What would a “furniture guy” bring to an automotive giant?
RIMA M. | RAKESH SHARMA
The path to good design is never a straight one. It is also hardly, if ever, predictable. But there is one thing that good design rests on – empathy. The foundation of great design thinking has always got to keep the end user in mind – you and me. Take the history of Ford design that we will explore later in this podcast. Or the latest development in the company that Forbes published with this headline, "Why Ford Is Putting A Furniture Guy In Charge Of Its New 'Smart Mobility' Unit."
What would a “furniture guy” bring to an automotive giant? What are the benefits of out-of-the-box thinking? How does empathy improve user experience? And what can we learn from Ford’s latest move? These are the questions we will address on today’s edition of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol with me Rakesh Sharma.
A furniture executive in charge of mobility?
Writer Joann Muller reported in a March 2019 Forbes piece that Ford Motor is forming a new subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility LLC, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and that one of its directors, former Steelcase chief executive James Hackett, would step down from the board to lead the group.
We quote, "Putting a furniture executive in charge of mobility might seem like an oxymoron, but Hackett is recognized as an innovator in office space who helped change the way people work. During his 30 years at Steelcase, he helped transform the company from a traditional office furniture manufacturer to a designer of cutting-edge workspaces, shifting away from cubicles, for example, to an open space environment, giving employees the flexibility to work where they want." The implication being that if a man can revolutionalise office ergonomics with delicious free-spiritedness, he sure as hell can tinker with car design.
As for the man of the moment Hackett, he said and we quote, “I am absolutely thrilled to lead Ford’s mobility business into the future. Transportation in the world today is on the cusp of a major revolution, and Ford plans to lead the way by changing the way the world moves through Ford Smart Mobility.”
What is Ford smart Mobility? We will find out in just a bit but first let us figure just who James Hackett is.
James Hackett is a member of Ford's board of directors since 2013 and as Forbes informs, will report directly to Ford president and chief executive, Mark Fields, who as the piece says, is trying to channel Henry Ford to solve society's mobility problems. We quote, "His strategy is to expand Ford's business model so that it can be both an automaker and a mobility services company."
That is where, says Forbes, the new subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility, comes in to cement the company’s aspirations to be a leader in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, customer experience and data and analytics.
It is easy now to see why Fields thinks Hackett is a good choice to lead both business development and design.
In a statement Fields said, "Ford Smart Mobility and expanding into mobility services are significant growth opportunities. Our plan is to quickly become part of the growing transportation services market, which already accounts for $5.4 trillion in annual revenue. Jim Hackett is the right visionary leader – with extensive experience in business development and design – to take us into the mobility services business in the future.”
According to Forbes, the new company will work with existing product development, research and advanced engineering, marketing and data analytics teams and will also develop new mobility services and invest in promising mobility-related ventures. Ford Smart Mobility LLC will also design and build mobility services on its own, and collaborate with start-ups and tech companies.
As Ford's executive chairman Bill Ford put it, the idea is that the new subsidiary will enable the development mobility solutions to address the rapidly changing transportation challenges. He said, "Ensuring the freedom of mobility requires us to continually look beyond the needs of today and interpret what mobility will mean to future generations in an increasingly crowded world.”
Ford's preoccupation with design as a purveyor of solutions is not new though. Neither is Ford's interest in unusual design picks.
The roots of Ford design
The Ford Design Department was established as far back as in 1935 and was ideated by Henry Ford's son Edsel Ford, who wanted to wed function with form. The first designer hired by Edsel was E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, who had been a shipbuilder and who brought the “styling bridge,” a U-shaped structure that rode on a series of parallel rails. This helped with coordinates that could later be used on other car models, too. But cutting-edge design existed from the start, when in 1908, the Model T changed the automotive industry forever.
The first vehicle from Ford Design put the spotlight on the design process: the Lincoln Zephyr in 1937 with its horizontal grille – something that remains on Lincoln vehicles today. Post the World War, the new 1949 Ford offered integrated fenders, chrome trim and aviation-reminiscent center grille design – all part of the luxuriant experience Ford was hoping to give its customers.
The F-Series was pathbreaking thanks to its contours, integrated headlights, ability to tow and emphasis on cargo, since they’re the standard today.
Ford has been leading new trends from the Thunderbird and Mustang to the Explorer and Focus Electric. Plus, the aluminum-alloy-bodied 2015 F-150 was a game-changer, although interesting materials used in Ford vehicles happened even back in 1941, with the Soybean Car, which was a plastic vehicle made of soybeans, flax and other natural elements! Whoever said organic was a recent trend!
Unusual design interlopers
While we will continue to explore the new role of James Hackett at Ford, let us also remember just how car design is no longer a sacrosanct space designated for trained design engineers. Remember when ex-spice girl turned fashion designer Victoria Beckham was invited to design the special edition Evoque VB launched in 2012? In July 2017 though, a big controversy erupted when some media outlets reported how Land Rover’s design director Gerry McGovern was angry with Victoria' s appropriation of undue credit. McGovern said that she had exaggerated the role she had played in designing the car by saying at its launch, "I’ve designed a car that I want to drive, a car I think [husband] David wants to drive.”
But McGovern – who did design the Evoque – told reporters that she had spoken out of turn because she hadn't designed the car. To be a car designer takes years, he said. Oops. Land Rover however said that the three-year project was completed in full by both parties and was a huge creative success around the world.
If there is a discrepancy somewhere in the two stories, it just goes to show that today branding is almost as important as what is being branded and healthy sales figures are what everyone is after at the end of the day. But Ford's decision to use an erstwhile furniture whiz indicates its willingness to trust a designer to deliver not just profit but solutions in a world clamouring for them.
