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UMSI students get an industry insider’s look at future of auto UX

An image of students posing beside a classic Cadillac model in the lobby of General Motors' Cole Building, with an illuminated "gm" sign on the wall behind them

Monday, 02/19/2024

Master of Science in Information students gather with anticipation in the lobby of General Motors’ design studio — an iconic midcentury modern building completed in 1956 by architect Eero Saarinen. Facing a teacup-shaped reception desk with white rectilinear furniture in their periphery, they feel like they’ve stepped into the past. 

But these students from the University of Michigan School of Information are about to be shown the future of automotive UX design. 

“The design studio typically is really secure, because that's where they unveil new digital designs that are years away from actually happening,” says James Rampton, lecturer in information and former lead product designer at GM. 

Rampton’s course, Intro to Automotive User Experience Design — which challenges students to create in-vehicle designs of their own — has quickly become popular among undergraduates at UMSI. 

This semester, UMSI is offering it for the first time to master’s students. Another first: this class visit to the GM Global Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, an innovation hub for automotive design and technology.

General Motors campus visit

An image of the lobby of GM's design studio. Marc Tarling addresses a group of students, with midcentury modern chairs and part of a classic car in the frame.
The iconic lobby of GM's design studio. (Photo courtesy of General Motors)
Students sit in a small, darkened auditorium. The GM and U-M logos are projected on the screen.
In the VR lab, students prepare to be shown the future of auto UX design. (Photo courtesy of General Motors)

Before entering the design studio, students left their phones, smart watches and laptops behind. Now, they don red badges that read “Escorted: Design.” 

They are led across the thick-padded carpets of Mahogany Row — which houses leadership offices — and down a tile-lined escalator that could belong in the NYC subway, before they reach their destination: the virtual reality lab.  

Inside, screens project the next decade of brands including Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac, as students hear directly from design leadership. While most of what they are shown in the VR lab is, well, secret, a clear theme emerges: building immersive experiences for drivers. 

“Car design is an emotional experience,” Aaron Stitch, design manager for Chevrolet, tells students. “You think about a car that speaks to your personality.” 

An image of a small group of students posing in front of a blue, illuminated "GM" sign
(Photo: Abigail McFee)

Students respond with awe — and a measure of intimidation — to the unveiled concepts, including some prototypes created by former GM interns who have gone on to become full-time employees. 

They take mental notes, because over the course of the semester they’ve been tasked with creating their own high fidelity designs for the in-vehicle displays of a mass market, performance or luxury car. 

The second phase of the visit brings students to the Cole Building, where they meet with two recent graduates of their program: Ian Geiman (MSI ’20), lead product designer on the e-commerce team, and Samantha Brown (MSI ’19), product designer. 

“We need amazing designers in this space so that transportation UX can grow to be far more accessible and innovative,” Brown says. “So, it is meaningful to me to be able to meet students who are interested and talk with them about what design is like at GM.”

Brown’s team focuses exclusively on in-vehicle screens. Unlike iPhones and Androids, in-vehicle interfaces don’t yet possess a common architecture, she tells the group. Designers entering the industry today will help to shape the standards of the future. Brown believes more beautiful, clean, dynamic designs lie ahead. 

Next, Geiman poses a design challenge to the group: “After a vehicle is purchased, how can we add value to users with a new feature?” In 12 weeks, students will respond by presenting their own designs to Geiman and Brown. 

That’s about as real as it gets.

Those who are working on mass market vehicles are tasked with creating a feature that makes a safe environment for a pet who has been left in the car (with the example of Tesla’s “dog mode”). Students focusing on the luxury car segment are asked to create an in-vehicle theme that transforms the in-car experience, incorporating screen graphics, lights, motion and even sound. Think lush green forest, or gentle rainstorm. 

It’s a dream assignment. 

“We try to give projects to students that they can use in job interviews,” Rampton says. “An assignment like this is really cool because it's been given to them directly from an employer — these are realistic design problems that students themselves are going to have to tackle in the near future. That's about as real as it gets.”

An image of Ian Geiman and Samantha Brown posing in front of a blue, illuminated "gm" sign
Ian Geiman (MSI '20), left, and Samantha Brown (MSI '19) presented a design challenge to students. (Photo: Abigail McFee)

For both Geiman and Brown, UMSI paved the road ahead. Geiman emphasizes the importance of engaged learning opportunities and getting exposure to companies. 

For Brown, who wasn’t sure which area of UX she wanted to specialize in when she entered UMSI, “The school helped me to get to the mindset I have today: that inclusive and universal design can be applied in any space — including in-vehicle design,” she says. “Automotive UX is such a growing field for design that can impact millions of people.”

Interacting with alumni brought an added dimension to the visit for students. “It was nice to see that places like these could be our future,” says Spandan Sharma, an MSI student focusing on user-centered agile design. 

She signed up for Rampton’s course on a whim but “stayed because of the professor,” she says. “He keeps us engaged.” Case in point: today’s unique field trip. 

As Sharma and her classmates embrace the challenge of designing in-vehicle experiences, she says it was meaningful to see the inner workings of an industry. 

“It isn’t just a black box anymore,” she says. “The entire trip was amazing.”

— Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer

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