It feels like the pre-iPhone days where the hardware was produced with zero integration with the shabby software (I’m looking at you, Sony Ericsson).

Self-driving cars even out many hardware differences of the car itself, leaving the service and user experience as the paramount reason for choosing one over another.

Choose life

What will “choosing” a car mean in the future? Right now, manufacturers are still obsessed with selling millions of units. “Service” is something that might happen when you buy your car if you’re lucky and when you take it in to have the oil changed. But the future of cars will be about customers choosing a particular service experience, not owning a chunk of steel and plastic.

Customers will pay to have access to a particular fleet. Will this take the Uber model with limousines and everyday cars? Will I go with a Google car because their routing is better and it’s free, or will I pay extra for a Apple car because of the privacy? Or will this fall along the current brand lines – taking a Volvo for my family trip to be safe, but a Lexus to a business meeting?

If I do own my own self-driving car, can I loan it out to the fleet when I’m at work in return for credit for my own transport elsewhere? Or will owning a car cease to be a positive status symbol and take on a negative connotation, like owning an old mobile phone or a stack of CDs.

For many contemporary services experiences, such as banking, insurance, healthcare, communications and cloud services, trust is paramount to the the service offering. You need to know your insurance company isn’t going to let you down at the worst moment, your bank account isn’t going to get hacked, that your healthcare services will make you better, not kill you, and that your communications and cloud services providers will not sell your data or pass it on to government snoopers.

Now combine all that with the trust you have in your car not failing in some way with life threatening consequences. Trust is fragile. It takes a long time to build up and is easily broken. When a component fails on a car it is more visible and they can be recalled. A software glitch or hack while a whole fleet of cars are currently driving is an invisible horror about to unfold simultaneously.

Privacy, hacking and the social divide

Hoffman argues that self-driving cars have the ability to democratise driving even further:

[A]utonomous vehicles won’t curtail personal freedom – they’ll amplify it. Autonomous vehicles will extend the convenience of individualized driving to people who aren’t currently able to obtain driving licenses –senior citizens, people with various disabilities, young people. They will let everyone pursue a greater range of activities while they’re in transit. They’ll speed up transit times and help people forsake transit altogether. (I.E., your car will run errands for you while you stay at home.) They’ll reduce the need to actually own a car, and thus release people from the economic obligations of that.

This may be true, but they may well serve to create even deeper social divisions. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam in a Mercedes today, you’re in the same position as the person sitting in front of you in their beaten up old Ford. The prospect of paying extra for swifter transit – a kind of non net-neutrality for roads – could turn taking a car journey into one big airport experience. Those with the expensive tickets get to go first, go faster, have less hassle, while the rest of us sweat and swear.

Most likely the divide will be about who is prepared to give up their privacy for the sake of free or near-free travel. You can turn your phone off or enable airplane mode if you want to travel somewhere without being traced by your cellphone signal, but you can’t turn off a self-driving car’s navigation system, unless you can take over driving manually.

We can be sure that tech companies and government agencies are looking forward to the delicious combination of credit card data, realtime audio, camera and navigation data feeds that all of us will be transmitting every day. The wealthy might pay to take an anonymised journey, while the poor have to put up with being tracked and collated. The wealthy will have the evidence to counter a police offer’s version of events, while the poor will be dragged out of their cars and arrested.

Andy Greenberg’s video accompanying his article in WIRED showing the hacks in action

If it is already possible to remotely hack a car on the highway and send it off the road, imagine how much easier it will be once those cars are self-driving. Law enforcement officers can, literally, pull you over and detain you by locking you in your car. Hackers will no doubt come up with ways to own a Google car and tune it to their own tastes. Expect to see a side industry of third-party services and applications, such as car virus protection and journey history deletion or scrambling. What will be the equivalent of using a VPN and Tor browser for cars?

