Thomas Ebenfeld, Mailin Herbst und Dirk Ziems

The interior design of a car is very central to the buyers’ and users’ perception and is one of the main differentiating criteria for vehicle sales. How the interior is experienced and evaluated is determined by implicit psychological contexts. Purely functional aspects are just one – and, for the buyer, not necessarily the most important – side of the whole. The factors of design influencing experience include, symbolic design aspects (represented by certain shapes, materials and designs) and overarching principles (such as familiarity, elegance or sportiness), which decisively affect the experience of a vehicle and its classification. These psychological aspects of the design are often even more important for the buyer than the actual functionality of the interior.

Using observational methods and projective techniques, qualitative psychological market research can precisely assess these decisive contexts and initiate optimisation both in functionality and in the aesthetic and symbolic experience.

The overall impression of a coherently integrated interior design
First of all, the interior design of a vehicle always triggers an overall impression of the whole in the prospective user. Inside, the car shows a ‘character’ of its own, and the first impression experienced by the buyer is a vital factor in the overall success of the car, appearing more or less ‘true to itself’.

For this first overall impression (that often shapes the entire experience), criteria such as coherence, fit of the individual parts (such as materials and surfaces, line and colour design) and the generally – mostly unconsciously – experienced ‘consistency’ of the design are important to produce an unambiguous and impactful impression.

The higher a vehicle’s value is expected to be, the more important these qualities in respect of the overall impression become for the evaluation. Conversely, inconsistencies in the design can lead to the car as a whole being experienced as inferior in value. If the vehicle is not to make a ‘budget’ impression, several optimisation steps may be advisable. At the end of this process, an experience of high technical and design integration should symbolise a vehicle of high value .

The design language of different interior styles
The character of a vehicle interior is shaped and guided by the  design qualities. Individual design elements are brought together in the user’s perception to form overarching images, such as sportiness or elegance. On the other hand, the experience can be steered in a desired direction by making use of specific design elements. At work here are basic psychological and aesthetic ‘design codes’ with which the design elements shape the experience. Possible examples for the effectiveness of certain elements are:

  • Classic sportiness, using clear colours and clear colour contrasts such as black leather with bright red seams, hard and clear edges, smooth and firm surface materials and a centring of the layout on the driver himself.
  • Familiarity through less strong contrasts, harmonising colours and harmoniously round shapes, softly upholstered but possibly washable surfaces and a less hierarchical layout with reachability of functions and controls for the family.
  • Sporty robustness for SUVs using correspondingly robust shapes of the interior elements, possibly with bulges at the edges you can even ‘give a knock’, unpunished solid materials that tend to look heavier, and a clear functionality that is experienced as pragmatically thought-out.
  • Classic elegance using valuable looking materials such as wood imitations and leather, a more filigree line in all details and slimmer contours possibly accentuated with chrome.

Questions on understanding the design codes
These design codes can be psychologically examined and precisely decoded. The individual case is not just concerned with rough or global allocations as described above but with the impact and psychological classification of very specific and even minor details, which lead in the end to the overall experience.

  • How is integration of the seat adjustment experienced in a vehicle?
  • Does the shape and features of a specific armrest lead to the overall impression of racy sportiness desired for the vehicle, or what exactly opposes this?
  • Are the available colour and surface variants of a vehicle concept found convincing for a family car? Or, conversely: do they perhaps seem so family-like that the driver ultimately fears for his independence in the car?
  • How bulky and how elegant must work on the interior contours be for them to convincingly symbolise the special sportiness of a high-end SUV even in the details? And where exactly are the limits for the design elements which must not be exceeded if the vehicle concept is not to lose its credibility?

At the same time, the design language in the interior can and should convey the important psychological characteristics at the various levels of vehicle category, brand and specific model in a way that can be experienced with the senses.

Qualitative psychological research methodology
To be really able to decode the experienced “meanings” of the design language and its impact on experience in the vehicle interior, it is recommendable to use the method of qualitative psychological in-depth face-to-face interviews. In practice, a number of further techniques of observation and questioning are integrated in the verbal interview:

  • Behavioural observation which also reveals unconscious and hard to verbalise processes of experience
  • Projective techniques which can also give non-verbal voice to the psychological experience qualities of the ‘character’ of individual design aspects through the forming of analogies, pictures, stories.
  • A precise description of experience, which can also look at the finer points that can quickly be lost in a broader procedure.

For examining the psychological effectiveness of design, a concrete consideration is always important too. Depending on the case in hand, such as, in the context of car clinics, the interview can partly be held on site or at the respondent’s own vehicle in a car park. The handling of the interior and the test persons’ gestures are video-taped and further (also comparatively) analysed later. When questioning at the concrete object, at the vehicle or on models of certain design elements, the specific observation and eliciting of the test persons’ visual and tactile impressions are included and deepened in the freely structured interview.

In the deeper evaluation, the in-depth interview can also go beyond the first level of spontaneous description:

  • On touching these surfaces, what does the feeling remind you of?
  • Where do you think you know this from, and with which images and e.g. assessments is this further associated context linked in experience?

It is thus possible in the in-depth interview to find out implicit meanings and evaluation criteria which the designer of the examined elements perhaps never intended or has never noticed himself, but which are still effective in the user and are finally reflected positively or negatively in the overall impression of the interior design.

Concrete output of the qualitative psychological interior design research
Based on the psychological in-depth interviews, clear and definite optimisation options can be developed for the interior design of a vehicle. For this, the collected wider contexts of meaning, the test persons’ stories and associations are led back in the interview analysis to the concrete aspects of the available design, the specific design of the individual elements and their layout in overall relation to each other.

As output of the research – depending on assignment – it is possible to develop simple, clear and practically implementable guidelines and requirements for the design like:

  • What can be specifically done to make an overall impression appear sportier, more rugged or family-like, etc. as intended
  • Which surface materials should definitely be offered for a specific vehicle model and which ones hold no prospect of success here
  • At which height, in which version or in which form are certain functional controls in the interior experienced as particularly “fitting” for a vehicle concept
  • Which “inconsistencies” possibly experienced in the layout of elements should be urgently remedied and which could perhaps be disregarded as they proved to be less important for overall experience than had been expected.

These findings can, if necessary, be further supported by special workshop modules with users and designers. Here the test persons not only reveal their experience of the present design concepts but, together with the developers in a psychologically directed process, generate new additional solutions and evaluate their expected acceptance.

Thomas Ebenfeld is Managing Partner of concept m, Mailin Herbst, Senior Project Manager at concept m and Dirk Ziems is Managing Partner of concept m.