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How the SUV User Experience Trashed Detroit

What do the SUV and the iPhone have in common?

Here is an interesting question: what was the single most profitable factory in the history of modern mass production? Would you be surprised to know that it was an outdated Ford Truck Plant in Wayne Michigan?  Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker said, “In 1998, the Michigan Truck Plant grossed eleven billion dollars, almost as much as McDonald’s made that year. Profits were $3.7 billion. Some factory workers, with overtime, were making two hundred thousand dollars a year.” How is this possible given the vast efficiency of the world’s production facilities ranging from Berlin to Bangkok? It was possible because what was produced there was a product so outdated and low cost yet so overpriced and in such demand that it drove the entire American automobile industry to staggering levels of profitability. Starting in 1996, the Wayne Michigan Truck Plant produced the Ford Expedition SUV…the vehicle that some have said started it all…the SUV generation. As it turns out on July 22nd, 2008 Ford announced that it was converting the Wayne Truck Plant to production of the Ford Focus, a sub-compact design. When the last Expedition rolled off the assembly line, so went the SUV, and for the most part the American automobile industry. Here is our take on what went wrong and why, surprisingly, the SUV is important to corporations large and small that are focused on developing powerful and robust user experiences.

Here is a second even more vexing question: how did untold millions of generally well educated and intelligent consumers end up paying the price of a new BMW for a 40 year old truck with terrible gas mileage? How did this happen?

It is a fact that American automobile design has always been more about theater than innovation. The living embodiment of this concept is Robert Lutz, the jet-piloting, Duesenberg-owning car guy and by no coincidence, head of automobile design for General Motors during the SUV years. When asked what automobile design was all about he said; “Art, entertainment and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation”. The key idea behind theater in all its critical forms is that it is by definition a put-on (a play as we say), a stage on which a story line is delivered for entertainment. In a surprising way the SUV was much the same, only it played out on the stage of the U.S. consuming public. In the end the SUV was a Disney musical—90% fantasy 10% hope. It is the fantasy part we can learn from.

From the beginning the SUV was a fantasy of low technology and high hopes. It was a truck remade into a promise of exceptionally broad benefits both for the customer and for the American automakers. From a business point of view it is easy to see why Detroit was punch drunk on the SUV. Take for example the following benefits: 1) The SUV was extraordinarily profitable (60% profits were routine on some models). 2) It required virtually no new R&D and minimal design costs to develop (existing, outdated engineering and 25 year old styling worked just fine). 3) The SUV was very easy to produce in low tech factories (no complex modern tooling or production costs to contend with). 4) Finally, and in one of the all time clever moves by Detroit, The SUV was classified as a truck and was therefore, not legally required to meet any of the safety or gas mileage standards of the traditional sedan or even minivan. This last fact was no small political victory for Detroit and was the source of some of the most aggressive lobbying by the Big Three in history.

How the SUV User Experience Trashed Detroit

So, how do we account for the staggering success of the SUV? In fact, to this day Detroit doesn’t know what made the SUV successful.  In almost any other industry, market research is employed to plumb the decision space of the consumer. However, market research on SUVs for the most part, showed these vehicles appealed to certain personality types, but the data revealed very little about the attributes of those vehicles that impacted critical decision making of the customer. In fact most consumers came to make purchase decisions based on the most perplexing set of contradictions about the actual performance of their SUVs. For example, customers routinely thought that 1) they were more safe in a SUV than a traditional car or Minivan (they were not), 2) Drivers felt more in control (they actually had less control than most other vehicles), 3) Drivers felt more empowered to deal with rough road conditions (most drivers never used these features and when they did, they tended to be overly confident, sometimes leading to tragic accidents). So, not only do we have consumers purchasing vastly overpriced and outdated technology, they were also making decisions based on product performance profiles that were dead wrong.

How the SUV User Experience Trashed Detroit

Starting with the Roman Chariot and reaching a contemporary apogee in the private jet, mankind has always found a keen satisfaction in transportation technology. In terms of design and engineering it is well known that a driver’s engagement with an automobile is a high-stimulus experience combining motion, sound, kinesthetic interactions, system control, status, socialization, some measure of skill, all in the context of well known, although frequently ignored, legal and behavioral guidelines…commonly understood as insurance premiums and driving laws. This mix of attributes and interactions has made the contemporary automobile an unusually compelling user experience…in fact, a user experience unlike any other really. The key concept here is the “user experience” and it is our belief that the success of the SUV is completely and irreversibly bound to that illusive combination of product attributes that make a product instantly compelling in ways that block our more rational centers of thinking. These user experience design solutions, and there are fleetingly few, draw the consumer in so rapidly and so deeply that the desire to acquire this technology goes directly to the core of our consuming need. We simply must have this thing….The best current example beside the SUV is none other than the Apple iPhone. So what do the iPhone and the SUV have in common? More than you think.

