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Ford Motor Company Case Study: Digital Assistant / Autonomous Vehicle UX Research

Collaboration is the cog in the engine of team performance. Understanding what Digital Assistance and Digital Assistant technology “should be” and “can be” for Ford Vehicles sets the course and deliver the kind of product experiences that appeal to the intellect and emotions of our users. My work at Ford Motor Company revolved around the areas Digital Assistant technology and how Ford vehicles will fit in a future of connected-cars in a connected society.

Digital Assistance is more than a voice assistant...

It’s a pathway to a completely integrated and connected vehicle experience. My interpretation of this environment means that vehicles should:

Know the User – Whether a driven vehicle that is privately owned, a shared vehicle, or a managed fleet of vehicles, digital assistance will know the user and their needs, preferences, and will help them complete tasks.

Serve Content – Serve users content that is appropriate for them and their needs.

Navigate – Transport people and goods to places quickly, safely, and efficiently.

Educate – Help users walk through their mobility solutions capability with real-time dialog.

Smart Cities – Make use of the connected world around the vehicle.

Perform Safely – Navigate and control the vehicle in a safe manner at all times and adapt to road conditions.

Manage Resources – Track and notify appropriate point of contact when vehicle resources are needed (energy / fuel, tire pressures, fluids, etc.)

Communicate – Capability of communicating to other vehicles and people in appropriate circumstances (car-to-car communication, end-user to contact communication)

Maintenance – Able to assist the process of scheduling service and upgrades in a transparent manner.

Digital Assistant "Expression" Research Across a Vehicle Landscape

My research efforts at Ford helped to define which visual and audible languages best communicate, guide, and inform users. These findings, among other Ford studies, were valuable tools that helped define future UX guidelines for our products and services, particularly the inevitable integration of Digital Assistant technology across the landscape of vehicles.

Areas of Exploration

Vehicle Personality

Much of this research fueled the pursuit to define what “personality” means to users, and how to best portray personality within the landscape of Ford vehicles using visuals, sound and voice. It was abundantly clear to me that these modalities do, in fact, greatly impact user attitudes and perceptions of a product, and promises to be a value-add for the overall vehicle experience.

User Feedback + Social Barriers

Vehicles operate and function in a very large number of social contexts. In addition to developing a "Point of View" for what vehicle personality is, it was important to for me to understand the evolving landscape of where our vehicles exist, how users interpret design choices, and what they mean in broader social terms.

Digital Assistant Ethnographic Research

Throughout each research effort, it became very clear how prevalent Digital Assistants were in people’s lives. As a result, we generated deep, qualitative insights into their naturalistic use of those technologies. It’s critical to understand and leverage the interactions that are perceived as the most meaningful and valuable, for not only the user's sake, but as guidance for UX professionals, like myself, to make more informed design decisions moving forward.

Visual and audible languages will evolve, as will transportation and mobility. A new creed of standardization will need to target broader mobility issues (e.g., accommodate government imposed safety and regulatory standards), all in preparation for what lies a head of us:

• By defining the “standard” for vehicle communication (interior and external)

• Establishing “best practices” for interactions

• Adapt design to regulatory impositions

• Continue to ensure the vehicle experience is a notable differentiator from the competition

Personal Vehicles

In principle, a Digital Assistant integrated personal vehicle experiences serve as an excellent opportunity to establish interaction standards, support end-user customization and/or adaptation of preferences, accommodate multi-user households, and provide vehicle safety advantages.

Commercial Vehicles

Personalization for the operator is also important for commercial vehicles, and logically indicates the requirement for a gateway of control for technicians and fleet managers that must interface with the car in-depth.

TaaS Vehicles

Extending the Digital Assistant integrated experience, TaaS vehicles require multiple levels of customization to support diverse business models. Specific types of assistance can help users interface with the vehicle, whether they be a passenger, delivery personnel, or a recipient.

Integrate Digital Experiences (Without Losing the Driving Experience)

Having previously a hands-on motorsports career, I obviously have a strong connection with vehicles, paired with a deep appreciation for their tangible and visceral interactive quality. Throughout my time at Ford, and despite having a hand in the autonomous movement, it's a fact that in the foreseeable future users will be driving their vehicles (at least most of the time), either unassisted or subsidized control through driver assistant technologies. Where appropriate, automotive companies should maintain not only an affordable access-point to a quality driving experience, but continue to embrace the “spirit of driving.” Digital Assistance and “vehicle personality” does not have to be at odds with this notion, it can very much enhance it. By respecting the wishes of the user and their desire for “control,” we satisfy the visceral and emotional connections many have with their vehicles.

Justification and ROI

Consumers are demanding more connectivity and mobile device integration, and will switch brands if their needs are not met. Car companies must continue to situate and evaluate research insights as society and technology shifts, define best practices for software integration and iteration, and be responsive to market signals. At the conclusion of my work at Ford, I found the following to be pervasive topics and I continue to explore as a consultant today:

Privacy + Trust: Understand which elements of digital assistance users are most concerned, and how Ford can earn their trust (in the system and the car).

Portability + Control: Enhance the “Home-to-Vehicle Experience,” accommodate the desire of portability and control over what systems do for them, and when.

Product Longevity: Ensure product lifespan and agility as vehicle purpose and use patterns evolve.

Digital Assistance + Driving Experience: For manual operation, investigate how to enhance the driving experience without loosing what is most important to users.


Our current environment shows us that digital assistance (broadly, AI) is an ever increasing area of consumer interest, automotive companies need to keep up. Future vehicles need agility and adaptability to survive this evolving space, long after they’re sold or leased. My research efforts at Ford Motor Company proved to be an exceptional and unique contribution to the perception of this technology and helped pave way for future integration of Digital Assistants into Ford vehicles.


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