IDM launches new design classes for all MIT students|Learn More
illustration of a figurine with pieces of a car
We’d reach the tail end of a project, and the engineers would have their say, the marketing people would have their say.” But no one at the table was advocating for the user.

Don Norman
UC San Diego professor and the author of the seminal book The Design of Everyday Things

If, as ralph waldo emerson said, “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” the story of the American economy can be told by the types of people who run its corporations. The early days of mass production belonged to mechanically minded men such as Henry Ford. The creation of mass markets called forth salesmen such as Thomas Watson Sr., whose faithful troops sang “Ever onward IBM!” After the conglomerate craze of the 1960s and ’70s, almost a third of CEOs hailed from finance and accounting backgrounds. Then a crop of technologists, such as Andy Grove and Bill Gates, arrived.

So it came as a surprise last spring when Ford Motor Company selected a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, is a product of Michigan’s other corporate cluster—the three office-furniture companies around Grand Rapids, including Steelcase, which Hackett ran for two decades.

At Steelcase, Hackett became a devotee of an approach to product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product. He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work.

Furniture, of course, tends to stay put. But the leap to automobiles seemed less far-fetched once Hackett and I were sitting side by side in the foam-and-aluminum cockpit of a self-driving-car prototype in one of Ford’s Dearborn design studios. “We may have to leave that there,” he said, pointing to a notional steering wheel emitting a blue glow, “just so that you’re comfortable.” But the driver’s seat can swivel around—like an office chair, he noted. Hackett and I rotated so that we were facing two more Ford employees in the back seat.

The choice of Hackett to lead Ford confounded both those analysts who expected a dyed-in-the-wool carmaker and those who expected a high-tech hand to manage the company as cars morph into rolling computers. But his selection suggests a third way—which may, in fact, capture the times. We don’t live in the age of the automobile, or even the age of the computer. We live in the age of user experience.

Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. (“Maddening” is Hackett’s one-word description for 90-button TV remotes.) Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s.

LinkedIn lists tens of thousands of UX job openings; the role has become a fixture on those year-end “hottest job” lists. If you want to study UX, you now have the option at some three dozen institutions in the United States, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Washington. But Ford is one of the few major industrial companies in the U.S. to put a UX guru in charge.

At present, the question hovering over the car industry is basically whether high-tech entrants such as Tesla and Google can learn crankshafts and drivetrains faster than Ford, GM, and other carmakers can learn software and algorithms. But Hackett reflects Ford’s bet that the winner won’t be the best chassis maker or software maker, but the company that nails the interaction between man and machine. “One of the things that drew me to Jim was his commitment to design thinking, which puts the human being at the center of the equation,” Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman (and great-grandson of Henry), explained to me.

The term UX originated in Silicon Valley. Don Norman, a UC San Diego professor and the author of the seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, worked at Apple during Steve Jobs’s exile in the 1990s. “I thought the quality of the Apple computer was going downhill a little bit,” he told me recently. “We’d reach the tail end of a project, and the engineers would have their say, the marketing people would have their say.” But no one at the table was advocating for the user. In 1993, Norman suggested to then-CEO John Sculley the need for “someone who took the overview of what it was like to use these machines.” He formed a UX office and styled himself as Apple’s user-experience architect.

The migration of UX thinking to other industries was accelerated by the Palo Alto design outfit Ideo, whose founder, David Kelley, helped design the first Apple mouse. It counted Medtronic and Procter & Gamble among its first clients. In the early 1990s, a 30-something Hackett visited Ideo as Steelcase was thinking of entering a new market. He described his experience there as “so profound” that three years later, Steelcase bought a majority stake in the company—in part to get full-time access to Kelley through an always-on video link.

Hackett retired from Steelcase in 2014 and spent 18 months as the University of Michigan’s interim athletic director (he is responsible for poaching the head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, from the San Francisco 49ers). In 2016, Bill Ford hired him to run the automaker’s nascent Smart Mobility subsidiary, which was tasked with rethinking from the ground up how cars would be driven, powered, and owned. Once again, Hackett turned to Ideo. The company had already been working with Ford as a client, but Hackett embedded its employees in Dearborn to jump-start a transformation of Ford’s culture.

“This is what we call the design gap,” Hackett told me, pointing to the space between two lines on a graph he’d sketched for me on a whiteboard. One line ascends—this is a company’s skill at making things, which goes up over time. Below it is a descending line, representing a company’s understanding of the customer’s experience. This, he said, can decline over time, as a company loses sight of the problems it’s in the business of solving. The design gap may be noticeable when the job is, say, building a marginally better tailgate for the Ford F‑150. But it becomes positively yawning when your industry is so thoroughly turned on its head that you’re forced to ask some basic questions: Do people want to own their cars or share them? Drive them or have them driven? The flood of new technologies makes everything possible.

