Standards and Regulations and the Autonomous Man-Machine Interface

Imagine if the “spaces” in which we live, work and regularly visit had a commonality of infrastructure, connectivity and operation among them. From our gyms to museums, shops, libraries, train stations and the schools – all had a familiarity and consistency so that you knew how to get around, knew how to find things and generally knew how to make things work. What follows are some thoughts and observations on our movement and interaction through physical and digital “architected” systems. Imagine if our “systems” had a consistency and competition was based on the service experiences. Systems would be easily learned and consumer confusion of how systems work could be nearly non-existent.  


The navigation of physical spaces

Let’s the state of physical architecture, how we use the space and how we get around. The first time you enter a train station in any major city, you learn how the “wayfinding” and information systems work. Then, when you enter another station in that city, that station is more familiar and understandable to you. In this scenario, the design of the train stations is “regulated” and the infrastructure is defined by a set of standards and guidelines of physical and sometimes digital design.

We experience this familiarity of space and physical movement in some building types, but not so much a consistency of “how things work”. Because of the efforts of hundreds (maybe even thousands) of Environmental Designers working together to constantly improve wayfinding in the built environment, navigating some physical spaces (like airports and museums) is not so difficult. In this case, the Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) are the ones to thank and learn from. Its members have spent decades examining, testing, learning and improving the way that we navigate the built environment and sharing and publishing “the best way”. Because of their efforts, we understand how to navigate our public roads, how to find neighborhoods, buildings and landmarks in cities, and even how to find a restroom in a public space.


The familiarity and consistency that we have today with buildings and spaces does not translate to the digital systems that we interact with. I now live in many digital spaces and systems. My mobile device, connected home, work computer, video game console, television, car, internet radio and other appliances all have their own unique software platform. Most of the time, they require me to learn a new way of interacting and they also rarely work together. And now some are adding “intelligence” and agents each in their own unique way. The question that I pose is, “What would be the impact if our government took a more proactive position in the regulated evolution of digital spaces and operating systems? This could also extend to intelligent systems and especially important spaces that are beginning to combine these paradigms (like autonomous cars). Our government would plan a role in software understanding and development, interface design, user experience and the like. Could you imagine? I could.

Let’s examine some everyday pain points and take a trip into the future. It is easy to find a restroom in an airport. It is less easy to hook-up your laptop and printer to the same WIFI system and have them work together. And it is even more difficult to understand the buttons, activation sequence, stand-by state and screen feedback of next-gen “intelligent” cruise control systems in your vehicles. Is it working? What is it doing, exactly? And why is it sometimes not working?  

Now imagine if this same consistency and familiarity existed in the systems that control your home or the operating systems of your devices? How you search and retrieve a movie to watch, how you access your favorite album and play it throughout your house or how you connect your house systems to your vehicles would all be done in the single best regulated way. Imagine if Designers had perfected the ease of connecting devices in your home and you experienced flawless access and sharing throughout. Privacy and security would be part of the infrastructure solution and regulations would be implicit. You need only worry about what you want to do with it. If places, devices, objects and systems were easier to connect to and interact with, then I wonder if we would we spend more time and attention on our companions and the conversations or on the content on display?

How many software platforms do we need?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work across and be exposed to the “inner workings” and core strategies of numerous industries or verticals. What continuously strikes me is the degree of effort that companies exert in order to be only marginally different from their competitors. This vastness of effort for marginal difference and frequently no significant improvement or competitive differentiation is staggering. Huge development efforts are undertaken despite the fact that these competitive companies share the same consumers that think and behave in the same way, that have more or less the same wants needs and expectations and that usually need to complete the same tasks.


Do too many platforms hamper innovation?