The intersections of different industries and regulations need careful consideration. Hoffman writes:

Even in cases of non-emergency, a high degree of transparency is necessary. Every time a passenger indicates a desired destination, an autonomous vehicle must make choices about the optimal route. Presumably, it will do so based on current traffic conditions, as Waze does now. But it’s also possible that the companies designing these cars could choose routes for other reasons. For example, advertisers might pay companies to route passengers past their businesses. Passengers with preferred status could receive access to faster streets while others are routed to slower, higher-volume streets.

In some cases, passengers may accept these decisions. You might pay less or receive some other perk if you agree to take the slow route home, or pay more to take the fast one. On a similar note, we will probably see the introduction of literal “marketing vehicles,” i.e., cars that take you to your destination for free as long as you complete a survey or watch a promotional video of some kind.

Because the various algorithms that govern car behavior will encompass issues of liability, risk, and morality, no one company should be allowed to simply make up their own rules. Instead, we’ll need to establish uniform rules and standards through public processes. In the same way that we currently have regulations involving emissions standards, safety equipment, and other aspects of car manufacture, we’ll also have regulations that establish the parameters for how the necessary algorithms operate.

Hoffman appears surprisingly optimistic about this, but I am less so. Politicians and manufacturers do not have a great track record of considering the nuances of complicated futures and agreeing on a unified plan of action. Witness everything from USB connectors to tackling climate change.

Usb connectors

Six different USB connectors – Photo: Viljo Viitanen

Too focused on catching up with the present, car manufacturers seem rather complacent about the future. Andy Greenberg’s piece on hacking cars in WIRED this week demonstrated the bland corporate-speak response to Charlie Miller’s and Chris Valasek’s research into hacking and taking control of cars remotely:

When WIRED told Infiniti that at least one of Miller and Valasek’s warnings had been borne out, the company responded in a statement that its engineers “look forward to the findings of this [new] study” and will “continue to integrate security features into our vehicles to protect against cyberattacks.” Cadillac emphasized in a written statement that the company has released a new Escalade since Miller and Valasek’s last study, but that cybersecurity is “an emerging area in which we are devoting more resources and tools,” including the recent hire of a chief product cybersecurity officer.

To my ears, this sounds like the PR departments of car manufacturers who are absolutely behind the curve on this. The good news is that this all provides an opportunity for designers to move beyond car styling and engage in the entire experience of mobility and a service, of which the car is just one component. The opportunities for innovation and developing new and useful experiences and services are tremendous. Let’s hope the car manufacturers see the strategic benefits here and don’t just try and cling on to their current business models, which are sure to go the way of the horse and cart.

Service Design masterclass links and goodies

I recently taught a Service Design in Helsinki for Ratekoulutus and put together a set of links for the participants. They have their own special, private page for it including some extras, but the rest of it would probably be useful to a wider audience, so here they are. It it by no means exhaustive, but just the things I talked about in the Masterclass.

You will see that there are several books from Rosenfeld Media. This is not simply nepotism – they really do publish most of the best books on UX and related themes. If you use the code POLAINE at checkout you not only get 25% of our book, but all Rosenfeld books. They have a European distribution centre, so ordering direct from the publisher is usually pretty fast and supports both publisher and authors better than using Amazon. But we won’t cry if you opt for Amazon’s convenience instead. Not much, at least.

Some slides, templates and book

Insights gathering

Brainstorming

Re-thinking organisations/structures/businesses

Service design & UX agencies/examples

Storyboarding & Experience Prototyping

Future Thinking

Switching hemispheres

Fjord

I have some big news to announce.

After six years teaching and researching service design at the Hochschule Luzern I will be leaving my post there at the end of August. It has been an informative and formative time for me.

Thanks to all my former students on whom I have inflicted my prototypes of how to teach service design. Also my colleagues who have put up with me complaining about our own, internal, services. They have all given me some great insights and experiences over the years.

The biggest part of my news is that my family and I will be returning to Sydney, Australia in early January 2016. My new position will be as a Service Design Director for Fjord’s Fjord’s Service Design Academy in their Sydney office. The Sydney office is headed up by Bronwyn van der MerweThe Service Design Director there.

