What will life be like in 2018? This is the question that Lei Zhang attempts to answer every day as an advanced user experience designer at Chrysler.
Beyond offering insight into how people's lives will be different years from now, Zhang's research has the potential to alter specific design features of Chrysler's products and revolutionize the direction of transportation design as we know it.
"Much of my work is confidential," said Zhang. "So, I can't reveal too many of the details. But mostly, I research what life will be like in the future. Right now, I'm exploring the year 2018. Then, I apply these predictions visually to anticipate the different ways that brands within Chrysler will be able to meet drivers' needs.
"I believe that satisfying people's needs is the main task of design. Think about the statement 1+1 ≥2. You need to make the solution work, so you have to consider the scientific side ( =2 ). But you also want to exceed their expectations; this is where the artistic side of my job comes into play ( >2 ). So, an engineer thinks in terms of 1+1=2, an artist thinks in terms of 1+1>2 and a designer approaches the problem from the perspective of both: 1+1≥2."
In his position, Zhang focuses on advanced interaction, interiors and visual designs that are simple, but beneficial for future users. This involves user research, technology trends exploring and developing interactive prototypes. His focus is on creating ideal driving user experience. So far, Zhang's team has had a positive impact on the Detroit automaker. They were awarded Chrysler Innovation Awards in 2012 and 2013.
"One of my biggest career aspirations is to become a leader in this area of research," said Zhang. "User experience design is new for the car industry, and it will play an important role in its future. Currently, the consumer electronics industry is making great strides in applying user experience design to their products. Everything is connected: phone, TV, home devices... Our users have high expectation for their vehicles. They want them to be just like their phones-- easy to use and personalized. We need to develop our own strategy for the field of transportation design.
"Vehicle user experience design is not just graphic design, which is the way most people think about user experience design. It involves contextual research, industrial design, software design, service design and brand design. It directly relates to brand experience. But it is different from consumer electronic user experience design. We need to consider safety issues, so we are creating the ideal driving experience. My goal is to help Chrysler establish itself in this area. I want us to become the automaker that sets the standard."
Zhang developed his design skills while majoring in industrial and product design at Jiangnan University, situated in the city of Wuxi (Jiangsu Province), China. After earning his bachelor's degree, he recognized the need for deeper thinking to achieve the level of success he sought as a designer. He considered several programs around the world and made the decision to apply to the Transportation Design MFA program at Detroit's College for Creative Studies (CCS).
"It's where I saw a future. And I was right… This program taught me three significant lessons."
First, it helped me become a deep thinker. Instead of focusing on a specific part of a vehicle or on how to make something look 'beautiful,' I get to envision the bigger picture--problems, solutions, why a particular solution is better than another. This is what I do every day. Envisioning the big picture reminds me to design not only for the pleasure of its users, but to help the company create interest in the product. It needs to be a win - win for user and the corporation.
"Second, this program taught me the role of storytelling. I find myself in a role very similar to that of an advertiser. I have to create the best story to 'sell' my idea. Advertisers might have a 30-second ad to move their audience from thinking about a product to wanting it. The key is to build a believable story and deliver it convincingly. This is essential in car user experience design (UED), which is new in the industry. In addition to sharing a particular project’s story, I'm also trying to indirectly educate more people about the importance of UED in transportation design.
"Third, the graduate program gave me a greater sense of confidence in how I present myself as a professional. Although I am new to this country, I got a lot of helpful suggestions from school faulty and industrial advisors. From presentation skills to language, it help me quickly understand this country's culture and how to use my communication skills within the American corporate culture. I can honestly say that I'm not nervous speaking in front of large groups anymore. I want to do it."
While Zhang agrees that earning an MFA from CCS has benefited his career, he advises students considering graduate school to examine their career goals closely before making such an important decision.
"What do you really want to do?" Zhang asked. "If you're exploring your graduate school options, this should be the first question you answer. Then, find a program that best fits your career goals--what you want to do, and, more importantly, who you want to be."