Strategy, Concept, User Research, Persona Building, Journey Mapping, Prototyping, User Testing, Visual Design
In early 2020, life as we knew it was upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Economies around the world came to a halt as countries issued stay-at-home mandates, causing industries to rethink their existing business models amidst unparalleled changes. The car dealership business was one such industry hit hard by the pandemic.
With the traditional car buying experience disrupted, dealerships could no longer rely as heavily on customers to shop in-store to search for vehicles, negotiate, and finance payments. Stay-at-home mandates and social distancing measures discouraged buyers from traditional face-to-face interactions.
If the emergence of Covid-19 and its variants would be an indicator of the future, then auto dealerships would have to adjust. In light of the aforementioned challenges, our goal was to reimagine the car-buying experience.
In the spirit of COVID-19 era virtual collaboration, we utilized a variety of digital tools for brainstorming, affinity mapping, ideating, prototyping and testing, such as MURAL, Slack, and Trello. Along with different collaborative methods we put into practice over the course of the semester, these tools would serve as the basis from which we gathered and compiled research, understood user pain points, and worked throughout the product design cycle to address them.
We aligned on our understanding of the space and areas of interest we could explore throughout our research by compiling an Assumption Grid and Empathy Map. This preliminary exploration encouraged us to begin empathizing with stakeholders and acquainted us with the perspectives we would touch on in our talks with users. It also drove the direction of our desktop research and the exploration of more specific areas with user interviews.
We challenged these assumptions by using the groupings from the empathy exercises to guide our secondary research. This would further prepare us for user and stakeholder interviews, and we framed our understanding of the vehicle purchase experience by synthesizing findings from our online ethnography and auto-ethnographic research.
Over 3 in 5 people feel disadvantaged at some point in the vehicle purchase process.
52% of Americans reported feeling anxious or uncomfortable while visiting car dealerships, with Millennials feeling particularly pressured into unsatisfactory or rushed purchases.
Buyers who completed more than half the steps online ("Heavy Digital") were more satisfied with the overall process than those who completed less than 20% of steps online ("Light Digital"). They also were comparatively trusting of the deal they received.
80% of buyers would never purchase a vehicle without test driving it; this has the highest satisfaction rating of any other step in the process.
We proceeded with an eye towards the following learning areas:
We dove deeper through interviews, specifically exploring the ideas of digital tools for vehicle browsing and purchase, test driving, negotiation, financing, and the dealership experience itself – all within the broader context of the effects that COVID-19 had had on the auto industry.
"I felt cheated. The price posted was not the same as the price actually offered. It was like the ads had lied and the price was inflated."
“I went in and they kept trying to push packages on me. I told them no, and it was uncomfortable because the advisor seemed upset at me.”
Buyers all expressed the desire to complete more of the process remotely.
"We were there for two or three hours. It’s annoying with the negotiating, the trade-in process. I had no desire to deal with any of that."
“I went in and they kept trying to push packages on me. I told them no, and it was uncomfortable because the advisor seemed upset at me.”
To our surprise, consumers didn't see the pandemic as an obstacle to purchasing a new vehicle. If anything, it only accelerated the already-growing shift towards more integrated digital experiences.
A cut-throat approach to sales contributes to a negatively competitive culture within dealerships and high-turnover rates, prioritizing sales over customer relationships.
Many times, car salespeople are forced to hand-off their customer (with whom they've established a rapport) to another employee for signing and financing, which is a low-point on the buyer's journey.
Salespeople rank low on the list of trusted professions and enter the conversation at a disadvantage when not viewed as honest or trustworthy.
"You can't pick and choose your customers. Sometimes you deal with people who aren't great and other times they’re really nice. People can want ridiculous numbers for cars, and they turn out to be time wasters. It makes you question their intention to ever buy, and it's time you could be spending with other customers."
The pain points informed our approach throughout the rest of the product design cycle. As a final distillation of our research, we drafted a report with our methods and findings.
In transitioning from identifying problems to devising potential solutions, we considered the root causes of our problem statements. We then explored what we felt were crucial themes and points of reflection with rounds of Crazy 8s and Future State Journey Mapping.
...equip buyers with the information they need to make an informed purchase?
...streamline the process for potential buyers?
...relieve the sense of pressure while leveraging high-points of the customer journey, such as test-driving?
...provide tools that enhance trust on the part of the customer and encourage friendlier interactions with salespeople?
...improve the in-dealership culture between salespeople?
