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Imagine yourself in the driver’s seat of a new, luxury vehicle—a contrast from the vintage model above! You have just turned on the ignition. The car’s human-machine interface is activated. What happens next is an experience designed to fit your general preferences and the preferences of your geographic market. This kind of design work is the business of Carmeq. Infotainment systems like these were the topic of a brainstorm workshop facilitated by Stefan Meister, Managing Director of intercultures’ Global Head Office, in May 2014. We interviewed Britta Berlet, who manages voice control systems at Carmeq, for her comments on the process of improving human-machine interface systems through intercultural learning.

The Motivation

What motivated Carmeq to invite intercultures to facilitate a brainstorm workshop?

“Every year we gather outside of Berlin for a team workshop and every year we choose an interesting topic to deal with as a whole team, which we would not have enough time for during our normal work days. This year, my colleague Laura Deichmüller and I had the idea of engaging in intercultural competences because in our projects we sometimes get to a point where we lack of a scientific foundation about how this or that is done in different regions. As we create speech dialog systems [for vehicle-based human-machine interfaces], we have to deal a lot with communication and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that communication varies widely between different cultures.”

The goal of the workshop with intercultures was to practice developing transcultural design solutions for human-machine interfaces, specifically infotainment systems. Led by Stefan, the group of self-described “German-socialized employees” took guidance from Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension of Power Distance as one starting point. The Power Distance dimension describes the extent to which societies accept—and expect—an unequal distribution of power amongst themselves. According to Stefan, questions and ideas generated about the design of vehicles in high Power Distance cultures (where power is relatively more unevenly distributed) included the following:

  • Is the car a “servant,” and if yes, what features should it have?
  • In the case that the car owner hires a driver, a unit may be required in the back seat that is designed at least as well as the one in the front.
  • Related to the item above, perhaps two separate systems should exist: One focused on information related to driving in the front of the vehicle and another focused on entertainment in the back of the vehicle.
  • Can one expect the willingness to learn/ teach from high Power Distance users (i.e. being patient with speech recognition)?
  • Can the system be active by itself (i.e. should it be quiet if it detects a conversation in the cockpit)?
  • Should the system apologize or thank?
  • Can the system say, “No”?

One important—and contrary—insight was not lost on workshop participants as they practiced the art/ science of local adaptation. For some markets, products are uniquely valuable because they are not adapted to local tastes, but are instead closely identified with the foreign designer of the product. There are German products, for instance, whose value derives from their distinctly German quality.

Balancing Global and Local

What is Carmeq’s general approach to working internationally and designing infotainment?

“Carmeq’s approach to designing infotainment is creating innovative products…As a subsidiary of Volkswagen, we are creating solutions for an international market. We are aware of the fact that we cannot apply our central European standards to all regions, so we aim to find out which dimensions should be considered to create the best possible systems for all users.”

Regarding the balance between global and local design, Ms. Berlet shared: «There is a universal design, which is influenced by central European standards. But as Volkswagen is an internationally operating company, we get a lot of input from the markets. For example, colleagues in North America will review our work and tell us which issues should be considered for their market. On top of that, we have a very international team of designers here who can apply their own heritage and their cultural awareness to their design.»

Maintaining Corporate Identity

How does Carmeq’s approach to design align with clients—such as VW—who may be very interested in maintaining their corporate identity in global settings?

“Of course people expect to buy a German car with German technology, which has a good reputation. So, every localization still shows its German heritage. There is a comparison, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously: Pizza. You get pizza everywhere in the world, but each country adapts it to the local taste. In the USA, you often get thick pizza and you can have extra cheese; in China, you get varieties with typical Chinese toppings. In the end of the day you get dough, tomato sauce, toppings and cheese, which still resembles the Italian original.”

Or, the German original. In this case of Volkswagen.

Carmeq reported that learning from the workshop made an impact. In the last several months, lessons have been applied both within—and beyond—participants’ immediate workplace.

A Sustainable Impact

What will/ has changed since the workshop?

“By engaging intercultures with a training on intercultural competences we lifted [our] awareness from an anecdotic to a more scientific level. We can now apply the knowledge about cultural dimensions to our work. Not only in creating speech dialog systems, but also in working with international colleagues and partners.

“The workshop had a huge impact on everyone in our team. When working in our projects, we often refer to the things we learned back in May. It did not only affect us work-wise, but also personally. Of course, everybody is aware of cultural differences, but if you know more about it and learn why people from different cultures act and react the way they do, it helps the intercultural bonding process.

“Here is a little anecdote from our lunch break: There is a Jamaican restaurant nearby. We all like the food a lot, but you really have to be patient to have lunch there, as it is so chaotic—from our point of view. Shortly after the workshop, we went there for our lunch and assumed their way of handling things might be due to the different approach to time. We are living in a very monochone culture here [in Berlin, Germany], whereas Jamaica might be rather polychrone. After realizing this, we were pretty relaxed about getting our food late and the drinks after we were finished eating. Of course, we cannot be this relaxed everyday because our work environment is still German.”

As a provider of products or services, evaluating your offerings against the demands of various culture-specific markets provides a more balanced perspective on performance. Whether it be customer satisfaction with the service at a local Jamaican eatery or consumer satisfaction when steering their car’s human-machine interface system, cultural preferences often influence our assessment of professional performance. Carmeq, for instance, measures their performance against their corporate values: Networking, Pioneering, Reliability. Workshop participants tested their abilities to deliver upon their own performance measures for diverse markets by inviting intercultures to support them in applying intercultural competence to their day-to-day work. After all, those who stay in business provide quality as defined by their customers.

A message from Carmeq GmbH:

“Carmeq is a company in the Volkswagen Group. We provide development services and consultation for the implementation of software-based systems for vehicles. Acting as an active link between organizational units, we interconnect people and technology throughout all development phases. On an equal footing with our customers, we lighten their load, give them security and turn the strengths and the cooperation of all actors into true added value. We work for the international vehicle industry, and together with Volkswagen and its suppliers, we strive to create innovative, sustainable and effective solutions. We attract top class personnel and value the role they take in contributing towards our joint success.”


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Thank you to Britta Berlet and Laura Deichmüller at Carmeq for making this article possible.

Credit for the photo above is attributed to Getty Images and is not intended to represent Volkswagen.

The above article was included in the Sept. 2014 intercultures e-newsletter.