“Innovation doesn’t come from watching people!”

I frequently hear that argument. Of course, I don’t believe it for a second. I’ve had this discussion with my friends and colleagues, sharing with them my own personal experiences over the years. So it was refreshing to see a recent article published by a General Motors client team who shared their own experiences and results innovating with Contextual Design (CD). Though they’ve since done many CD projects, even their first experience going into the field and spending time with users generated many innovative ideas. In fact, as reported in the conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications (2010) (Journey: GM’s move to incorporate CD) the team’s effort resulted in 33 patent submissions. Now, that sounds like significant and new ideas were generated by the team.  

This particular team deals with the most physical of products—cars. They have responsibility for the systems we all interact with inside a car: the navigation, radio, communication and instrument cluster gauges—what they call the Human Machine Interface (HMI). As part of the project, team members went out and rode around with drivers as they went about their daily life, commuting, running errands, taking trips. The result of their work and analysis was a set of key findings captured in work models from which they did visioning; Contextual Design’s structured ideation process. While I won’t go into the content of the whole paper, I will pull an example from it which demonstrates how observing users in the field can power real innovation or what we often call practical innovation. What that means is ideas that are applicable to real people’s lives and can be shipped in products now.

One of our findings was that navigation means more to users than just getting route instructions from point A to point B. The team learned that in-vehicle navigation systems provide situation awareness, security, entertainment, and educational opportunities to the driver and vehicle occupants. In addition, the task of navigation isn’t just confined to the car, as they observed a great deal of trip planning being done online using the participants’ personal computers. We learned that life flows in and out of the car but the problem is the car is a silo. This has far-reaching implications for design.

One deceptively simple behavior pattern which drove their design thinking was that while driving through familiar areas, drivers do not require navigation assistance. They often observed drivers turning off the route guidance prompts when traveling in familiar locations and skipping recommended turns by the system because the driver knew a better route.

Now, this behavior might seem obvious—but no one had thought about the implications for design before. Based on this information, the GM team developed requirements for a new navigation routing system that would learn where the vehicle has traveled and based on that information make more general routing instructions, as well as providing drivers information about how their route will be impacted if they choose to ignore a maneuver.

For example when starting from a Detroit suburb and traveling to Chicago, the system would prompt the user to get onto I-94 west while monitoring the driver’s progress toward this goal without providing unneeded and often annoying turn-by-turn instructions of how to get out of the driver’s own neighborhood. The frequency of prompts would increase when the vehicle recognized it was traveling in unfamiliar territory. This is very similar to the way in which people give instructions to drivers when they have knowledge about the driver’s familiarity with a particular location. This more intelligent routing method, though deceptively simple, was judged by GM to be important enough to patent.

Though not every team that goes into the field ends up filing for patents, every team does find going to the field a source of insight and innovation. Sometimes it’s from discovering new aspects of the user’s world, but other times it comes from rediscovering and making explicit aspects that have been overlooked. The result is new, transformative designs which deliver huge value to users and generate customer loyalty. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do for our customers?