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Executive Interview: Paolo Malabuyo of Mercedes Benz

Dec 18, 2013 11:53 AM EST

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Paolo Malabuyo is the Vice President of Advanced User Experience Design at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, Inc. Paolo Malabuyo leads and builds a team charged with defining, designing, and prototyping the future of the Mercedes-Benz user experience, from the digital car to connected devices and services. Droid Report interviewed Paolo Malabuyo about his current role at Mercedes-Benz taking a further look at the user experience design industry, what its like to work at Mercedes-Benz, discussed upcoming 2014 initiatives and more.

Google / Silicon Valley Innovation Institute

Droid Report: Hello Paolo, can you please tell us about yourself and some insight on some of the Advanced User Experience Design initiatives for 2014? How long have you been with Mercedes-Benz?

Paolo Malabuyo: I've been with Mercedes-Benz since January of 2013, so I'm still relatively new to the company, especially when you consider that it's been around for over 125 years. I've spent my career in various aspects of high-tech: enterprise software with IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft SQL Server; games at Microsoft Games Studios; tech startups with Pelago and Zynga; and entertainment hardware/software/service platforms with Xbox 360 and Xbox One. However, more is going to happen to the automobile experience in the next 10 years than in the last 50, and it's primarily going to be because of digital technology. I feel that my background designing and building some great brands in tech is a great complement to the heritage of Mercedes-Benz as we go through this digital revolution.

2014 is really just the next step in doing the work that we need to for us to continue being relevant for the next 125 years, so our initiatives are reflected in our team's priorities: People, Principles, Process, and Product. First, People – continue to create a healthy environment to attract and grow our talent and build the internal and external relationships that matter. Second, Principles – further define our core design and organizational values to drive the right decisions and behaviors. Third, Process – use effective and efficient processes that enable people to maximize their impact. Our processes need to support our people and principles so we can create the best… Product – deliver the best-in-class results that prove that our approach works. These may be in-car experiences and interfaces for concept or show cars that lead the way for series production cars, aesthetic and interactive prototypes for design exploration, and mobile or web products/services for connected experiences.

Droid Report: Daimler just opened a New Mercedes-Benz Research and Development Headquarters (MBRDNA) headquarters and Mercedes-Benz Silicon Valley R&D Center in Silicon Valley in efforts to help strengthen its international R&D network. What is it like to work at the new headquarters?

Paolo Malabuyo: It's been great to build out a new space that's meant to allow us to grow in the center of Silicon Valley. Moving is always somewhat stressful, but other than the inconvenience of packing up, moving, and adjusting to your new surroundings, it's been a great move. We've been able to consolidate MBRDNA Silicon Valley into a single building where our design and engineering teams are able to be physically near each other while giving us much-needed room to grow. On top of all that, it's just a beautiful building and a great work environment with lots of natural light and a mix of open, collaborative spaces with private heads-down offices and workrooms. In a word – awesome.

Droid Report: The Advanced User Experience Design division envisions, designs, and prototypes new user experiences that are made possible by new digital technologies. Could you tell us a little about the three focus areas: creating a digital design language for Mercedes-Benz cars, designing in-car instruments and hardware/software interfaces for the digital car of the future, and developing mobile and cloud-connected product experiences?

Paolo Malabuyo: We are one of the world's most valuable brands, and as such we have a responsibility to its heritage and to make sure it continues to have longevity and relevance. The focus areas allow us to do the most impactful work to do just that. Mercedes-Benz cars have a deep sense of craftsmanship to them, and defining the digital design language is about expressing that same sense of care for the pixel as we do for the rest of the car. The in-car focus is about exploring, prototyping, and designing the future user experience for the areas of driver assistance, entertainment, navigation, communication, and comfort – all of which have become increasingly digital. And, clearly, mobile and cloud enables us to deliver both primary and complementary experiences to our customers directly, whether they're in their car, in their home or business, or simply want to engage with the brand in another way. Imagine what the holistic user experience should be for the self-driving, automated car – it would require that we deliver on all of these areas.

