Nissan Living Lab

Case study: User research, product validation, prototyping

Prototyping the future of car ownership

Carbon Five was hired by Nissan Future Lab, an internal innovation group created to analyze auto industry trends for their parent Nissan Motor Company. Our goal together was to test an early-stage product concept based around the idea of shared car ownership. Carbon Five leveraged our development skills and product validation experience to help Nissan answer questions like:

  • What if two families co-owned a new Nissan vehicle together?
  • What are the quality of life improvements (like affordability and flexibility) and what are the pain-points (like scheduling and communication) that accompany a co-ownership program?
  • Most importantly, what digital tools can we create to facilitate co-ownership?

I was one of two product designers, along with a developer, tasked with creating digital and physical tools that would aid this exploration.

Setting up the experiment

We started our engagement with a month-long process of discovery. We conducted a survey of emerging car ownership and ridesharing models in the marketplace, including competing co-ownership programs by Ford and Audi.

We decided early on that in order to truly understand the nuts and bolts of the car co-ownership experience, we would need to conduct a real-world experiment with families. We interviewed close to a hundred survey respondents about their driving habits, their daily schedules, their informal carpooling systems, and the tools they use to manage it all.

Left: Creating an experience map. Right: Brainstorming how a car-sharing app might work.

An early hypothesis we generated was that car co-ownership would work best if the families had complementary schedules. For example, a stay-at-home parent that drives his kids to and from school and runs errands during the day could effectively share a car with a college student that works the night shift. As opposed to families with similar schedules, who maintain similar routines, like taking their kids to and from the same school every day.

Nissan provided brand new vehicles to use during the experiment. We carefully matched up a handful of families with complementary schedules and an equal number of subjects with similar schedules. We offered each team a vehicle and a stipend to take part in our experiment for a month in San Leandro, California.

Building research tools

To monitor the families’ driving habits, we installed GPS tracking devices into each vehicle. I designed a custom data dashboard to consume and contextualize the raw location and speed data generated by the vehicles. To aid Nissan in analyzing the data, we determined the most valuable information to the business and created a data model to support it. For example, we wondered if “car utilization” – or the amount of time per day that a car was in use – was a useful metric for determining if a specific group of subjects, like two families, were a good “match” for successful co-ownership. Our data dashboard plotted car utilization metrics, along with visualizations like location heatmaps and trip routes.

The dashboard we designed and built to analyze driving data during the experiment.

We also asked subjects to maintain a driving journal of each day’s trips. On a weekly basis, we interviewed subjects in person and reviewed their journals to get a better idea of how they were managing co-ownership with another party and what could be improved about the experience.

Prototyping the app

At the end of the experiment, we had produced a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data about how to make car co-ownership manageable using digital tools. Unsurprisingly, the most crucial component of successful vehicle sharing is strong communication between the co-owners. Some key insights include:

  • A co-owner wants to know where the car is parked when it is their turn to drive it.
  • A co-owner needs to know when the car is available, and needs the ability to reserve it well in advance.
  • Co-owners are open to the idea of carpooling if they are both traveling in the same direction at the same time.
  • Most interestingly, co-owners don’t like the idea of confronting the other co-owners if there is a conflict about scheduling or maintenance.

With these learnings, I designed and built a high-fidelity prototype to test with experiment subjects, as well as to present to Nissan’s executive leadership to help Future Lab obtain additional buy-in and funding for further market exploration.

I designed and built the prototype using Framer JS.

I used Sketch to design the app and learned Framer JS to produce an interactive iOS prototype that could be displayed on a mobile device. This included building a custom view controller and implementing animated transitions.

The prototype consisted of four user flows that linked together as a narrative:

  1. The user opens the app and immediately sees the location of the shared vehicle.
  2. The user navigates to the car’s schedule, sees when it is reserved, and creates a new reservation.
  3. If the car is already reserved for the desired time, the user can elect to request the time from the co-owner.
  4. In the case that both owners are headed in the same direction, they can request to carpool.

We decided to avoid conflicts between owners by framing the car as the dispassionate middleman. If a co-owner Sally denies a request by Todd to change the schedule, the car itself delivers the bad news to Todd, hopefully avoiding any bad feelings towards Sally.

Results

Nissan left our engagement with a blueprint for a successful user research experiment, as well as insights that will serve as a springboard for further product development. Additionally, Carbon Five taught the team how to effectively build and leverage technology into their market research experiments. Most importantly, Future Lab is equipped with tested artifacts, like the data dashboard and the iOS app. These artifacts allow the team to continue making the case for continued investment and serve as examples of how the auto industry can innovate.

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