As well as working under Fjord’s Group Director of Organizational Evolution, Shelley Evenson, helping to shape and teach service design and innovation within the group in Australia and globally, I’ll also involved in providing strategic input, mentoring and guidance on client engagements. I really couldn’t ask for a more suitable job description to match my skills.

Since Fjord was acquired by Accenture Interactive almost two years ago, it opens up the challenges of working in such a large organisation, but also the opportunities of working at an enterprise scale with a level of access to top tier clients that few design agencies get the chance to do. I have a healthy mix of excitement and anxiety about the whole move and new position, but I’m really looking forward to doing some great work with talented colleagues. Feel the fear and do it anyway, as they say.

Obviously the excitement is tinged with sadness about leaving behind family, friends, cats and our lovely apartment that we renovated only 18 months ago. But we are compensated by reigniting our old friendships in Sydney, great working challenges, lifestyle, yoga, food, weather and beaches. Oh, and a Prime Minister with the rhetorical flair of a ten year-old bully, but incompetent politicians seem to be par for the course everywhere at the moment.

The other noticeable change from when we used to live in Australia is that smartphones and social media happened. Despite the time and attention sucking negatives of these, I feel somuch more connected to friends and family back in the UK and around the world than in the pre-2006 Dark Ages that I sometimes forget I haven’t actually seen these people for some time.

HSLU will be looking for a person or people to replace me before September, so if you are interested in a mix of teaching and research in Service Design and, ideally, speak German and English, let me know. There will obviously be an official process, but we want to put the feelers out already.

See you on the sunny side of the planet.

(P.S. That is not Fjord’s actual logo in the photo above. I walked past it the other day at Europa Park. It must be a sign.)

The Apple Watch, skeuomorphism and metaphors

I had a Twitter exchange with John Gruber yesterday in response to his point about the Apple Watch and skeuomorphism:

I don’t think iOS or OS X needed to eschew skeuomorphic textures, but Apple Watch did.

Gruber was referring to Craig Hockenberry’s piece about the Apple Watch’s OLED display. In particular Hockenberry’s argument that the move to flatness was strategic:

I’ve always felt that the flattening of Apple’s user interface that began in iOS 7 was as much a strategic move as an aesthetic one. Our first reaction was to realize that an unadorned interface makes it easier to focus on content.

But with this new display technology, it’s clear that interfaces with fewer pixels have another advantage. A richly detailed button from iOS 6 would need more of that precious juice strapped to our wrists. Never underestimate the long-term benefits of simplification.

My response was that several of the Apple Watch faces are skeuomorphic, especially the Mickey Mouse one, to which Gruber replied “How so? I don’t see any 3D shadows or textures.”

You can read the back and forth that followed at your leisure, but the summary of the arguments is that I believe the dial faces are still screens pretending to be analogue/physical hands and dials (or Mickey Mouse watches) and thus skeuomorphic. Gruber doesn’t believe them to be inherently skeuomorphic.

Clock hands and dials exist because of the clock-making history of cogs, pendulums, springs and dials, the latter of which almost certainly took their form from sun dials. Digital versions of them are as skeuomorphic as fake digital knobs on screen-based software synthesisers.

Gruber argued that dials are not inherently skeuomorphic since

Analog clock design is useful on screen as any chart or graph. See the definition of ‘analog’

He also pointed out, quite rightly, that mechanical watches can have digital displays, such as the Groundhog Day clock and these (pretty ugly) examples of mechanical digital watches.

My point was not whether dial faces are useful or not. They clearly are, since many people are used to reading the time from dial faces and that’s how most of us learn about time as kids.

Dials are useful on digital displays because analogue—in the sense of continuous measurement instead of stepped, digital units—offer useful visual cues. Phrases like “a quarter of an hour” or “half-past nine” (or even the German version of “halb Zehn”, which means “half of ten,” a.k.a 9:30) are visual references to quantities in a circle. But it is exactly those references to previous technologies that makes dial faces on a screen skeuomorphic, in my view.

