Ford and IDEO redesign the dashboard

Ford 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?

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