When we speak of the “user experience” and how it impacts purchase and adoption of products and services we divide the framework into three basic pieces: 1) the FUE or the first user experience, 2) the EUE early user experience and 3) the DUE the deep user experience. We know from extensive research for leading high technology and media companies that there is no EUE or DUE without a very compelling FUE…in other words, what the customer first experiences is all important and in fact may be uniquely critical to the success of products which in the end, like the SUV, are of marginal or even negative relative value in the larger context. If you get the FUE right you can sell almost anything and customers will thank you for it. When we employ more advanced psychometric testing methods to user experience design research problems this effect surfaces in web sites, cell phones, video games, automobiles and a wide range of other high tech products and services.

When we view the success of the SUV from this perspective it is clear that the matrix of user experience attributes of the SUV were intoxicating to millions of consumers who, for reasons beyond our understanding, found the SUV so compelling a value proposition that they simply ignored media coverage and even conventional wisdom and purchased a design so outdated as to be embarrassing—not to mention environmentally damaging. So, exactly what were those attributes that bent so many minds and fenders? The answer may reside in an arcane branch of psychology known as “Cue Utilization”. This is a theory that, in part, explains how certain combination’s of influences (in this case the user experience design attributes of the SUV) combine to create a deeply engaging overall psychological experience. How and why this happens is the subject of much debate, but it does happen and the SUV is a prime example.

How the SUV User Experience Trashed Detroit

Thus, highly engaging user experience design is basically a process of cue management. Cues being the composite of all design attributes that the consumer processes on a mostly subconscious level. These cues say to the customer “this is a great piece of technology that offers me a combination of benefits that I cannot be without”. The SUV has this in the form of size, luxury, implied safety, driver point of view and an implied ability to deal with the unforeseen obstacles of the open road…or for that matter life. The important point is that these attributes of the SUV were likely conveyed to millions of customers in the first 20 seconds a potential buyer sat in the SUV in the show room.

The SUV was both the high point and low point of contemporary user experience design. Detroit happened upon this amazing mix of attributes by mistake and then squandered the spoils. The design of the SUV became simply a cue management problem focused entirely on conveying to the buyer the false attributes of safe, powerful, empowering, luxurious, capable and socially binding. It was of course all theater but it still proves the staggering power of well conceived and carefully controlled user experience design.

It is likely that most SUV consumers were hooked before they took the test drive. If you doubt this observation, visit a SUV showroom (assuming you can find one) and see if you sense the implied benefits of a SUV from the drivers seat or the passenger seat or if you have children ask them how they feel about their SUV nest with flat-screen TV, hookups for their video game controllers, juice box holders, reading lights, cell phone pockets, iPod connections and of course a private storage compartment for their action figures. No kid on the planet is going to pass up the SUV user experience for a Prius.

A similarly intoxicating first user experience has driven several million basically well educated and intelligent consumers to buy iPhones which for the most part are fundamentally dysfunctional on a core level due to excessively short battery life. Our rational mind knows this but it is the satisfaction we feel when we first pick up the iPhone in the Apple store and scroll that first menu that drives our emotions beyond our rational understanding even though that very morning we may have read a review on CNET that the battery life on an iPhone is abysmal.

The iPhone , the iPod and the SUV are simply examples of just the right balance of interactive and functional attributes presented in just the right way at the point of the first use experience. When this happens we are, like Detroit itself, punch drunk on the user experience and not on the product and its real functional performance. We make dumb purchase decisions.

In our opinion, along with such powerful user experiences (SUV and iPhone) comes some measure of corporate citizenship, which raises the ultimate SUV question—should Detroit have known better, should the Big Three have invested in design solutions that were more responsible? No, probably not…because Detroit has no history or desire to do so…As Bob Lutz remarked when asked about global warming he said it was frankly a “crock” and so goes the basic thinking of the American Automobile Industry. The SUV was intoxicating for Detroit and fundamentally shaped the American Automobile Industry’s view of the attributes for product success, where theater counted and the truly complex problems of driver and pedestrian safety, efficiency, global impact, political participation and responsible citizenship did not really matter.