Most people don’t use a watch’s analogue nature that much, unless you’re timing something in seconds with a watch that has a sweep hand. In fact, analogue watch faces are not really continuous measuring devices in the strict definition of “analogue”, since the hands move in tiny steps as the ratchets click across the teeth of cogs. Also, you don’t usually stare at your watch for long periods time, but take glances at it, as Apple makes a point of telling us:

Since wristwatches were invented in the 19th century, people have been glancing at them to check the time. With Apple Watch, this simple, reflexive act allows you to learn so much more. We optimized your favorite apps for the wrist by developing Glances — scannable summaries of the information you seek out most frequently.

The OED lists two definitions of skeuomorphic:

  1. An ornament or ornamental design on an artefact resulting from the nature of the material used or the method of working it.

  2. An object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.

Wikipedia’s entry generally sides with the first definition, but the expanded example includes the second. Gruber’s original comment specifically says “textures,” which I have to admit I missed in my response. But the debate led me to think about many of the interesting ideas about interactivity contained within this term.

Skeuomorphism and metaphor are closely related and metaphor is an intrinsic part of interaction design. Arguably, skeuomorphs are just a visual subset of metaphor—plastic that looks like wood, screen-based calendars that look like paper and stitched leather—but sometimes the metaphorical relationships are more complex.

The Digital Crown of the Apple Watch interface is skeuomorphic in a broad sense too. Here I’m not arguing that the material metal of the Digital Crown is different from its forebears, but that “the nature of the material” includes what the interface controls. There are few technical reasons for the Digital Crown being the controlling interface. Apple could have used a non-moving touch sensor on the side, for example. It is a carefully thought-through aesthetic and interaction design decision. It makes sense to our perception and understanding—our mental models—of what a watch is. A crown is part of the watchness of a watch.

I would warrant that a tiny part of our brain has a mental model of the Digital Crown mechanically controlling the Apple Watch display, even though we consciously and intellectually know that is not the case. It’s the same reason we bang the side of our monitor when the computer isn’t working.

This a subtle interface magic trick that interaction designers pull off over and over again. We think we’re pinching and stretching a picture on a touchscreen, for example, but of course we’re wiping our fingers in a certain pattern across a pane of glass and not actually pinching anything.

Interestingly, there are few physical world equivalents of the pinch and spread actions that I can think of. The two obvious examples of this are what we do with our bodies and with dough—both things we learn to work with at the youngest of ages and probably why it feels so intuitive.

Metaphors tend to become ever more nested and complicated, especially in language, as Lakoff and Johnson argue in detail. Indeed, it is difficult to use language without using metaphors. That last sentence is full of them, for example. Metaphors and language are “tools” that can be “used.” In the next sentence, sentences are “vessels” that can be “filled.” (Once you start thinking this way, you’ll start to go mad trying to use language without them).

When interfaces go digital, albeit with some physical input devices, the boundaries start to collapse. In my PhD, I wrote about this conflation of the metaphorical and actual and used the example of files and folders:

This goes some way to explaining the issues of interface metaphors being half ‘real’ and half metaphorical and why Apple’s Exposé was able to break the desktop metaphor without it jarring. Because operating a computer is both physical and virtual the process gets blurred – at some point in the usage of a system that retains its metaphorical conventions fairly rigorously the ‘desktop’, with its ‘files’ and ‘folders’, ceases to be a metaphor for its users. It is as though the willing suspension of disbelief is not just suspended, but dispensed with. The desktop really is the desktop and our files really are our files and not just metaphorical representations – something that anyone who has experienced a hard drive crash and lost all their data will appreciate. (p. 53-54)

I used Apple’s Exposé back then as an example of what I called an “intentional metaphor.” Exposé breaks the desktop metaphor because I can’t actually make all my papers hover in the air while I choose the one I want and then have them snap back. But it does have a real-world equivalent in the form of spreading everything over a large table or on the floor to make sense of it. The extra magic part of Exposé—the “hovering in the air” part—is what I would really like to be able to do and I understand the metaphorical intention of it.

