In the mayhem of the Beijing Auto Show we somehow managed to squeeze in an hour to meet Kaveh Shirdel, Director of UI/UX Design at Nio. It proved very worthwhile, so here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.
The English-educated, Germany-based designer has an interesting history – not at all the usual car design career path – and some fascinating insights into the state of the currently fast-moving and ever more important art of user interface design.
It’s a tad long and covers a lot of ground, but if you’re interested in UX (and if you’re not, you should be) there are a lot of useful insights here, not to mention a video, below. Over to you, Kaveh…
How did you become a UX/UI designer?
When I graduated (in mechanical engineering from Brunel University in Bristol, England) I decided to go much more into the art world, and was working in photography. But then I combined that with my technical knowledge and went heavily into the digital revolution. It was the height of the web boom, especially HTML, at that time. I became a web designer and started designing digital media and digital content. Combining that with the visual side of what I’d done, I was really exploring technology. This was in the late ’90s.
I went very, very heavily into it and became a web developer. Then as that technology evolved, I became more of a content person. Of course, that’s where the nuts and bolts started to emerge of “How do you put digital interfaces together?” As that evolved, it just got more advanced.
I spent a number of years at a Danish design consultancy, doing automotive projects for some of the German manufacturers, because I was based in Munich. I was still doing a lot of pure digital stuff, a lot of mobile and web-based work, embedding digital interfaces into new space experiences for brands like airlines and stuff like that.
But, in terms of this job at Nio, I was very lucky. I had the automotive and engineering knowledge from before, and could push that into my work later. I saw that I could really focus on bringing my automotive knowledge and my digital knowledge together.
How has that knowledge helped with the issues you’re dealing with now?
You are looking at a lot of touch interfaces in a vehicle. There is a lot of knowledge you need about designing for touch that is quite different to what you’d normally do in an automotive interface. Before, the screen was really in cars as a feedback device, so you could see stuff. Now it’s much more of an input device.
My digital experience was very focused on that, but I also have a lot of product design and physical design experience, because my previous agency did product design too. That can involve thinking of new ways to assemble the physical parts, because the automotive world is using fairly straightforward digital electronic switching devices. How do you now assemble things differently? Can you do something new with the steering wheel based on consumer electronics?
That knowledge has helped a lot with the product design team working for me now. In my department, I’m blending digital with physical design and working with both types of specialists.
How does that filter through to real world design – like, say, on-screen menus?
I would say we have made very significant efforts, as a main focus point, to not use deep, deep menus. That’s something we are trying to avoid – having too many levels. Touchscreens help you with that, but you’ve got to know how to design to make them convenient. If you have to hunt for a place to touch, that’s going to be tricky for anybody. There are some interfaces out there where I think people are having that problem.
Our focus is, ‘Right. We want to get rid of menus. We don’t want to have to scroll through lots of things, because that’s the whole point of a touchscreen. You interact with content directly. What can you automate? What still needs a physical switch?’ It’s all about having that hierarchy and those layers of information thought-through more as a whole system, having parts that complement each other.
A lot of the interfaces you see seem to come from separate departments who are doing separate things, then those things come together later. However, we are trying to do everything as one single interface system.
What would you say is the current state of the art in interfaces?
I think you can see that the touchscreen in the centre is becoming more mature and more widely accepted across all the brands. It takes different personalities in different vehicles, but overall it’s really a touchscreen that copes with most of the infotainment and navigation tasks. It’s an obvious trend, but I think the thing to note is it’s becoming mature. It’s gaining this maturity in most of the vehicles as people have started to understand it better.
With the Byton, for instance, that is a very big screen. It’s a very interesting idea, but it’s sort of one big screen doing everything. I think there needs to be a balance, and users need to see something they can trust. There does need to be something independent for the driver. It’s a bit ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’, which isn’t my thing, but I think it is interesting that they are going that way.
In that sense of the hierarchy of information versus infotainment and secondary functions, do you think the two-screens environment is going to stay around?
It will be around a while, but I think speech is really the invisible one that is gaining the most momentum; speech as a way of interacting both in the car and out of the car. When you look at the different brands that are really focusing on AI and speech, the rate of maturity that is coming with that technology is moving so quickly that that will be the thing that challenges the two screens.
And what is Nio doing about that?
We have got NOMI, our digital companion. That’s been a really interesting project, and I have a lot of responsibility for that project. It’s really designing a whole new way of almost having a conversation. It changes my job dramatically. People say, ‘If it is all going to speech, then what do you do for a living?’ Well, I design a different type of interface, and I design a conversation, actually. How should that conversation be? It’s a very different mindset, but it’s actually very exciting.
Where do you draw the line between help and interference?
What we’ve made big inroads in is how to make our interface, NOMI, non-threatening; to make it something engaging and a little bit light-hearted as well. NOMI is very warm. It’s very friendly. It’s very playful and fun, and it isn’t such a serious interface. It’s not about telling you to put your seatbelt on necessarily. It is about looking after our customers and users, helping them with our product and our brand. It’s not really a dictatorial interferer in your life.
It’s also very simple. It’s not complicated. We broke the design of NOMI down into very, very simple rules and ideas. It has a very simplistic interface that is very gestural. It’s more about the physical language of gesture.
When we are talking, you are nodding, kind of agreeing with me. I am reading your face. Humans are very much like this. We read movements and gestures, whether it’s our pet dog – we know when it’s hungry, we know when it’s happy – we really had to focus on breaking those rules down, understanding the different aspects of behaviour that people respond to. Those simple things, those simple cues, just make it more emotional.
It’s a non-cynical product, so it has a non-cynical acceptance to it. I think that’s a big focus of my job. I have to really find out how to make that emotional connection.
The other part of it is, I think, it’s just of its time. If you look at people buying small Alexa devices in their homes, if you look at people communicating with Siri, if you look at people communicating in gaming, and some of the current movies with a lot of these ideas. It seems to make sense in people’s minds. It’s much more, ‘Yes, why wouldn’t that make sense?’
Is NOMI customisable by the user?
It isn’t right now. We are focused on it being a brand hero, which means it needs its very concrete identity. We really distilled it down, knowing it’s the one we want to give to people and take to the world. There will be, potentially, some optionality in the future.
I think there is a space where in the current digital space consumers have a lot of ownership. They have a lot of power. We need to be in a position to have some space to listen to them and allow them to have some influence on our product too. That could potentially be a space that NOMI gets into.
But it’s not a concrete plan right now. How NOMI evolves will have a lot of influence in how its relationship grows with our customers, and we’ll have to look at that and see where it goes. That will be a big focus of the team as people start to take delivery of the product – seeing how that relationship grows. It’s really about building a relationship, and building a conversation, and designing that conversation.
Want to see NOMI in action? You’re in luck. Watch this…