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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Do I detect a movement? Car design gets more social by the week.

Screen shot 2009-08-31 at 08.20.33

I’ve just spent two fantastic days volunteering, presenting and learning at the sensational UXAustralia user experience conference in Canberra, Australia.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that this morning I learnt of another socially-led automotive design project.

Following in the vein of GM’s The Lab, Local Motors and Peugeot, Fiat Brasil has now launched the Mio project.

Unlike The Lab, which is designed to test late-stage design proposals, the Mio project aims to engage people from the very beginning of the design process, enabling Fiat’s designers and strategists to collect raw consumer insight before pen goes to paper.

In a rather grandiose gesture (would the Italians have it any other way?), Fiat’s blurb for the project recalls Michaelangelo and his ability to see through a block of stone to the artwork within:

The sculpture master [Michaelangelo] believed that by just simply lapidating and chipping away the rough material one would find a great work of art in any stone block.

This is Fiat’s intention. Fiat Mio is a participative project that combines the ideas of future cars to create a huge block. This block will serve as raw materials from which to extract a great project for the future generations.

Perhaps in recognition of the fact that unstructured user input would create a whole quarry of  unfocussed research, Fiat (in conjunction with digital ad agency AgenciaClick) is asking visitors a structured series of questions that will lead to the creation of the aforementioned “huge block” that can then be shaped into a design outcome. Interestingly, the research won’t simply be focussing on aesthetics and design features. As the program develops, participants will also be asked to engage with issues surrounding advertising and branding for future Fiat products.

What’s really interesting is that all the content published as a result of the project is going to be licensed under Creative Commons, the second time this has happened int Automotive industry (despite Fiat’s claim to be number one in the automotive creative commons race, Riversimple actually got there first). This means that all the work submitted by users, developed by Fiat and placed into the public domain is free to be shared by anyone who sees value in it, including other automotive manufacturers. The only stipulation is that credit must be attributed to the original creator. Although it’s easy to be cynical about a car company sharing the input and output of a small concept car project, it still represents a significant volte face for an industry that revels in secrecy and the traditional notion of the competitive advantage.

The ultimate point of the project, however, is to launch a more personal vehicle at the 2010 Sao Paulo motor show.

Which is great. But as Ben Kraal has pointed out in the comments on my post covering The Lab: does this kind of process only connect with the fanatics? As I’ve previously stated, fanatics are great brand evangelists -especially once they have a social-media soap box to shout from- but they will more than likely end up being lousy subjects for research. Gathering insight from people already so involved with the brand and the product may lead to the Mio being a little too personal, targeted too closely on those who care enough and shout loud enough.

Still, Fiat has a track record in pulling off crowd-sourced design (I remember spending a few too many hours developing design proposals for accessorising the 500 as part of the “500 wants you” project a few years back) and it’s still early days for this crowd sourced auto design trend. But I’ve made my thoughts known: while we wait for a true shift in mobility models, any process that can help jaded consumers fall in love with cars again can only be a good thing for a braying industry that appears to have lost touch the people that really count.

Category: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Collaboration, Concept, Design, Design Strategy, Motor Shows, Sao Paulo, Social Media

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One Response

  1. Ben Kraal says:

    This is probably better than (GMs) The Lab because, as you point out, it’s engagement at the beginning of the process, rather than nearer the end.

    But now they have the problem of what people say they want (or do) isn’t what they actually end up buying (or doing).

    And so, while I do tend to agree with you that the industry needs people to fall in love with cars again, I’m not sure that these marketing-driven methods are the way to do it.

    (Not that there’s anything wrong with marketing per se. I just don’t think their methods are the most appropriate methods for doing user research.)

    Translating from any sort of customer research into something that works as an input to the design process is hard, but if you start with bad or incomplete information, you end up with Antonella, or some other sort of user-centred BS.

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.