Chevrolet Vega LogoIf you have a few gray hairs, you may recall the days when creating the best possible automotive user experience had much to do with your abilities to drill holes, to turn wrenches and screwdrivers, to route hoses, and to string yards of 16 to 20 AWG wire. Not to mention attempting to master the elusive arts of wire connector crimping and door panel removal, without destroying precious parts. These days, you need to have a penchant for comparing font styles and color gradients, an eye for deciding how thick of a drop shadow to employ, and a general feel for the pros and cons of runtime versus up-front rendering. Or at least know how to interface with people that do.

What lessons can we learn from the way things used to be, that can be applied today? Nothing can answer that question better than a real-life example…

Lesson #1: Start with what you have.

When I was in high school, three of my closer friends received their first sets of wheels. To be sure, it was exciting. The first one invited me over to his house, just to show me his “new” 1966 Mustang Fastback, equipped with a respectable 289 c.i. V8 engine. The second one asked me over to meet his newly obtained 1969 Mach I Mustang Fastback, sporting a small-block, 351 Windsor powerplant, and a 4-speed manual transmission. Not long after that, his older brother showed up with—you guessed it—a 1969 Mustang Fastback, this one having a big-block, 351 Cleveland. All three cars had sporty features, including dashboards parading a useful plethora of gauges, the most prominent of which were the obligatory speedometer and tachometer.

My turn, but first a little background. My Dad always had a genuine knack for mechanical things, and he must have liked challenges, because I witnessed him tackle so many different ones during my early years. When I was in the fourth grade, he built me a go-kart for Christmas, from scratch, using a Honda motorcycle engine. It had four gears, so it had three foot-pedals, like a car, and if driven on pavement, it could raise its front wheels off the road. It had more guts than I did.

One day, Dad spent a whopping $100, and bought me a car. He towed it into the driveway, and around the house, to the back yard. It had a blown engine which was not even under the hood, but resting peacefully inside the rear hatch. The car was a ghastly dark yellow color that had been fading for the past five years or so, almost as badly as its worn-out carpet. My new, non-ambulatory treasure looked something like this, only not as pretty:

Chevrolet Vega

Four cylinders. Three-speed transmission. A massive speedometer, a fuel gauge, an odometer reading over 70,000 miles, and a few idiot lights. No tach. At least the original owner splurged, and got an AM radio. So, there I stood, a bit underwhelmed, maybe even a bit disappointed, but still thankful. Contemplating my Dad’s mechanical prowess, and sensing my own innate desire to create something worthwhile, I started to look upon the ailing 1972 Vega Hatchback coupe as a diamond-in-the-rough. I had no choice, but to start with what I had.

I believe we can agree that cars were a lot simpler back then. However, even then, car manufacturers tried to get the most out of their design and tooling investment dollars, by keeping the basic design of a specific model constant for a few years (i.e., for a model generation), while tweaking certain aesthetic or supplementary mechanical features from one year to the next. New options appeared, but the underlying body style was essentially the same. Engines were tuned with different bolt-on parts, but many of their core components remained. My Dad, my older brother, and I always appreciated the fact that a bunch of GM engine parts were interchangeable across vehicles, engines, and model years. That was a tremendous help on certain repairs, because in our cases, replacement parts often resulted from spelunking cavernous engine compartments and decaying body shells at the local junkyards.

Relative to stretching those UX investment dollars, things are not much different today, except that now there are more domains to think about when considering the reusability and extensibility of designs. Modern cars (and trucks) are as much about software components as they are about hardware components, both under the hood and in the cockpit. Relative to the dashboard and infotainment panels, there are also audio-visual components, such as custom fonts, menus, buttons, tabs, images, videos, voices, sound effects, gesture detection, and speech recognition. Many of these components come with significant research, acquisition, design, creation, and/or testing costs, and reusing them is a standard (translation, required) form of cost-cutting. Thus, before designing a whole new UX, think about what parts you can reuse from your existing ones.

Lesson #2: Map it out.

Before doing anything with my Vega, I had to decide what to do. That was a multi-faceted problem, especially considering that the ink on my driver’s license had dried just months earlier, and my experience in automobile mechanics was limited to a few times peering over my Dad’s shoulder, plus days of changing oil and repairing tires at the gas station. At the very least, my decision-making involved three important stages.

The first stage was taking stock. I had to become more familiar with the car in its present state. How was it equipped? What could it do? What options were missing? What could it not do? Which items needed to be fixed? What parts could be upgraded?