How the SUV User Experience Trashed Detroit

American automobile executives know that the best and the brightest graduates go to Wall Street (well, maybe not any longer) or into challenging high tech fields. To work in Detroit is the ultimate dead end career. The SUV brought about design studios filled with interior design graduates not innovation labs teaming with scientists and world-class engineers. These are the skill sets we now know will be required to create successful and profitable personal transportation systems in the future. Detroit failed entirely to use profits of the SUV to create real innovation in transportation. The SUV was Detroit’s flight of fantasy and the SUV user experience was at the center of this theater of the absurd. The problem now is that Detroit is out of runway even with a bailout. Which in the end shows that having the benefit of psychologically powerful user experience design does not mean you can have your cake and eat it too.

Charles L Mauro


  1. Have you read Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet” yet? He talked about the generativity of technology and the very probable coming of “appliancization” of technologies that better control the user experience but essentiall turn off our ability to customize things.

    It strikes me that the iPhone is doing a delicate balancing act of this (yes, you can buy 3rd party apps but you can’t really customize the iphone any futher).

    While your post touches on key issues that Zittrain doesn’t address, I wonder if you have thoughts on what his book talks about.

    From a user experience perspective, appliances are more controlled and possibly do have a better UE, but at what cost long term?

  2. I read Zittrain’s book and have seen the interview on Charlie Rose (PBS) which is a very good summary of his point of view. His thesis is basically that closed networks or products tend to have a negative overhang on the larger consuming public because development of new features and functions within such products is severely limited by those who create and market these systems. I am of two minds on this point but for now one example will do and that is the iPhone.

    Our firm has recently been working on a new application for the iPhone and what we have discovered is exactly what Zittrain suggested. Because Apple dramatically restricts a developer’s access to the underlying applications layer it is actually very difficult to create Apps that enhance the overall user experience of the iPhone. A developer’s app can only sit in a narrow slot above the iPhone OS.

    Clearly, Apple will not allow anyone to improve the iPhone UI or for that matter even have access to functions that would make it possible to do so. Alternatively, Android is a far more App-friendly OS and is in line with what Zittrain is saying should be the way products are created and offered to the consuming public. I think Zittrain has a very valid view but expresses his point in a manner that is not that clear. The Charlie Rose interview is the quickest way to understand is POV.

  3. Great points. I think your iPhone analogy is weak, though. Certainly the battery life is completely fine for me; I have plenty of opportunity every day to plug my phone in if I needed to, but in practice I do so only every few days. On the other hand, having an interface for so many functions that isn’t incredibly obtuse is a real benefit to my work efficiency; so far I don’t see any other products on the market that have that. Not that it isn’t mostly about polish, but the polish has tangible benefits. I think this post would have been stronger without that weak comparison.

  4. Sibley: Interesting POV on the iPhone. While the iPhone may be fine for you, the latest JD Powers report on cell phone ratings shows the iPhone as top-of-category in all dimensions except battery life, where it is way down the list. It is tempting, as developers of technology solutions, to assume we represent the larger population of users…rarely in my experience are such assumptions correct…CM.

  5. Chuck: I wish it were all that easy…what can I say? The bottom line is the bottom line. In fact Detroit destroyed shareholder value on a massive scale after squandering the highest levels of profit in history. Like it or not, the SUV drove those profits and there is almost nothing in the pipeline to carry Detroit into the future. Otherwise, Congress would not have required that most of the bail out be spent on development of new automobile designs.

  6. Very few products and product features are actually necessary to live a very comfortable modern life. Designers and marketers in all industries conspire to instill a constant state of false dissatisfaction among consumers.

    Not only are SUVs and pickups (for non-commercial use) crimes of design, but so are equally gas-guzzling sports cars capable of ultra high speeds.
    Autos have really devolved over the years, from durable investments to semi-disposable fashion items. Even Mercedes is guilty of this, though they perhaps held out the longest.

    Everything works pretty well these days, that’s why product development is more about aesthetics and user experience than engineering and function. I suggest this is a dangerous situation for humanity.

  7. To the people wondering why other companies aren’t totally screwed if they make SUVs, it’s simple: They still actually worked at building nice cars.

