How car ‘configurator’ tools show there’s a lot further to go in planning connected experiences

09/04/2014

There’s lots of positive stuff going on in the world of cars right now. For example, I was privileged to watch the incredible BMW team at Dare get lively around the launch of the new i3, a completely new electric vehicle that has been developed by BMW with the full product life-cycle in mind. And lots of other manufacturers are bringing in economy and ecology as key parts of their propositions.

But I wanted to talk about the 'car configurator', as a touchpoint, and where I see implications for those interested in customer experiences.

These tools traditionally let you choose a model, engine, colour and trim level to your exacting specification, whilst seeing how these choices effect your On The Road price. They’ve become steadily more elaborate over the years I’ve had a car interest, and they’re often my first destination on a car site.

At first, these tools seem like an awesome idea – instead of deciphering some thick brochure that i have to get from the dealership, listing all the different combination options, I can change and swap options to make my future car look exactly how I want it to. And without talking to a dealer who may be commission-driven, I can get a real sense of the cost implications. Fundamentally, I can get an idea of how sexy I can make my future car look and perform, within my financial means (or dreams).

Renault car configurator

But here's the thing – once I've made my perfect car, I should be expecting to order it there and then, or go to a dealer and test drive one just like it.

But it turns out that most brands expect you to start all over again once (if) you've made contact with a dealer. Some of these tools are now fantastical big touchscreen/gesture interfaces that you play with in store, but they're still far removed from what you can actually take home. 

End of the Renault car configurator

Every time I have been into a car dealership, for whatever reason, one of the first options I’ve been offered is to choose from a list of existing vehicles, with a set set of options already installed, in specific colours. Actually the opposite of configuration.

From a systems/technical perspective it's quite easy to see why. Dealerships are often franchises, so their finance options might be different to those advertised. Also, forecourts all over The UK are full of car stock that they actually want you to buy, because they've already made the cars with the most popular/profitable options packs.

“Sure, you could order one from the factory, but didn't you want to take advantage of this finance offer that conveniently finishes before the production lead time? Yes, the metallic paint option is lovely, but we only have a car in that colour with that entertainment package in Basingstoke – could you come back next week to test drive it? By the way, it's not actually the colour you wanted.”

Cars lined up in a huge parking lot
Image via Houston Free Press

There are macro factors to take into consideration, but I think there’s a problem brewing.

Essentially, as Experience Planners become more embedded in processes, and develop deeper relationships with more upstream clients, they're able to push the boundaries of user-centred-design to create immersive, engaging, memorable, compelling and ultimately more effective experiences that senior clients want to invest in. But that boundary-pushing isn't going on in the same way in the stock control department, or the database department, or the supply chain department. So the experiences being created often don't seem to interact with these back-ends at all. The result? An amazing online experience that completely breaks when the user tries to relate it back to the real world.

I think ‘big ticket’ items have been shielded from competition online a little bit so far, because no one in the UK who’s grown up digital has any money to buy them. And they have arcane regulation and process behind them that make digitisation that little bit more difficult.

But I have a feeling that pretty soon, the people who have grown up researching and buying their holidays online, planning their nights out and consulting their personal stylists (have I told you about Thread?) will be looking to do the same with their carpets, cars and houses. And right now, in car world, it looks like new challengers like Motorpoint, and, dare I say it, Lings Cars, are understanding that more than the manufacturers and dealers.

It can’t be down to agencies to solve this, whatever kind of agency they are, but I think we can help organisations understand and get excited about the possibilities that shifting to a more connected approach could bring. There must be a better way.

Posted in Clueless Punditry, Design, Ideas
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