Ford and IDEO redesign the dashboard

Posted by: Helen Walters on January 7, 2010

ford.jpgFord CEO Alan Mulally delivered the opening keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this morning. The car company’s theme, ahead of next week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit and the inevitable spotlight shone on the ailing industry? Innovation and design, with a big push for the update to its three-year-old Sync internal communications and entertainment system.

Ford collaborated with designers at IDEO on a new interface design that will be installed across the Ford and Lincoln fleets from later this year. Challenged by Ford VP of product development Derrick Kuzak “to create for the automotive industry what the mouse was for the PC industry”, the creative teams embarked on a twelve-week series of driver interviews to inform the design. Eventually, the process ended up in Virtex, a car simulator at Ford’s offices that projects an animated real road environment around the driver and allows the designers to measure response times and adapt their design accordingly.

I’m not in Vegas, but earlier today I caught up with Gary Braddock, Ford’s interior chief designer, to talk about the challenges of redesigning an interface that bears an enormous responsibility. After all, I asked him, just how radical can designers be in an environment when familiarity is surely more important than flashy? Shouldn’t Ford care more that drivers of its cars are focused on the road rather than a beautiful new dashboard? (See the early comments on our news story to get a sense of how some are responding less than positively to the idea of distracted drivers on the roads.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Braddock agreed. And he made a good point, that familiar and intuitive can still be improved and retain their core qualities. And he also added that the design research process itself unearthed some surprises. “For instance, 20-something year old drivers who have never learned to drive a stick shift don’t understand or know what a tachometer does in the vehicle. They were asking, ‘what is this dial? Can’t I have my music in front of me?’” he said. So the designers created a way for drivers to activate the tachometer of an automatic vehicle when in sport (manual) mode, otherwise replacing it with alternate functionality.

Including a touchscreen on the central display (it’s just above the gear stick in the picture) was also an effort to cut down on the hardware and implement a more flowing and intuitive dashboard design. “We’ve tried to get rid of a lot of the clutter and the hard buttons of the center stack,” said Braddock. “The [buttons] that stayed are so that people can access critical functionality right when they need it.” The menu designs, meanwhile, are set up spatially rather than as a list. “If you have a list, you have to look at each word, and even though it may take milliseconds, that’s more time away from driving. Here, the four corners are each dedicated to an activity [phone, audio, navigation and climate]. Each one is easy to find and you may not have to take your eyes off the road at all.” That sounds good to me. What do you think?

Reader Comments

123xyz

January 8, 2010 1:31 AM

It appears Ford may have learned from the Germans' mistake a few years back of replacing virtually all the buttons with a "mouse" and screen. Recall BMW's first I-Drive tried to do too much.

Julie Gay

January 8, 2010 9:07 AM

The U.S. is overlooking the biggest source of design and innovation that it has. This source is what farmers create and/or redesign everyday on the farm.

This has potentially huge ramifications for income for farmers, local communities and even the national economy. The potential farmer-small town partnerships are huge. The potential for whole new companies is just as huge.

BMWdriver

January 8, 2010 1:19 PM

BMW's i-Drive usability were more speculation than actual real-world results. At least, I haven't found any issues using it when driving my 5series.

m.r.

January 9, 2010 5:48 AM

driver dash should not become too 'busy'. KISS!
there are too many distractions while driving as is including traffic!
greater effort should be spent on passive engineering and electronics to
enhance control and safety.
also, some car designs are more design than function! big mistake.

Patrick

January 9, 2010 12:30 PM

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Daniel

January 23, 2010 10:30 PM

I hope Ford doesn't think that this excuses them from making more hybrid/electric vehicles. Good interfaces are great but they are not enough.

m.r.

January 25, 2010 4:23 AM

PS; in an automatic shift car there is no need for a plethora of dials, levers and other distractions! less is better.
distractions from road view of over 2 seconds can lead to an 'accident'. a car on the road should not be a busy 'office'!
more 'glass' is needed in newer cars for better all-around vision.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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