Parrish Hanna is the global director for human machine interface at Ford Motor. Parrish and his team guide the design and development of the interior interactive experiences for all Ford and Lincoln vehicles. Through the synthesis of emerging technologies, consumer understanding, and thoughtful physical and digital design, they ensure clarity, ease of use, meaning, value, and safety. We sat down to talk more about the role of design leading up to Parrish’s keynote at CXNYC 2015.

Q: The car is a very personal object. How do human-centered design methods fit into the context of the work that you do?

A: For me, I skipped the whole design thinking thread, because that was just always how I worked and thought — this very iterative, user-centered design being informed by qualitative and quantitative understanding, continuously doing generative, iterative, formative, and evaluative measurement while progressing through research toward understanding. But what’s interesting about our space is what resonates is actually designing for experiences through the application of science, the translation to engineering, and the emotion of design. To me, ease of use and intuitiveness and task completion are just the cost of entry. Beyond that, how do you imbue this much deeper, richer emotional connection to the brand, product, or service or to the experience itself? And for us, it’s in the context of the automotive ecosystem, which is a mobility ecosystem, compared to, say, a transactional website or a retail experience.

Q: How do you go about doing that?

A: We’ve got a big global team of multidisciplinary T-shaped individuals. It’s really about the right mix of people. But it’s also about the organizational buy-in and support and the funding. I have a team of anthropologists, psychologists, and human factors professionals that inform the work of our global design studios with over 1,000 designers. I have people dispatched in research methods every day on a global scale, and it’s everything from codiscovery to participatory design methods that are very generative to rigorous usability prototyping from low-fidelity paper prototypes through simulators through drivable vehicles. My team also has multiple simulators around the world in which we can test concepts simultaneously. We’re working with Post-it notes and gator board and Bristol board cars all the way to fully functioning, drivable prototypes that we can test on closed racetracks or drive on streets.

Q: How have things changed since you started?

A: When I came in three-and-a-half years ago, there were just a lot of things to fix. You’d put someone in a car and ask them to describe what every button, label, and control is for, and they were wrong 60% to 70% of the time. They’d think it does one thing, and it does something else. Many of us have had the experience of a symbol that pops up in front of us on our display, and we ignore it because we don’t understand it. Ignoring a warning or an alert in a moving vehicle can obviously have dire consequences. It’s pretty critical stuff.

While I’ve been here, the executive teams have really gotten an education on what user experience is. We had to prove that the systems were at maximum capacity. We can keep bringing technology into the vehicles, but the human capacity to understand, use it efficiently, and not be deterred by it has reached its limit. It’s one thing when you are in total control, but when the car starts intervening for you and you have this progression from total control to warning to intervention to taking control for you, that’s a really unique, strange new experience for people. I’ve had to use a whole lot of metaphors and other world examples to explain this evolution of a human-machine dialogue, but I think what it resulted in was a buy-in to this belief that the future is based on human habits and rituals and behavior and we cannot sustain the addition of features and then more features. The whole company is actually shifting toward designing for experiences. To do that through the entire ecosystem — the dealership network, the ownership experience, and so on — it’s been a big change. Design has evolved from styling to designing more for lifestyles through narratives and storyboards. That’s been an evolution, and it’s still ongoing for sure, but culturally and organizationally we’ve changed a lot.

Q: What keeps you up at night or comes to top of mind first thing in the morning?

A: I really sweat the details, which is interesting. Instead of making holistic changes, I’ve had to incrementalize. I often say I’m fixing one icon at a time or one label or removing one acronym at a time. Then we improve components and software systems, and soon it will be about evolving an adaptive and participatory predictive system. For us, as the systems become so smart, we have so much data, we have so many microprocessors, we have such a huge memory footprint, and we have so many algorithms that it really becomes a simple choice of determining where the convenience and value is for people. How do we form a deeper connection while designing for driving and safety first? And we’re right there now, figuring that out.

Join us on June 16th at Forrester's Forum For Customer Experience Professionals to hear more from Parrish on designing the human-machine interface.