...support salespeople to upsell without compromising the integrity of their interactions with customers?
For most of us, buying a new vehicle is a big deal. But Autonomē does the thinking for you – and ensures that you're nothing short of happy with your new set of wheels.
You're busy. That's why we developed Autonomē – a solution to car-buying that works at your own pace. Gone are the days of being roped into a purchase you're not truly happy with. Start and stop at your choosing.
The most important aspect of deciding on your next set of wheels is how it feels to be in the driver's seat. Take a test drive in your own neighborhood or stop into the dealership to take advantage of all that Autonomē has to offer.
Our Customer Experience Facilitators are one tap away from showing you other cars that might fit your interests based on your test drive and browsing history.
We've done the leg work on the research needed to make a decision that works for you. Take the New Buyer Survey to get started in the right direction or browse inventory at any Autonomē-associated dealership in your area. Mark favorites, plan test drives, take your preferences with you as you go, and ask for help whenever (if ever) you need it – all connected via your own personal QR code.
Financing your new vehicle doesn't have to be opaque. Take control of your purchase and monitor how different options affect your price in real-time. No hidden feeds, no bait-and-switches; just value.
We examined the root causes of individual elements of our Customer POV and found two insights that pushed us forward into ideation. By and large, consumers find purchases very personal and look to mitigate risk. As the significance of the purchase increases, so too, does one's insistence on making the "right" purchase and the tendency to see it as extension of self – an extension over which consumers want control.
A root cause analysis shed light on some key design questions that would inform our following rounds of ideation:
In an effort to improve low points on the customer journey and improve her overall experience before and within the dealership, we asked ourselves if we could eliminate burdensome parts of the process or add value to those in which a customer typically feels less empowered.
In other words, how could we improve specifically upon the "riskiest" points of the customer journey from a buyer's perspective? Our data reflected that these periods most often occur upon introductory negotiations and during the financing process.
The ideas that came to mind included a preliminary survey on car preferences, a QR-driven account with customer information and intention (eg. here to browse or whether they'd like to be approached by employees), fixed-pricing, 24 hour test drive periods, remote negotiations, and improvements to the physical space. We hypothesized that the more "traditional," commission-driven role of car salesperson would also need to change in order to improve the buyer-seller dynamic. To that end, we pushed forward with the idea of a Customer Experience Facilitator whose role within Autonomē would be purely to help a buyer find the optimal vehicle, as opposed to simply making a sale.
Two problem areas drove the incorporation of digital into a solution. We considered what the opposite of these areas, or success, would look like. We arrived at the following:
Elongated sales models force salespeople to negotiate between customers and managers. On average, customers are left alone or abandoned 11 times during this process, resulting in hours of wasted time. This hurts buyers as well as sellers, who are handicapped from engaging other potential customers.
With the uptick of digital to augment traditional sales models, consumers expect prices in-dealership to closely reflect those seen online. 21% of shoppers begin to lose trust in a dealership with a $50 discrepancy; this number translates to a 48% walk-away rate when the price difference reaches $75.
An online portal through which customers can save favorites, preview purchase prices, track progress, and pre-schedule time for test drives. Dealerships can view this information so they can be responsive in the right ways and maximize value for customers in the time they have together.
What you see is what you get. Configurations and add-ons are optimized so that customers can see exactly how out-the-door costs are affected. This builds on the Apple or Tesla model, and in this case, likely would require a change in pay structure for employees who normally rely on commissions.
We clustered and consolidated what we believed to be our most valuable ideas and evaluated them for feasibility and impact. This encouraged us to think beyond features and consider how we might develop a more holistic, end-to-end solution throughout the entirety of the car-buying experience. Ultimately, we proceeded with a hybrid model that combined elements of three core ideas:
We turned to several different methods to explore the validity of Autonomē and test its central concept with users. We aimed to explore how an app might work in tandem with an in-dealership kiosk system, as well as assess what a user's end-to-end experience might look like.
We began by conducting an investigative rehearsal, determining where and how digital would become incorporated into the wider process. This rehearsal led us to sketch a reimagined physical space so that we might conduct it again with a more complete framing of where interactions were taking place. Having more closely aligned on these two methods, we worked through a desktop system walkthrough as a way to combine facets of each and observe the nuances of the user experience play out in real time.
Our desktop walkthrough highlighted a pain point that we wished to spend more time focusing on: the aspect of F&I and the challenges it poses for buyers. It was only now that we were able to revisit some of the features we had envisioned in ideation – fixed pricing, add-on and payment calculators, remote signing – and understand their value within the context of an innovative, hybrid-concept model for car buying.
