The past few weeks have seen a flurry of activities by the car companies, and their design and marketing departments, to take social media to another level and exploit its potential usefulness for designing and selling future vehicles.
First came GM with its LAB. GM has been in the social media auto world for a long time, but the Lab was a new way to test the waters with some of its more 'skunkworks' projects – such as the 'bare necessity' car and truck concepts, which you can see more of here. What's interesting is that it gives designers, who remain - to quote Roland Barthes (yet again) "unknown artists" who are creating the "gothic cathedrals of our era" a window out into the world, and respectively, one back in to them. The videos are over-produced and slightly inauthentic feeling (the hands of a slightly nervous PR team are all over them), yet the Lab presents a platform, which, outside of the razzmatazz of the auto show, might be one of the only ways for a team to test an idea, and open up a dialogue about what they're doing, outside of the company.
The power of social in this
respect seems to be growing - with the web going all-a-chatter just a couple of
weeks back, when GM canned a proposed SUV, apparently in part, due to adverse
responses on twitter.
Next comes Fiat, downsideupdesign drawing our attention to their 'Mio' project, which is openly 'collecting' user research via the web, as part of the early process for developing a young person’s car, which will be showcased at a forthcoming Sao Paulo auto show. The interesting bit is that Fiat is going to openly publish all of the information it collects, licensing it under creative commons. Why interesting? Because it represents a u-turn in an industry famed for its secretive research and development processes. Furthermore, it means that others can not only reference and use the research in their projects, but critique and analyse the information, and the way Fiat use and interpret it.
While at first glance what's
interesting about all of this is that it simply provides greater volumes of
available raw data, what'll really be interesting is following the
creative process of how Fiat translates this into something physical, and - in
particular - how their reading of the data differs from that of other (outside) observers.
I'll come back to that in a minute, but it's worth mentioning the third project in this arena right now, which is Audi's (facebook log in required). As part of the development process for the LA design challenge, Audi is asking users on its facebook fan page for their input to the development of its entry to this year’s competition, which sees the car design studios of Southern California competing to design a youth-orientated car for 2030. This will only exist in 2D form, and is traditionally a place where we see designers experiment with the sublime and the ridiculous. As such, this is a low-risk, semi-serious dipping of its toes into the shark-infested waters of social media for Audi. It does signal though, that crowd-sourced ideas, and social media research could play some part in future car developments and marketing campaigns.
Audi design video from its Facebook / LA design challenge page
So what? I hear you ask about all of this. Well, let’s get the positives out of the way first. The auto industry is repeatedly accused of lagging behind other sectors when it comes to getting on new bandwagons. No such worries with social media - the train has left the station, auto industry onboard (for once). Secondly, it’s one of the simplest, fastest, most high-profile ways for an industry which has been repeatedly accused of ‘not listening’ to customers, to actually engage them and show it’s interested in their view.
The question is, does all this mean that the auto industry now ‘gets it’? Is this a way of acknowledging the development processes needs to change, that it needs to listen more, open up, and that user-based design and research has much to offer?
I’m honestly not sure. On one hand, thinking and attitudes – in some companies – is clearly changing. On the other, using social media platforms for data collection and user research is a complete no brainer – and is becoming a prerequisite of proving that you’re a contemporary company.
But the ‘is it marketing bullshit’ or ‘is it genuine new engagement’ argument actually misses the point. Because simply having conversations, running competitions, asking for input and conducting user research online is only the first stepping-stone, and arguably not the most important. What’s missing today is the bridge between talking to customers and collecting information from them, and when the designer first picks up his or her pencil in anger. At the moment, the bridge between these two places is called 'marketing', but it has oft proved inadequate at helping deliver products people want, or in helping companies successfully innovate. In my view, there’s a clear role being created, which exists between the data collection point (be that online or in the real world), and the marketing and design teams. An ‘auto analyst’ if you will – whose critical skills are three-fold
- Being able to ask the consumer the right questions in the first place
- Analysing the data, digging deeper than the raw numbers, and testing the conclusions that these new types of research – or indeed other existing methods – lead to
Translating the findings of research and user engagement into meaningful insight, which marketing and design teams understand and can work together around.
At the moment, social media-based user research in the auto industry is in danger of just becoming 'the next big thing' - jumped on by marketing teams as something new and radical, that they’ve got to have in order to look contemporary, but which ultimately is being treating as just another marketing method. Left like this, the results of these – often worthwhile and interesting - new means of research and engagement seem destined to be the subject of the same frowning and eye-rolling from the designer, engineering and planning teams who are ultimately charged with designing the ‘fallout’, that exists in the industry today.
Images: Joe Simpson and Drew Smith talk future auto in London - June 2009 (Mark Charmer); GM bare necessities car (GM), Audi video (Audi)