An automobile design that thinks beyond automobiles?
In a perceptive piece for The Atlantic, Jerry Useem connects the story of the American economy with the types of people who run its corporations. He associates the early days of mass production to mechanically minded men such as Henry Ford. After the conglomerate craze of the 1960s and ’70s, he says, almost a third of CEOs hailed from finance and accounting backgrounds. Then a crop of technologists, such as Andy Grove and Bill Gates, arrived. That is why, he says, that Ford Motor Company's choice of Hackett is unconventional because he is a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, says the piece, is a devotee of product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product.
He said, "He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work.”
Is the leap of a furniture designer into automobiles far-fetched?
The writer doesn't think so because he was at hand in the foam-and-aluminum cockpit of a self-driving-car prototype in one of Ford’s Dearborn design studios to witness how Hackett's mind works. There was a driver’s seat in the prototype that could swivel around—like an office chair!
As he says, "The choice of Hackett to lead Ford confounded both those analysts who expected a dyed-in-the-wool carmaker and those who expected a high-tech hand to manage the company as cars morph into rolling computers. But his selection suggests a third way—which may, in fact, capture the times. We don’t live in the age of the automobile, or even the age of the computer. We live in the age of user experience." Hackett thinks 90-button TV remotes are “Maddening” and he may bring his penchant for simplifying user experience to cars as well.
The writer seem to agree as he goes on to explain, "Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s."
Hackett in that respect is a game changer or rather an experience modifier. He did it once with office furniture and he can do it again with cars.
The primacy of user experience
With high-tech entrants such as Tesla and Google heating up the automobile market, the question is not whether they can learn about crankshafts and drivetrains faster than Ford or GM, or whether other carmakers can learn software and algorithms. Hackett, says Useem, is reflective of Ford’s bet that the winner won’t be the best chassis maker or software maker, but the company that nails the interaction between man and machine.
As Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman (and great-grandson of Henry), explained, “One of the things that drew me to Jim was his commitment to design thinking, which puts the human being at the center of the equation."
The term user experience or UX originated in Silicon Valley and the piece cites Don Norman, a UC San Diego professor and the author of the seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, to recall how Steve Jobs in a way exemplified this idea best when he put the consumer's interaction with an Apple product before what the marketing and engineering guys had to say. After Jobs had left the company, Norman suggested to the then CEO John Scully in 1993, the need for “someone who took the overview of what it was like to use these machines.” He formed a UX office and styled himself as Apple’s user-experience architect, informs the piece.
This affected design ideologies around the world.
We quote, "The migration of UX thinking to other industries was accelerated by the Palo Alto design outfit Ideo, whose founder, David Kelley, helped design the first Apple mouse. It counted Medtronic and Procter & Gamble among its first clients. In the early 1990s, a 30-something Hackett visited Ideo as Steelcase was thinking of entering a new market. He described his experience there as “so profound” that three years later, Steelcase bought a majority stake in the company—in part to get full-time access to Kelley through an always-on video link."
Hackett retired from Steelcase in 2014 and in 2016, informs the piece, Bill Ford hired him to run the automaker’s nascent Smart Mobility subsidiary, which was tasked with rethinking from the ground up how cars would be driven, powered, and owned. Once again, Hackett turned to Ideo. The company had already been working with Ford as a client, but Hackett embedded its employees in Dearborn to jump-start a transformation of Ford’s culture.
Hackett told the writer, “This is what we call the design gap,” pointing to the space between two lines on a graph he’d sketched on a whiteboard. We quote, "One line ascends—this is a company’s skill at making things, which goes up over time. Below it is a descending line, representing a company’s understanding of the customer’s experience. This, Hackett said, can decline over time, as a company loses sight of the problems it’s in the business of solving. The design gap may be noticeable when the job is, say, building a marginally better tailgate for the Ford F‑150. But it becomes positively yawning when your industry is so thoroughly turned on its head that you’re forced to ask some basic questions: Do people want to own their cars or share them? Drive them or have them driven? The flood of new technologies makes everything possible."
How can purposeful design improve user experience?
This is perhaps the right time to declutter the inane add ons that nobody needs like seats that monitor your heart rate! As the piece informs, overloading the dashboard with too many doodads requires the driver to do the hard thinking about what she needs while on the road and the same time, it burdens the company with producing all these options. Figuring out the right choices is the trick. And it’s not simple, says the writer.
Hackett's arrival in a hitherto insular company is bound to break a few design and perception norms and his presence has shifted narrative from how to devise new set of features for drivers to how drivers feel when they drive, what are their complaints and bugbears. Do they need chargers? Is the navigation system too complicated? What digital ecosphere are they comfortable with? These questions speed up and clarify design processes.
We quote, "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."
Hackett says it best in the piece, "If you look at business history, the winners are almost always those that get their user experience right.”
He told the writer that though a part of him wants to spend all his time in the design studio and rejoice in the potential of things, when he walks out of there, he has another kind of accountability, which is, he has to and the company has to—deliver results. He says, "We have shareholders. That’s a design problem unto itself. How do you weld the two together?”
As the piece puts it beautifully, Hackett knows that he needs to be more like the Jobs who returned to the company as CEO in 1997. Future-focused, yes. But aware that the future is built with cash generated in the now.
How much time will Hackett get? We don't know yet but change is clear and present in the absence of mahogany furniture in the 11th-floor conference room of the Ford headquarters. It is now, as the writer tells us, an open workspace full of engineers and data scientists, sleeves rolled up, sketching the future and Ford’s position in arguably the greatest race in business.We leave you with the best line of the piece, “It will take some time,” Hackett said. But he’d rather get the right answers slowly than the wrong ones quickly.
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