Across multiple product categories, competitive companies still spend vast amounts of money and resources on satisfying all of those same requirements in a similar way. The primary difference is that they deliver it on “their own proprietary platforms” or systems but at a cost of customer ease of use and time to learn. For example, despite the considerate efforts to develop proprietary operating systems, the applications and the hardware of Apple phones and Android phones are not very different in aesthetic and function – particularly in the way that most things get done – like making a phone call, creating a contact, managing your calendar and sending a text message from each phone. You might also say the same about Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

On top of these platforms is the on-going mindset that we also compete on creating slight variations of the same features. From access to content, to nifty new uses of sensors, to enabled services and new interface behaviors, progress often feels slight, informed by the competition and marginal in value. I have found in most verticals that these new features keep coming even though many consumers are not aware that they exist or exactly how they work. Physical Engineers and Software Developers keep busy by conceptualizing new features on these proprietary platforms.

It was a rare Director at one of my previous employers that realized that we did not need to always re-invent or improve a competitive feature or system. He often suggested that we should simply “copy it with pride”. At first this struck me as a phrase straight out of Dilbert, but in time I applauded him for at least recognizing the benchmark, choosing where to differentiate and choosing where to put the majority of our energy and focus. Most of his industry peers just throw the proverbial net out wide and far, thus letting the opportunities of added consumer value and differentiation get lost in the vastness of their accomplishment.

Why is it that competing companies develop unique platforms that more or less serve the same “consumer ends” but are executed only marginally differently from their competitors?  They are different for the sake of being different with the belief that their platforms and their unique elements will “keep the consumer hostage” due to switching costs and the investment of time of education. And today, even if you have made that platform commitment, the pace of physical and digital change is not always driven by customer needs. I find this particularly irritating when connector types change frequently, or your outdated hardware is not supported by the latest software release, or your two-year old product requires an older, previously released app to be identified and then downloaded. And while we’re at it, is the “customization” and “personalization” of everything really necessary?  Consumers started suffering from “platform fatigue” about a decade ago. And now, the addition of a layer of variable “intelligence” and proprietary algorithm libraries may push consumers to the brink.


I have observed these “patterns of choice” most notably in the consumer electronics industry, then in the mobile and telecom space, in home automation and now in the automotive industry.  Each of these verticals once had a few major competitors each of whom built their products and services on a different platform sometimes from the ground up.  Now, I believe that the proliferation of these various platforms is slowing-down the evolution of product and service development. And it will in-time negatively affect our ability to mine disparate data sources, operationalize trends and evolve into the next wave of intelligent machines. We get there, but it now seems to take longer than it does for others with different operating and competitive mindsets.

This platform competition and diversification also has an effect on the tangential businesses in each vertical. For example, App Developers make an educated guess as to which platform(s) to support. These are difficult and risky choices as they decide how and where to compete. They invest their time, coding ability and future in the ability to develop and translate code. HTML5, Android (for phones, homes, cars, etc.), Linux, Windows OS, iOS, QNX, Smart Device Link and Windows Mobile are but a few that Developers must choose to invest their time in. Each of these requires work to write the code, get the app certified and then maintain it.

Likewise, Tier 1 and 2 automotive suppliers make a similar educated guess on which vehicle platforms to support and which will win them new business with the OEMs. All of these Developers are hedging their bets and assuming that the audience of their chosen platform will continue to grow in size and frequency of use. That said, one of the smartest decisions that I have ever seen any company make was to reduce the number of platforms or Operating Systems that it was developing (products and services) for. This happened at Motorola when the company decided to put all cards into the Android hat. The company quickly evolved from supporting 7 (or more) operating systems to developing products and services for only one, Android. Over a short period of time, duplication of functional efforts went away, code development lessened and increased in quality, and the scale of strategy shifted from a production and delivery mindset to one of constant learning and speed of experience evolution. Our global OEM competitors at the time really struggled to comprehend this decision to simplify and consolidate.

Most of my examples refer to the manipulation of content on a small screen, but now these tendencies and challenges are creeping into very complex physical and digital interaction spaces, namely how people and things move. It appears that the future competition of platforms, interaction and presentation of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles follows a similar but different path, while slowing consumer adoption and valuable innovation. Subsequently, the question that I am posing is when are regulations and standards (most likely dictated by the federal government) good and should we be rethinking the current complete freedom of automotive autonomous system design? Is there a single best way to design these systems that should be implemented across all OEMs?

