Ford CEO Jim Hackett Brings Design Thinking to Cars

Ford CEO Jim Hackett Brings Design Thinking to Cars

As a last-ditch effort, the team members were told to give up trying to devise a new set of features for drivers. Instead, they were to go home, reflect on complaints they had about their own cars, and return with stories. These ran the gamut from “I’m on a camping trip and there’s no charger! What’s my backup?” to “On a date night, I can’t be bothered with the navigation system.”

“It helped everyone realize they were speaking a common language,” Palmer said. The exercise also produced a common finding. As drivers, “people want their stuff,” Mason said. “If they use Spotify, they want to use Spotify”—not a carmaker’s alternative system. “More than anything, they want to use their own digital ecosphere. Or else they’re just going to stick the phone on the windscreen.”

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

That kind of speed, Hackett argues, is achieved only by taking things slowly at first. The idea is that you’ll end up spending less time redoing things—or designing features that people don’t want at all. “Often the ideas we have are completely wrong,” Palmer told me. “So we can kill ideas very fast, too.”

In China, for instance, Ford is putting customers into comically primitive prototypes—foam body, cardboard seats—and asking them to role-play driving scenarios, teasing out preferences they might not have thought to articulate. Captured on video, a driver’s backwards glance at his mother-in-law revealed that her comfort was more important to him than his own. Thenceforth, the back seat took on greater significance in the design process.

At Hackett’s Ford, you don’t move to the “make” phase until you have a deep understanding of how people use their cars and, even more important, why. In the Dearborn studio, I stepped into a more developed mock-up of a semiautonomous vehicle. As we came to the moment in the simulation when, merging onto the interstate, control passed from me to the car, my seat sank down and away from the steering wheel—enough to signal the transfer of power, but not enough to trigger loss-of-control panic. Earlier test-drivers had helped find that exact threshold.

“If you look at business history, the winners are almost always those that get their user experience right,” Hackett said, though he allowed that putting a UX person in charge of the whole show has its pitfalls. “There’s a part of me that would want to spend all my time in here,” he told me while we were in the design studio. “I get so much joy and lift from thinking about the potential of things. But when I walk out of here, I have another kind of accountability, which is, I’ve got to—we’ve got to—deliver results. We have shareholders. That’s a design problem unto itself. How do you weld the two together?”