We continued by building wireframes and the first iteration of digital touchpoints. We also created service advertisements to examine our idea within the context of different entry points.
It was crucial that we didn't overestimate user willingness to engage a digital component in car-buying. We turned to our target market for early testing and found that our intuition around incorporating an introductory survey as a digital component – specifically as an entry point – was confirmed. Furthermore, the testing returned some actionable takeaways:
Insight: Users mentioned that starting with a budget question was off-putting. They responded better to lifestyle- and preference-based questions.
Action: We tweaked the survey to open with lifestyle questions in place of those regarding budget.
Insight: Users understood our account-based QR codes that would be linked to user profiles and available for the dealership to track a buyer's progress.
Action: We leaned heavily into the buyer-seller relationship rather than a transaction at a car dealership. This allowed us to continue leveraging QR codes to track user progress throughout their search.
Insight: While users appreciated the digestibility of a limited survey output, they still desire the ability to browse on their own (and with multiple filters to help do so).
Action: We built out search and filtering capabilities with an eye still trained on usability.
Our final concept would employ both a digital interface as well as Customer Experience Advocates within the dealership to provide customers a flexible experience. Autonomē would be as much of a mobile app as a system of on-site kiosks, offering the ability to complete as much of the process as desired either remotely or in person.
Prototyping these initial screens proved to be an effective way of gathering meaningful feedback before proceeding to build out the UI and visual design of Autonomē.
We utilized UserZoomGo to conduct a few rounds of usability testing with a workable prototype, aiming to understand how our target market would engage with the digital part of the product. A surging coronavirus complicated our ability to spend time in the field and pressure-test whether or not users would truly understand the role of one's digital account (and consequently, the process we imagined to be happening on-site in a car dealership), but we felt comfortable with the results our testing produced with regard to the value this component would have in the overall makeup of the experience.
We had users complete a variety of tasks with an eye towards the following. Understanding user feedback on these tasks was central to the hybrid solution we had imagined:
Our results yielded a score of 77.5 across participants. Our research indicated that a product is considered "usable" when yielding an average score of 68.
With a larger sample size and scope for a project like this, we believe that we could have come away with more detailed areas of insight; however, we did feel that we succeeded in creating a component that was approachable, able to be picked up and understood with little to no prior knowledge.
We distilled some of the outstanding questions that we didn't get to address into a few areas that could inform further iterations of Autonomē's integration into the broader car-buying experience.
Our testing revealed some issues with users' navigation through the app. Given the incorporation of digital into this type of solution, it is worth exploring whether or not these are visual design/interface issues or a matter of understanding on the part of the users that CX Advocates are there specifically to facilitate the experience with Autonomē.
Autonomē is designed to be part of a holistic solution that helps reduce the inevitable friction in car-buying. As such, a mobile platform must correspond, sync, and work the same way as kiosks located in the dealership to be fully effective. Circumstances prevented us from testing out larger, on-site screens in conjunction with our wireframes, yet these would be an integral part of a user's experience with the platform.
Most of our prototyping and testing focused on the buyer-side of the search for a new vehicle. Constraints in our resources and time forced us to spend more energy away from the dealership-side of the process – had we continued developing Autonomē, we would have returned to our original interview participants with workable prototypes that represented their side of the experience.
We envisioned a product like this having a place in car dealerships like CLEAR does at select airports – adding value where organizations can understand the benefit of efficient yet flexible processes for customers and revised service models for their employees; more importantly, where they are willing to undergo some of the growing pains that come from any change to a traditional sales model. We have always envisioned Autonomē as a platform that provides access to other dealerships that are associated with it – and the ability to directly compare the trade-offs and rates that different locations are offering.
In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated our comfort with digital solutions and our willingness to use them in our everyday lives – scanning a QR to open a menu at a restaurant, inputting information into a mobile platform, or NFC payment systems like ApplePay – and bolstered our expectations that companies will offer alternative methods to purchase their products.
Americans are spending less time at car dealerships than ever before, yet reporting higher satisfaction with the process than they have in years past. This might be attributed to the greater incorporation of Extended Reality components by dealerships, the ability to negotiate or pay from the comfort of one's home, or the fact that our access to information from third-party sites (that are deemed more trustworthy than that of a salesperson trying to sell their product) has increased exponentially – or a combination of all three and much more.