    PS: Nice article, but I don’t understand the iPhone reference. I plug mine in every night, and and have a USB cable in my car, so I’m pretty much set, all while having maps instantly at my disposal, music, streaming internet radio, pictures, video, etc. It’s a fantastic device, and unlike an SUV, it isn’t going to kill me or other people.

  8. Leaving aside the applications issue for the moment, you’re right that the battery life of the iPhone really is a problem, but it’s a consistent issue that people can adapt to. The problem with the SUV is that its weaknesses are hidden in certain conditions (cheap gas, easy loans for $50,000 cars), but if conditions change (as they have) they are transparent and fatal, no?

    Apple could, in theory, get access to improved batteries and if so, customers can even retrofit old iPhones with the new ones (it’s happened with laptops). It’s hard to replace the engine on an SUV, however. Getting it right is important, but where you get it wrong can be even more important, it seems to me.

    As for the control of application development, it’s a complex issue. I think you’re right that Apple is too over-controlling, but it doesn’t strike me as fatal short term. Long-term, we’ll see, if they will need to adapt. I haven’t played with an Android phone, but until one delivers a total experience equal to the iPhone (and the reviews I’ve seen don’t seem to imply it’s there), it won’t threaten Apple all that much. And I think the total experience means more than just the applications interface on the phone, Apple’s integration of its entire product line is masterful. Standalone phone makers will always be behind on that front, no?

  9. David: Excellent points. Thanks for the insightful response on this topic. I especially appreciate your framing of the concept of critical attributes being hidden by conditions of the marketplace and then migrating to critical decision levels. You are also correct about Apple and the total experience. We know from an extensive research project we did recently that no other company has control of the total user experience and manages it with such focus.

  10. Somehow I felt this analysis was not very deep, and misses the mark. I agree with the underlying premise that the First User Experience of the SUV can be intoxicating, and its cultural interplay with the American public caused much of its success. The “theater”, as he called it, was built, and it contributed to much mis-information, which was hard to correct. And more so, he is probably right in that this theater blinded the Big Three to needed innovation (as long as the gas prices were low, they and the American public didn’t are.)

    However, I disagree with the analogy to the iPhone. The iPhone is not just “theater”.

    As a comparison, I recently tried to use the Google gPhone. The experience didn’t just suck—it was almost unusable compared to the iPhone. This wasn’t just a first experience, as I played with it for the whole night, and came away totally unimpressed. The functionality was there, but the whole thing still felt like a linux desktop.

    A better comparison would have been with Windows. Everyone bought into the “theater” of how WinNT was going to be a good OS, and that it was going to make everyone’s life easier. MS sold us on the idea that backwards compatibility was more important than anything. Well, then the economics changed. Most of what we do now depend on the browser, and not MS’s awful Office Suite. When the web became the real platform, it enabled other to come along and provide a better OS and user experience.

    Just as the web changed the economics of OS dominance, the price of gasoline also changed the ecnomics of car design and manufacturing. The Big Three is more like MS. They’re nothing like the much more innovative company like Apple.

  11. Ed: thanks for the response. I like the way you frame the concept of theater in your post. I agree with your point about the FUE and Apple. No one does it better. The interesting fact that we discovered in our recent study of the Apple user experience, which involved examination of the entire customer interactions profile starting with a visit to the Apple store and ending with upgrade to a new iPhone several months later, showed that it is optimization of ALL customer touch points that creates such robust levels of engagement.

    My point in the post was that Apple’s FUE is so consuming that it overrides some level of rational decision making related to other performance variables like battery life. However, I was not actually comparing the iPhone, on a structural level, to the SUV.

  12. Interesting article, but I agree with others that you missed the mark on the iPhone. The problem is not the battery life – it’s a terrible phone! That’s what makes it interesting to compare it to an SUV – both are terrible at what should be their core function – the SUV being a terrible car.

  13. Nice article. GM, Ford, Chrysler, etc. are doing better these days. Del Coates noted a few years ago, and I think correctly, that cars will take on features of SUVs. Robert Lutz hired journalists to critique automobiles. A rebound effect occurs when “when the rate of efficiency improvement becomes lower than the growth rate of consumption” (Flichter, 2002). Hopefully, a repeat situation doesn’t occur. As we know, a Prius brand is around the corner, which is interesting.

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