“I helped make this car” – Visions of a user experience researcher

Let’s time travel. Looking in the rearview mirror, drivers can see the roots of the modern car in Detroit. Looking through the windshield, the Nuance DRIVE Lab is speeding towards the future of mobility. Through both perspectives, we explore and improve user experience in the car long before the new technology is available to the average driver. The Detroit drivers make cars and we are trying to make these cars even better.
The Detroit drivers make cars and the Nuance DRIVE lab is trying to make these cars even better.

Who knows cars? You may imagine a taxi driver whose brow is filled with sweat, but the driver’s dance around the busy New York streets is graceful and precise. You may imagine the busy business person riding the brakes and doing one too many tasks while trying to get down the 101 before the first cup of coffee. You may imagine the farmer who is sinking the back bumper of the truck bed as it gets loaded for an 5 AM mud-filled ride in the field. You may imagine the parent who’s mentally calculating the best route for seven stops with three kids while trying to make sure everyone is entertained and buckled up.

When I imagine the driver who knows cars, I imagine the driver that worked countless hours making sure that the stitches in the seat were just far enough apart. I imagine the driver that spent the worst of weather conditions on a track listening for that elusive sound in the engine on an icy roadway. I imagine the driver who looked through thousands of paint colors to find the one that made you proud to say your car was actually candy-apple red instead of plain red. These are the drivers that build cars; the drivers that not only drive cars, but take pride in cars for the taxi driver or the business person or the farmer or the parent to drive.


Wrapped up in the birthplace of the modern car

We rely on these drivers’ insights at our DRIVE Lab in the Detroit Metro Area. The DRIVE Lab – Design, Research, Innovation and In-Vehicle Experience Lab – focuses on the driver, the passengers, the pedestrians, and the future. The lab is rooted in the suburbs of the Motor City near many other, small and large, contributors to the car. The lab recruits drivers from across the city, the country, and the globe to give their opinions and suggestions on existing and new technology. These drivers even get to try out technology that won’t be available publicly for months and years. It is through the eyes of these drivers that we can see a better automotive user experience in the future. So why Detroit? 

Time traveling in the Motor City

Let me tell you about the Woodward Dream Cruise. If you haven’t heard of this event, you are simply missing out. Woodward Avenue, properly nicknamed “Detroit’s Main Street,” stretches miles all the way from the Detroit River Downtown to the northern suburbs of Oakland County. Along its route are some of America’s most iconic buildings and cultural centers contributing to the industrial revolution to the tunes of Motown and to the heartbeat of a reviving Motor City. For one short day each August, you can see all of Woodward dotted with cars from around the globe, every color, every make, every decade — allowing someone to time travel as they stroll up and down. I always thought the Woodward Dream Cruise was named because it would be anyone’s dream to own even the ugliest car from this event. You can see the mix of emotions on the passerby’s faces. There is always the one person who gets teary-eyed and sentimental as they see the car that they had in high school. The car enthusiast with the gut-wrenching feeling that they shouldn’t have let their favorite, yet not running, car go after seeing how good it could have looked with a fresh coat of paint and daylight. The young fan admiring the craftsmanship and chrome, even if they are 8 years shy of getting a driver’s license.

Future technologies put into practice and experienced by users

Future drivers will enjoy many luxuries that even the Jetsons wouldn’t have dreamed possible, but are now becoming a reality. Recently, the DRIVE Lab has worked on several projects around Just Talk. Forget the hellos or the okays, simply speak your commands to the system. Although DRIVE Lab participants initially think, ‘No way this could work,’ after just a few minutes these participants relax into the leather seats to the feeling of comfort and confidence that comes with a system that truly hears them, and beyond that, understands them. In contrast, many current drivers come in from off the street wanting to be heard more clearly by their systems. The DRIVE Lab studies frustrating interactions like these to suggest improvements to future systems so that a person feels like their voice-enabled technology is not simply enabled, but intelligent.


Enabling next-generation user experience experts

There comes some excitement and butterflies with any new idea, but more importantly, a new idea is nothing without ears to hear and be inspired by it. The DRIVE Lab is persistent in collecting and communicating ideas that can spread like wild fire with the single spark of a new thought. Recently, for example, the DRIVE Lab attended the Computers and Human Interaction (CHI) conference where we were able to interact with young drivers both of the car and of the world. No longer are the young adults of today willing to take the backseat to improve life; instead, these budding researchers, engineers, and scientists are calling “dibs” to take the front seat and drive – or be the brains behind the car driving itself. It was the DRIVE Lab’s responsibility to navigate these young adults through their educational journey by explaining what user experience (UX) is, why it matters, who benefits, how can the car be changed, and most importantly, how good UX allows for everyone to enjoy a day to day better life when gripping at 10 and 2.


The magic of Nuance’s DRIVE Lab in Detroit is wrapped up in the birthplace of the modern car. This is the place that lives, breathes, and speaks cars. This is the place where drivers put on a critical eye and ear and accept nothing less than perfection because thirty years from now they want to come back to Woodward Avenue to see their contribution to the iconic collection and tell their grandchildren, “I helped make this car.”

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Dr. Carie Cunningham

About Dr. Carie Cunningham

Dr. Carie Cunningham is User Experience Researcher at Nuance Communications. In this role she is responsible for qualitative and quantitative testing, research, and analysis through the use of focus groups, in-depth interviews, eye tracking, surveys, and experiments with the DRIVE Lab. Carie has researched users’ preferences of multiple virtual assistants and the personification of those assistants. She has also tested users’ driving performance while engaged with their infotainment system and voice-enabled technology. Most recently, Carie has done several exploratory studies on trust and learning around AI and VR. She is interested in attention and cognitive processing in media communication and interactions. Carie is a former television news producer and assistant professor.