Without a clear compass, the tendency is to add features willy-nilly. Seats that monitor your heart rate! A light-up reminder of the infant in the back! They sound nifty in theory. But the result, Jim Baumbick, one of Ford’s product-management chiefs, told me, is that you are “in effect passing decisions on to the customer.” Overloading the dashboard with too many doodads requires the driver to do the hard thinking about what she needs while on the road. At the same time, it burdens the company with producing all these options. “We need to give customers a narrower set of choices,” Baumbick said. Figuring out the right choices is the trick. And it’s not simple.

The language of design thinking can sound hopelessly abstract to the uninitiated. “I think it’s fair to say that in the first part of Jim’s tenure, there were a lot of quizzical looks,” Bill Ford told me. “We’ve tended to be an insular company in an insular town.” One of Hackett’s early projects as CEO—designing a new HMI (industry-speak for “human-machine interface,” or the controls in the cockpit)—almost failed before it really started. “The first four days, we were going nowhere,” Darren Palmer, Ford’s head of global product development for electric vehicles, told me. A team of about 20 had been sent off-site. “People were talking and just not understanding each other,” Palmer said. A phrase like feature set meant one thing to an engineer, something different to a programmer, and something different still to a marketing executive. “Cats and dogs fighting against each other,” was how Phil Mason, the on-site team leader, described it to me. “After about four days, they said, ‘Hold it. This just isn’t working.’ ”

As a last-ditch effort, the team members were told to give up trying to devise a new set of features for drivers. Instead, they were to go home, reflect on complaints they had about their own cars, and return with stories. These ran the gamut from “I’m on a camping trip and there’s no charger! What’s my backup?” to “On a date night, I can’t be bothered with the navigation system.”

“It helped everyone realize they were speaking a common language,” Palmer said. The exercise also produced a common finding. As drivers, “people want their stuff,” Mason said. “If they use Spotify, they want to use Spotify”—not a carmaker’s alternative system. “More than anything, they want to use their own digital ecosphere. Or else they’re just going to stick the phone on the windscreen.”

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

That kind of speed, Hackett argues, is achieved only by taking things slowly at first. The idea is that you’ll end up spending less time redoing things—or designing features that people don’t want at all. “Often the ideas we have are completely wrong,” Palmer told me. “So we can kill ideas very fast, too.”

In China, for instance, Ford is putting customers into comically primitive prototypes—foam body, cardboard seats—and asking them to role-play driving scenarios, teasing out preferences they might not have thought to articulate. Captured on video, a driver’s backwards glance at his mother-in-law revealed that her comfort was more important to him than his own. Thenceforth, the back seat took on greater significance in the design process.

At Hackett’s Ford, you don’t move to the “make” phase until you have a deep understanding of how people use their cars and, even more important, why. In the Dearborn studio, I stepped into a more developed mock-up of a semiautonomous vehicle. As we came to the moment in the simulation when, merging onto the interstate, control passed from me to the car, my seat sank down and away from the steering wheel—enough to signal the transfer of power, but not enough to trigger loss-of-control panic. Earlier test-drivers had helped find that exact threshold.

“If you look at business history, the winners are almost always those that get their user experience right,” Hackett said, though he allowed that putting a UX person in charge of the whole show has its pitfalls. “There’s a part of me that would want to spend all my time in here,” he told me while we were in the design studio. “I get so much joy and lift from thinking about the potential of things. But when I walk out of here, I have another kind of accountability, which is, I’ve got to—we’ve got to—deliver results. We have shareholders. That’s a design problem unto itself. How do you weld the two together?”

The Steve Jobs who left Apple in 1985, by most accounts, had not found a way. He was blindsided by inventory buildups, pitted departments against one another, and eventually lost the confidence of Apple’s board. Hackett knows that he needs to be more like the Jobs who returned to the company as CEO in 1997. Future-focused, yes. But aware that the future is built with cash generated in the now.

How much time will Hackett get? The company’s stock has lost a third of its value in the past year. Tesla’s market cap is close to double that of Ford’s. And yet: A decade ago, the 11th-floor conference room of the headquarters building was the scene of desperate negotiations to avoid bankruptcy. Today, the mahogany furniture is gone. It’s now an open workspace full of engineers and data scientists, sleeves rolled up, sketching the future and Ford’s position in arguably the greatest race in business. “It will take some time,” Hackett said. But he’d rather get the right answers slowly than the wrong ones quickly.

And with that, Hackett wistfully exited the design studio’s futuristic white space and walked back out into the present.