As the quality, quantity and variety of in-cabin features continue to rise, these attributes no longer provide the differentiation they once did. Instead, it is predicted that design and user experience will become key for automakers in setting a brand apart. A new design group, born from an established Tier One provider is intent on making its mark on the industry. Continuing just-auto/QUBE's series of interviews, we spoke to Christian Schluender, VP and General Manager of Global Design at Huemen, to find out more.
Huemen is a new name but has an established history of working with familiar names. What is the story?
Yes, Huemen is a new independent design agency that has been born from the experience of Harman. Huemen brings together over 250 individuals around the world – problem solvers, strategists, thinkers, researchers and designers – that together have amassed over 300 design awards.
Design has been at the core of what Harman creates across its divisions. Now, we want to take this further as we believe design will contribute valuable brand and user experiences that will give businesses a competitive advantage. Our role is to make design and the experiences it creates, meaningful and relevant. Looking forward, I think this will push to be more and more critical for the automotive – and mobility as a whole – sector.
So, Huemen is separate from Harman?
Yes, we have a firewall between Harman and Huemen, so we operate independently. We design for our clients and that intellectual property is theirs. It goes without saying that we can draw upon our roots and Harman's long-standing heritage in quality design, as well as access knowledge from across the entire spectrum of Harman. That is extremely broad: we have experience in everything from connected services through to lighting and materials technology. But
Design has moved away from being product- and device-centric to being experience-centric, and that's the space in which we will create meaningful design.
design has moved away from being product- and device-centric to being experience-centric, and that's the space in which we will create meaningful design as I mentioned.
But what does 'meaningful design' actually mean for automotive businesses?
Our relationship with technology has become unique and personal, so design needs to come from the place of the user, not a removed, disconnected place.
By that I mean that our designs will be human-centric and relevant. There is a common vision of design agencies being groups of designers in a clean, white 'box'. At Huemen it's different. We want our designers to put themselves in our customers' shoes and "walk" in them true to the users' needs. Our relationship with technology has become unique and personal, so design needs to come from the place of the user, not a removed, disconnected place.
Effective design feels personal and enables experiences that engage on an emotional level. We don't just design and engineer the audio, technology or interface, we design the overall user experience strategy. For Huemen, design is all about user emotion. To achieve that, our designers must be embedded in the markets where the products will be used; the US, Europe, China, Japan. We have designers in all those regions and will expand particularly in the latter two. From there the team can design with the end customers in mind. For example, we have clients in the States and EU where the users' needs are evolving from long standing paradigms of the front seat driver as the "primary" user to a new world of autonomy and "machine-trust" as the vehicle takes on more and more of the "driving". This is extremely exciting and challenging at the same time. In China and Japan, we see a huge revolution in OEMs working much more like consumer electronics companies with technology integration, development cycles, and variable/multiple user paradigms in a single vehicle. This very different from the US/EU example, and equally exciting and challenging as we help create a massive change not only in the vehicle, but the industry as a whole.
Automotive designers are notoriously protective. Do you believe they will engage your designers?
In fact, they already are. We have designers embedded and working alongside in-house designers in two major OEMs based in Europe. Tier One suppliers are no longer an outsourced solution; we're a unified partner for OEMs. It's a collaborative process. We have been able to achieve that quickly because we already understand automotive design processes and even the in-house acronyms.
Our initial focus with OEMs has been to create better experiences around the infotainment system. A great example is a recent project with Bentley. For the GT, Bentley's lead designer for HMI wanted a speaker grill with a centre hole. We had encountered that request a few years back in a consumer project at Bang & Olufsen. Our designers knew it was feasible and working with Bentley we refined a prototype for its head of design, incorporating the required colour and trim. The result is spectacular; a jewel-like speaker grill that brings more to the listening experience than just great sound. It also creates a more desirable experience, linking back what we discussed about design bringing a competitive advantage.
What is proving attractive to the OEMs about your offering?
Our people are absolutely key to our offering. Diversity is at the forefront of that and gives us the ability to design for European OEMs, a Chinese supplier or a US connected services company. There's no question that it is a competitive landscape out there. There are lot of good players, but I think key to our success will be our industry experience, access to Harman across all its divisions and the sheer diversity of our designers to be relevant across the global marketplace.
You just need to look at how China is developing; design is enabling small, local brands to beat the established players in consumer electronics. We are already growing the teams in Shenzen, Suzhou, and Japan.
Can you give us other examples beyond in-car infotainment where Huemen is working in the automotive space?
Sure, we just completed a programme on an OBD-II diagnostics device called Spark, a project with AT&T. It's a solution that's enabling vehicles from 1996 onwards to be transformed into an LTE connected car. We led the design across each interaction between the product and the end user: the packaging, the app user interface, the downloads and obviously the product itself.
The automotive industry is changing and much is being said about new mobility. Is that an opportunity for Huemen?
Absolutely. OEMs are showing more and more concepts of what it could be like but I see these as small steps towards the 'mobility age' that we will soon enter. With very few exceptions, it seems to be the same paradigm. At Huemen, we think we need to truly free ourselves to design for that era. There simply won't be the trust issues we have today when we ditch the steering wheel. All those psychological barriers will be eradicated, gone. We are working on concepts that are far beyond that. It is such an exciting time for design, to be able to create the first environments for a new age.
Where do you see opportunities in new mobility?
We must address the fact we have complicated, technologically-advanced connected products, so we must design interfaces that are simple, streamlined and friction-less to build consumer trust and confidence.
First, the interface must be intuitive. We must address the fact we have complicated, technologically-advanced connected products, so we must design interfaces that are simple, streamlined and friction-less to build consumer trust and confidence. It must also be individual. Expect to see much more personalisation that will fulfil the user's emotional needs. There are many obvious examples that assume people are looking to multi-task while commuting; it often gets confused with personalization – its multi-tasking. Personalization will include vehicles that integrate into your life, contextual to the relevant need and purpose. Getting to an airport for business is very different than going there to start a holiday trip. Likewise, a commute to the office is very different than a commute home after a very stressful day. Traveling alone, traveling in a group, with friends, strangers… all unique and just a few of the new need paradigms for the future of mobility. Personalisation and intelligence will allow the vehicle to integrate and sense occupants to provide the appropriate connections – and the vehicles will join the users in the context which the mobility is realizing, adding meaningful value.
Additionally, we want to target the deeper design work in autonomous vehicles, rather than that which is obvious. Communication between the vehicle and the user – and vice versa – is inexorably linked with design. We can help with how communication systems and design impact upon each other.
Is Huemen hoping to influence customer interactions for automakers beyond the car?
We know where we can add to the user experience. Design is no longer product centric but must address the convergence of connected ecosystems across the home, office, car, mobile and anywhere in between. Car makers want to be part of all these elements and we can help. Brand reputation is built on the value of the experience and the vehicle is no longer a silo.