Communications, language and the Detroit Motor Show

I was watching coverage of the Detroit Motor Show on CNN whilst eating breakfast. There were a number initiatives shown by car manufacturers that integrated internet communications, technology and the driving experience in new cars. This all makes sense, in many respects car manufacturers are transport service providers rather than box-shifters. Most cars in many countries like the UK and the US are actually on lease agreements and the finance houses running these leases are often subsidiaries of the likes of Ford and GM.

Extending this service offering into automotive software as a service like OnStar makes more sense than would appear to be the case. I was particularly interested by Hyundai’s entry into this field: Blue Link. Based on the description Blue Link provides a concierge service and hands-free phone operation based on interactive voice telephony (think the Nuance Technology-powered systems that cinemas and credit card companies use where you don’t speak with a real person in Bangalore any more).

However, what concerned me about the coverage was the way that the product was communicated. The announcer said that this was about the ‘cloud’ (which they meant internet connected) and like anything to do with the ‘cloud’ only teenagers understood it. The announcer then interviewed a teen who said that the smarts of the service was connected through the cloud and they were very familiar with it.

WTF!

What possesses communications people to wrap the benefits of the products up in techno-babble, tell audiences that their core customer base wouldn’t be able to work out how to use the new product offering and only their children will get it?

It’s insane: let’s read the sub-text. We have a new product that you can use whilst you drive that is so complex a mere mortal like you can’t understand it. Even if you bought it, you would need a teenager to operate it for you.

Technology has struggled to get over this usability problem  for decades, I used to have to set the VCR timer for my parents, set my Dad’s digital watch and showed them how to text message on their first mobile phones. If the products have that poor a user experience after almost four decades of digital industrial design there is something very wrong with industry rather than digital immigrants.

You don’t need to trumpet these difficulties because the prospective customer switches off and decides that they don’t want it after all. Don’t believe me? I read about a survey where illiterate people in Germany were asked if they would prefer to go to jail or admit publicly that they couldn’t read. Most of them picked the jail time. Think about the psychological baggage tied up in a car purchase like ego, self-expression and freedom. Now think about having to ask for help to operate your car despite having driven for decades. It’s communications suicide.

I realise that I have been picking on Hyundai here and to be honest with you they are the symptom of a much wider problem in business at the moment. The future is scary and we are ill-equipped to use all the new stuff so we need teens the way blind people depend on a cane or a seeing (guide-)dog.

Hogwash. Going back to my Mum and Dad, they now over-communicate by text-messaging and have developed an interest in digital photography. My Dad is a whizz with the EPG on the Freeview box and is interested in having an Ubuntu-powered PC to surf the web built on a colleagues old Windows PC. He found out that this Linux thing can turn a Windows laggard into a nippy web surfing device.

It’s time communications activities doesn’t lag behind digital consumers.

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