Droid Report: Mercedes-Benz recently developed a navigation system using Google Glass calling it "digital living." MBRDNA President and CEO Johann Jungwirth had stated the company's ultimate goal on the Google Glass project is a "seamless" door-to-door transition between pedestrian directions and in-car GPS. The demo for the Drive Kit Plus for iPhone is available. Do you have expectations on when the Android version of the system is completed? What was being done to make this a “seamless” process?

Paolo Malabuyo: We are actively working on the Android version of Drive Kit Plus and we'll have a release date announced soon. The prototype with Google Glass is just one example where our R&D teams are trying to explore what the latest cutting-edge technology can do for our customers, and we hope to continue to push the envelope both from a design and engineering standpoint. A simple example of making this a seamless experience is when you get door-to-door navigation directions, you could park your car a few blocks away and Glass could give you the rest of the directions while you're on foot.

Droid Report: How do you see the Mercedes Benz Auto Interface different in competition from Audi and BMW?

Paolo Malabuyo: Our goal is to find the ultimate balance of delivering the latest automotive technology with the best design; we don't want to be bleeding-edge for technology's sake since our customers only demand the best across all aspects of the design from the exterior, interior, and digital experience.

Droid Report: There is lot of innovation and experimentation presently happening at the intersections of science, art, engineering and design. Do you have any advice or techniques for approaching User Experience Design in future?

Paolo Malabuyo: I think this subject is worth an hours-long discussion by itself, but I'll briefly talk about one "new" area of design and innovation. In tech, there are many proponents for metrics-driven design. I've seen that in practice and I don't believe you can start there and end up someplace great. I believe you must lead with design and an informed point-of-view and then validate and improve with data. Data and incremental A/B testing can't make something bad turn into something good, but it can help something good become great.

Droid Report: As the demand for next-generation connected vehicle technologies increase, how do you feel this impacts the resulting challenges of having to meet complex integration requirements across an array of technologies?

Paolo Malabuyo: It's clearly becoming a more complex ecosystem and customers are becoming more tech-savvy; the role of technology as a purchase influencer has been growing significantly and that trend will continue. So our jobs as designers and engineers has gotten more challenging, but this also means that we need to keep the bar high to meet or exceed the expectations of our customers and our brand. Just because the pressure increases doesn't mean we must lower our standards for what we deliver.

There's a growing gap between consumer electronics and vehicle technologies that makes this challenge more acute due to the average customers' expectations. We can get the latest & greatest smartphone every year, and yet we tolerate their shortcomings on the most basic things like the inability to make phone calls or hold a charge for an entire workday. However, vehicle technology must be more dependable than that and must last for the expected effective lifetime of the automobile. It must be safe to use, be very robust to tolerate extreme physical conditions, and meet the standards that our customers expect from a Mercedes-Benz. It's a great challenge that keeps us motivated day after day.

We would like to thank Paolo Malabuyo for taking the time for this discussion and Mercedes Benz.

Paolo Malabuyo is a UX designer with 18+ years of diverse experience working across: enterprise, consumer, and automotive; blue-chip, mid-size, and startup; hardware, software, service, and content; auto, TV, PC, and mobile. He is currently Vice President of Advanced User Experience Design at Mercedes-Benz R&D North America, based in Silicon Valley, where his team is responsible for defining, designing, and prototyping the increasingly-digital user experience for Mercedes-Benz cars worldwide. As Director of Product for Zynga's mobile platform team, he led efforts to build a mobile social game network. He also led design for Whrrl, a geo-social discovery service for web & mobile at Pelago, a venture-funded startup. He led product design and incubation teams at Microsoft's Pioneer Studios, helping lay the foundation for the Xbox One UX and contributing to the evolution of the Xbox 360. As UX Manager for Xbox 360 he helped build the design team, defined new roles & processes, and led interaction design, information architecture, and hardware/software integration for the original product launch in 2005. At Microsoft Games Studios he designed console and PC games and helped pioneer alternate reality games. He spent the first few years of his career designing enterprise management and database visualization software at IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft. He studied art and design at Carnegie Mellon University, has traveled to over 25 countries, and learned how to make leather shoes by hand.

Learn more about Paolo Malabuyo at www.i4design.com.

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