Aerial photo of intersecting freeway roads surrounded by trees.

When systems design meets user design

I went to a meetup recently where the speaker talked about their role doing UX Design for a major car company. I was excited and interested to see how the company was tackling one of the most complex issues that we're facing right now: the need to move from a car-centric society to a multimodal (many forms of transportation options) society.

Let's start with a little background first.

So, cars are cool, right?

Cars are dangerous. Cars range from 3000 - 4500 pounds (1350 - 2000 kg). And on surface streets, they go anywhere between 20 - 40 mph in the US. A car hitting you at 35 mph exerts about 35,000 pounds of force. Because of that, a driver can easily kill a pedestrian, cyclist, or other motorist when they're hit. It's already happened 36 times this year in Portland.

In addition to that, cars are a huge source of carbon emissions in cities. In Portland, transportation makes up 40% of emissions and a lot of that is from single car use.

After we consider the physical impact of cars, we must also wrestle with the psychological implications.

We have been sold a lie that cars give us freedom and independence. What they really give us is flexibility. And what they take away is community. Getting behind the wheel of a car turns us into the worst version of ourselves, due to something called "deindividuation", which is a loss of self-awareness and accountability. In a 1970 study, Philip Zimbardo studied this type of behavior and concluded that the factors that some factors that can lead to deindividuation are “Anonymity, diffused responsibility, group activity, altered temporal perspective, emotional arousal, and sensory overload..."

Basically, we feel we are all anonymous behind a wheel, and therefore not accountable for our actions. Add in the emotional need to just get where you're going and we've got a psychological mess.

Don't think this is true for you? Consider how many times have you've sped down an empty street because there were no cops and you had "somewhere to be". You didn't think you'd get caught (accountability), and if someone saw you they wouldn't know who you were anyway (anonymity).

What happens when we stop driving?

Not driving can make us feel a bit better. In a study done by Latitude, 18 regular drivers went car free for a week. After that week, "two-thirds reported that the car-free week exposed them to new things, and twice as many participants felt more integrated into their communities than had expected to before the study week, with the majority also citing health and money-saving reasons to reduce their reliance on driving."

So again, flexibility is key here, not some ethereal idea of "independence". My own car use is a great example. I have a car, and drive roughly 70% of the time when I need to go somewhere. It's not great, but a huge improvement from when I lived in Austin, where I had no choice but to drive 100% of the time.

We typically try and bike or walk to meet friends or do frequent activities like going to the gym or grocery shopping. So I interact with cars as a driver, cyclist, and pedestrian. This is a hugely important factor to consider: As a user, I need flexibility, which means I use many different types of transportation. Because of that my experience with cars will change depending on which role I play.

How should we think about research and design for cars?

So I went to this talk hoping to hear how, as a UX Designer for a major car company, they considered problems like:

  • How do drivers impact the safety of themselves and those around them, and how you design to maximize the safety of everyone?
  • How are they working and learning about users as we work towards the necessary shift from fossil fuels to EVs?
  • How are they assessing and working with multimodal drivers who drive a car but also bike or walk a lot, too?
  • How are they considering the larger transportation system and how the car fits into that system?

It's these questions that help us see that we should consider systems design alongside user experience design.

Systems design is the process of defining the architecture, modules, interfaces, and data for a system to satisfy specified requirements. So in this context, thinking from a systems design perspective would mean considering the roadways, government, citizens, and types of transportation that people use on the roadways.

User experience (UX) design is the process design teams use to create products that provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users. And in this context the user experience design would include understanding how the user interacts with the car.

The harsh reality

Unfortunately, the presentation was based only on this second aspect: how drivers interact with cars. They talked about personifying the car to create a more personal connection with the driver, and how they were working on "hard problems" like the fact that people want to text and drive even though it's not safe.

A huge question that went unanswered here was "We know people want to use their phones in the car, so should we make that easier for them to do or harder? Which is safer?"

The presentation was scary and extremely disappointing.

It was, however, a great example of focusing on the wrong things for user design. They were asking all the wrong questions. They should have been more concerned about how to design for safety, even if that means the driver has a less enjoyable experience and can't text while also driving 40 miles an hour in a 20 mph zone.

They should have started from the premise of, "We know that cars can be dangerous, how might we make cars less dangerous to the driver, other people, and the environment?" By starting here, the entire user experience conversation is reframed, and also forces us to consider the larger system (people, roadways) that the cars must move within.

Making better choices

When designing something that has become integral to our life, we must consider how the user experience design relates to the entire system.

It means that car companies should be working with cities to ensure that there are sensors and ways to limit speed that won't allow drivers to act recklessly when they're mad or bored or inattentive.

They should be making it less desirable to text while driving, not easier.

And cities should be creating traffic calming measures that create physical barriers to slow cars down while working with car companies to consider not just the safety of the person driving, but the safety of all the other people that driver could hit.

When we're zooming around town in huge metal, carbon emitting boxes, enjoyment shouldn't be the main factor. Sustainability and safety should be. And in order to build products that are sustainable and safe, we must learn to ask the right questions, and consider how the product will work within the entire system.