This is the way that I think Apple’s Digital Crown and also the Taptic Engine will also make sense to us. They connect into existing ideas of how we use and interact with things and people and extend them. Ex-Apple Human-Interface Inventor, Bret Victor, wrote a wonderful rant about this. I see this all as a form of interactive or intentional skeuomorphism and it will be interesting to see how this expands as designers and developers explore this new realm.

Stop researching and start doing

Austin Kleon with some sage advice for anyone considering writing a book. It’s all good, but this is especially true:

  1. Stop researching, start writing.

“There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching,” says David McCollough. “There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”

Students should take note of this. We lecture them, literally, about the need to research. We say it for good reason, because project ideas need some to be built on knowledge. But my experience is that students research and research and research and often don’t really know what to do with it and what to do next. So more research becomes a form of easily legitimised procrastination. Recognising when to just start designing is an important ability. You can always go back and research what you don’t know once you work out you actually find out what you do know.

And lest you think this is a problem that only writers and students have, plenty of large organisations fail to do anything without requiring more data. They’re often so drowning in data, requirements documents, processes, trying to nail everything down and avoid risk that they fail to come up with anything beyond what they already know.

Safety in games, from Shakespeare to Plato to Play Theory

Interesting piece from Jesper Juul on play with this note about Brian Sutton-Smith:

On two occasions I heard Brian Sutton-Smith claim that play provides a modicum of joy in our pain-filled lives. Although that wasn’t meant as a definition of play, it is interesting by reversing the order of events: we aren’t safe, and therefore we play. Rather, play is the animal deliberately pretending to be safe, while play lasts.

I find it fascinating and rather pleasing that such a universal and cross-species activity still defies definition.

Antirom 20th Anniversary Event

Antirom Splash

REWIND to 1995 – A collective of young Londoners launches Antirom, a CD-ROM of experimental interactive software, at Cameraworks gallery in Bethnal Green. The many brief, playful, funny ‘toys’ on the disc have quite an influence in interaction design circles.

FFWD to 2015 – Generations of computer hardware rush past leaving Antirom unplayable on any current device.

But now Antirom is coming back to the East End so you can have a go (again?). We’re having a party, and talking about interaction design hosted by Protein’s Studio 2 Gallery at EC2A 3EY.

There’s a panel discussion and demos on Friday 27th Feb and a party in the evening. Saturday 28th will see another panel discussion about the history of the interactive interface and a chance to drop-in and play with some of these early interactives on the original hardware.

I’m flying to London for a couple of days just to be there, so I would love to see you there.

Some of the events need a (free) RSVP so we can gauge numbers. You can find all the details on the antirom website.

Comcast Customer Receives Bill Addressed to ‘Super Bitch‘

In our book on service design and elsewhere, we often talk about how much people are at the heart of services.

Although branding folk like to speak of products having personalities, your car does not wake up with a hangover, and your iPhone does not hate its boss and act surly with its user all day.

Comcast’s employees insulting customers via address labels exactly illustrates the point. Whoever is in charge of customer experience at Comcast has a problem, but I bet it’s a problem created by management culture more broadly.

From hunch to research direction to design concept

The hand

The most common issue service design students face is project paralysis in the face of infinite possibilities and the synthesis of a mass of research material. Services are often complex and the interconnectedness of problems can soon appear too difficult to tackle. Taking the leap to tentatively develop an idea, and letting go of the need for it to be the best idea possible is often a real challenge, especially when the concept remains an abstract and complex.

I wrote a post over on Medium titled Getting From Here to There about moving from a hunch to research direction to concept. It looks at what the service design equivalent is of an architect’s rough sketches of a large project as opposed to the detail of a single touchpoint. It started as a mail to my service design students, but I thought others might find it useful in teaching, learning or practice too.

I’d love to hear your feedback in the margin comments on Medium.