In the context of the evolving autonomous vehicle industry, our Department of Transportation is focused on Safety, Privacy and Security. The DOT is defining requirements for these attributes but not for the interaction of these systems with the world around them. They remain concerned that too many regulations will hamper or stifle American innovation. Providing safety, privacy and security are often mentioned as the means to the ends of building Consumer Trust. Regulating and standardizing the most basic and foundational interaction design elements of autonomous vehicles maybe the best way to imbue trust. Things like …

  • How the vehicle communicates with humans at an intersection; lights, patterns, sounds, movement

  • Identifying which vehicle is intended for you; screens, words, pictures, lights, patterns

  • Identifying the status and intentions of your vehicle; is it waiting for someone or for you to cross the street or is it off duty?

Because of the myriad of solutions that both customers and bystanders will encounter, we run the risk that the subtleties in the differences of signals, interaction and vehicle behaviors across OEMs, start-ups and other autonomous systems will in general erode consumer trust and slow-down adoption.

Maybe we can get in front of this potential confusion and formally establish a government agency or at least a not-for profit education organization that encourages companies to engage in a collective discourse and maybe even share their hypotheses, learnings and future plans? Otherwise, competitive companies in this space are going to “feel the pain” for a few generations of solutions as consumers chose the “best solutions” – through their actions, preferences and brand loyalty. The scale of competition will dwindle but not before we experience a whole lot of consumer aggravation.

On a more macro level, car companies are also introducing their unique solutions to representative symbols, new interaction flows, new visual metaphors, pictures and lighting behaviors, new terminology and all-around new behaviors. The general consumer understanding of what these features do and how to maximize their potential is very low on a global scale. And as most of us in the UX and Design professions know, it is not uncommon for a customer to try a feature (or button or command) once, and if it does not react or respond as they expected it to, then they do not ever try it again. This is the great waste of useless feature design and engineering through the ages.

A manifestation of this concern that is playing-out today in dozens of autonomous prototypes is the unique approach to “messaging and signaling” to customers and bystanders that differs across all involved. Some examples of potential outcomes include …

  • The visual and animated prompts to cross in-front of a Nissan autonomous car are going to be different from those of a VW a GMC and a Mercedes-Benz.

  • The means of confirming that an autonomous delivery vehicle is for me will also be different across delivery services

  • The entry doors (and delivery doors) will open differently and behave differently

  • The seats will be arranged and adjusted differently

  • The flow of interaction, the inputs and the outputs when receiving goods or traveling within a vehicle will be different

  • The usefulness of and integration with my phone will be different

  • And it is likely that the variables of the rates, the cost, the payment method and tipping structure will be different. BTW, let’s decide now not to tip robots <grin>.


Perhaps some of these attributes or characteristics that interact with the general public ought to be standardized and the focus of differentiation and competition ought to exist elsewhere?  Consortiums are sometimes formed with the intent of sharing understandings, but all companies know that the “secret sauce” or the “latest tech” is always held back from being shared and demonstrated to competitors. The consortium partners are usually seeing everyone’s 2nd best solution.  Committing to and participating in Open Source platforms and projects may be the answer to these general compatibility issues. But unfortunately, I do not believe that this is the pervasive mindset of competitors in this space <yet>.  

I always believed that as a product, interface and system Designer, my job and mission is to discover, define and design the “single best way” to complete a task or interact with a vehicle. And then learn more from how it is actually used by customers and constantly improve it. For instance, providing a driver 4-5 ways to do the same task (via voice, touch, gesture and central controller) simply indicates to me that the company has not yet invested enough time and money in understanding how consumers interact with their products and systems – and designing that single best way.

I suggest that we relax some of our competitive spirit, pool our collective resources and define some future standards and guidelines (with the assistance of the government) that are the single best way to interact with these new intelligent machines.  Remove some these potential points of consumer confusion and get on with the act of moving the masses.




Product, Service & Emotional Systems Design Consulting & Collaboration - for the Automotive & Mobility industries