User Experience

You’re on your own

All right, who do I blame for this?

Those of you who occasionally read me on here will recognize that I’m a bit of a car buff. So, it’s with a keen interest that I’ve watched the impact of technical innovation on the transportation industry. One area that’s playing out in some confusing and interesting ways is the concept of “systems integration” and what that now means for us as consumers of highly integrated products.

Systems integration is defined as the process of bringing together a bunch of components and making sure they function together as a cohesive system. Notwithstanding Henry Ford’s grand experiment in vertical integration, systems integration is nothing new – certainly not in cars. At some level, we probably all realize that General Motors doesn’t design or make the tires our cars ride on or the bolts that hold them together. That’s obvious. Increasingly, car manufacturers design and make less and less – leaving the heavy lifting to a range of component suppliers who can focus on areas of deep expertise.

If systems integration is nothing new, what’s the big deal if that’s extended into newer technology? It’s just the same thing, right? Well, sort of... While car manufacturers have always been systems integrators, at least the consumer could count on the nameplate to take responsibility and ownership for ensuring that all those systems played nicely and worked well together. If, for some reason, my newish car didn’t start in the morning, I knew I could call my dealer and I wouldn’t hear them say they had no idea why. Actually, they might have no idea why, but it was mutually understood it was their responsibility to sort that out nicely or at least invent some plausible reason why it was my fault. But I would not have expected them to shrug their shoulders, look at me and say, “So?”

But as experiences of all types increasingly become a collection of supposedly cohesive digital systems, WE the consumer are left with the job of systems integration. This point was made pretty clear to me as I struggled to get Android Auto to work in my car the other day. If you’re not familiar with Android Auto (or it’s Apple cousin – Apple Carplay) it’s sort of like Siri for your car. I don’t know why I find it so magical – my wife refuses to allow any voice recognition technology in our house for the creep factor – but the temptation to use voice to control navigation, audio, calling, and being able to effortlessly divert to the nearest pizza parlor is still a bit of irresistible alchemy for me. 

When it works. Which isn’t always.

Yeah, for some reason, Android Auto, my phone, and the latest version of Android lodged in a pretty new Honda are decidedly not playing well together. Sometimes it works flawlessly. And sometimes it seems to just… stop. I guess I’m not shocked. There’s a lot going on there. And I realize it’s generally more of an annoyance than a tragedy. Problems with cars are certainly nothing new. But here’s what is new. I have absolutely no idea who to blame and really no clear place to go for help.

In the good-ole days, I could call my Honda dealer and be assured they’d take responsibility for anything in their car. But Android not playing well with my phone not playing well with Honda?? I’m pretty positive they’d have absolutely no idea where to start. Nor would I expect them to care. Likewise with my Google Pixel. Frankly I don’t think it’s actually possible to speak to anyone at Google. How can a company be so big and have absolutely no means of connecting with a human employee of any responsibility? Weird.

So my Android Auto doesn’t work and I’m on my own – off to the internet – looking for blogs, forums, listservs, knitting circles or ANY hit on a search that tries to roughly describe a problem I can’t even begin to describe. And I consider myself to be fairly tech savvy. What if this were, say, for instance, my mom?

As a consumer, it’s sort of understood that it’s my problem. What a brave new world. I’m empathetic to the position of Honda here. These aren’t technically Honda’s systems and you could argue that Android Auto isn’t “mission critical” to the transportation function of a car – but I’ll push back on that. These systems are rapidly becoming as vital to the user’s experience as an engine and they’re closing in on the same importance as brakes. As our cars become more autonomous, I suspect this problem is going to become even more acute.

So, where does this end? Who knows? I guess it’s possible that like bolts and tires, eventually all these technological systems will reach a level of maturity, standardization, and certification that will allow car manufacturers to employ them with confidence and take turnkey responsibility when the misbehave. But I’d wager we’re on the tip of more of a macro-trend. Things are evolving so rapidly that the highly integrated technological experiences we rely on for our day-to-day lives are going to increasingly rely on us to be the system integrators. Sigh. I guess we’ve got nobody but ourselves to blame.

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