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Audi Q4 e-tron AR HUD .jpg

Why the tech design message is failing. And the 4 steps to make it work

Technology in cars is getting incredibly sophisticated, and there is getting to be so much of it also. We all know this. Car brands are struggling to describe what technologies they offer, customers are struggling to know what technologies they have. We know this too. As the value that technological design features bring customers becomes more nuanced, this challenge becomes tougher — tougher still in a world increasingly expecting to communicate in less than 280 characters, or 15 seconds. And, as car brands struggle to disseminate what technology is and what it does and what value it brings, so both brands and customers lose. This is talked about less so. But this challenge to make technology tangible, is not insurmountable: our recent research in this area shows how there are four key key steps to maximising the effectiveness of the technology message:

1. Complete story. Tell the complete story of the tech message: what the tech is, what it does, what benefit it brings  
Today most technology is intangible, and very hard for most people to really understand — we have come a long way from the clock-work motor. So we don’t truly know ‘tech’ today, but we do know products and their functions that are enabled by technology, and we do know the benefits these bring. So when brands jumble together technology, technological function, and the customer benefit this function brings, they tell a confusing story to their audience. Brands also often fail to explain one or more of these inter-related elements, and make very nebulous statements about each element, and so they tell an incomplete story too. It may be hard to split out these three things — tech, tech function, tech benefit — and to be able to succinctly describe each separate element, but failing to do so, at least in part, needlessly diminishes the technology that the customer would value (and the brand invested in).  [Mercedes with the debut of the EQS have done an unusually decent job of telling the complete message — what the tech is, what it does, what benefit it brings — as the excerpt from their press material shows in the image below].

MB EQS press release, March 2021, The EQS - design for all the senses .png
2. Inclusive language. Tell the tech message using inclusive language; explain as clearly as possible, and use jargon only when necessary (and then always unpack it).
People in the car world are familiar with many terms that sit in and around technology: from horse-power, tachometer, ABS; to newer ones like kilowatts, infotainment, ADAS. But most people outside the industry are not familiar with all of these terms, and a significant minority know none of them. Using jargon in customer facing communications will mean the tech message fails to reach many people, and will uncomfortably hold up to some customers their lack of knowledge. As well as car jargon being well known inside the brand, the technological features they describe are also well known internally, but for most car customers, not only is the term ‘AR HUD’ from a foreign language, what an Augmented Reality Head-Up-Display actually is, and does, and what benefit it brings, is very hard to grasp too. As technological features have become so sophisticated, so there is increasing need to describe them as simply and clearly as possible, not to embellish or embolden. This is a challenge, not least as those in brand communications are predisposed to add more, to be nuanced, to go beyond the most basic (it's sort of part of their job description!). Tough though it is, there is a major need to create the simplest and clearest messages as possible to maximise understanding with the broadest audience, and to use jargon only when necessary (and then to always unpack it). Although this then needs to be done with elan, as no one wants to read an instruction manual…

3. Contextual tone. Tell the tech message in a tone suiting its context; use a tone relative to the technological function and its application — and ideally relative to the brand.
Some technological functions are there to save lives in the event of a violent crash, some to reduce the burden on the planet, some to make the ride more comfortable, some to help customers better connect with their friends. Clearly different functions, and the different occasions they are used, have a baring on what would be the right tone to describe them. Obviously humour has no place in a message about safety features — but beyond tones from serious to less-serious, there are others that should be considered relative to the technological function; self-reverence, and irony being two that often fail to be checked enough perhaps. Arguably, the brand is another context for the tone of the tech message: Tesla OTA updates speak of the brand’s close connection to the tech-industry, just as Volvo’s ‘since 1959’ embossed seat-belt buckle speaks of that brand's commitment to safety — as well as the technological functions connecting to the brand directly, so the tone of the tech message around them should too.  

4. Medium tailored. Tell the tech story in a way tailored to the message medium  
Not long ago, car brands spoke to car customers through print advertisements and brochures, and in-person with the dealer. Now they have multiple communication channels that range from the macro advertising message ‘push’ of billboards and television advertisements, to a spectrum of ‘push-pull’ e-commerce and social media channels, and one-to-one remote engagement with brands’ representatives. The touch points are way more numerous and way more varied (and thus way harder to manage). Fascinatingly, we are also now seeing a new and hugely important communication channel opening up as the car itself speaks directly to the customer through its technological features: from welcome screens that say things like ‘good morning’; to digital animations showing things like how the car’s lighting works; to speaking in-car personal digital assistants. Each of these is distinct in so many ways — not least in medium, and how it is engaged with by the customer — and these distinctions in turn should dictate how the message is tailored in content, scale, language, and tone.  
 
Navigating these issues to consistently realise the best way to communicate in-car technology to the customer — to best tell the tech message — is a far bigger challenge than it has ever been. But the prizes are far greater too. These four steps we think form a useful basis for all brands communicating to customers about technology, not just for car brands. Good tech messages unlock the value of tech for the brand and for the customer.