Right from the start, I could not help but notice the glaring issues, at least from my novice perspective. Even if the engine did function, on its best day, it could only produce 80 horsepower, and 121 foot-pounds of torque, but even those numbers could be diffused by having only three forward gears. Yet, hope loomed on the horizon, because it was a manual transmission, which I assumed would be more fun to drive than an automatic. If I only knew how to use a clutch!

Besides the power issue, the most pressing items in my mind were the odd yellow color, the worn-out carpet, the lack of a decent stereo, the stock steel wheels and skinny tires, and that sparsely populated dashboard. The dashboard looked like this picture, if you ignore the air-conditioning vents, which my car did not have, naturally.

Simple Chevy Vega dashboard - no tachometer, AM radio, no air conditioning!

Part of my research involved purchasing several books about Vegas from the auto-parts dealer and the bookstore, including a basic repair manual. Seemed like a good place to start.

The second stage was checking resources. Once I thought about what things I might wish to change, and which parts I might need, I had to determine what choices were available and note their potential sources. At that time, the only “search engine” I had was the straight-six in the family station wagon, which could (reluctantly) cart me around to car magazine retailers, parts dealers, junkyards, and friends’ houses, as I mined precious information. And I cannot discount the potential wisdom to be gleaned from querying my two local databases—Dad and brother.

Additionally, I had to think about skilled resources and tools. What could I do? What could I learn to do? How much would I have to rely on the other guys—family and friends. How much time did each of us have available? What tools did I own or have access to? Tools were not a problem; Dad had a garage full, and I began to collect some of my own, as well. When I was young, time did not seem to be an issue either. Amid school, homework, and other activities, I made time. But the people were the real treasures. I truly wish I had paid more attention to some of things Dad tried to teach me. Oh, I picked up some skills, but I could have gleaned much more.

Finally, the proverbial limited budget. Fixing up my Vega occurred over a period of years, with one of the prime factors being my meager budget. My first job paid a whopping $2.30 per hour, and was, of course, part-time. I had four other part-time jobs, before landing a co-op job during the latter part of college. The car could only receive a portion of the distributable pie, because schooling had more priority. That, coupled with the expense of a new, insatiable hobby—computer programming.

The third stage was planning. This is where the decision-making took place. I had to choose, based on the factors emitted by research, which issue or issues to tackle first. I did not go so far as to write down a list and then prioritize the items (which would surprise my wife), but I did decide that two pressing things ranked high in my perception—the engine and the stereo. A car with no engine is a bona fide boat anchor. And within my peer group, a guy with an AM radio attached to one tiny, in-dash speaker, could not begin to qualify as cool. No doubt, I still had the other issues in mind. Thus, in my longer-term plan, I wanted to do something to bump up the horsepower aspect, and take care of a few aesthetic characteristics.

These same stages apply to modern UX design. Using a digital dashboard as an example, first take stock of which concepts work and which ones do not. Ask some questions. Where should certain controls be? How large should they be? Which ones does a driver use the most? Should a certain one be a physical button or a virtual one? Which things might distract the driver’s focus? What did most people complain about with the older model? What did they praise?

Second, consider what resources are available, in-house or otherwise. Obviously, when designing the circuit board (or boards) targeted to control the UX, specific hardware components must be chosen, with an eye toward applicability and long-term availability. But what about the software components, and the software tools used to create or to maintain them? What about the artists and developers tasked to put the pieces together? Who are they? Where are they? What skills do they require? Should you bring in expert help, such as the tools and services offered by Altia? (Shameless plug.)

Third, make some initial plans. You must start somewhere. Once you start to implement some designs, you may find out through observation or testing that results are not quite like you anticipated. Nothing new. Adjust your plans and go forward. For example, if you find that the GUI is a bit slow, try optimizing some of the graphics by cropping windows, using less color depth, pre-rendering problem animations or backgrounds, or making better use of the graphics hardware. If buttons or other controls are hard to reach, move them, or find a way to eliminate them. Learn from errors.

Lesson #3: Prune and graft.

My brother had the first Vega in our family, a Kammback wagon. Although all production Vegas had four-cylinder engines, he wanted a V8. Before he and my Dad could shoehorn a 327 c.i. V8 into the engine compartment of his wagon, they had to pull out the stock four-cylinder, along with the exhaust system, radiator, and miscellaneous parts. His car could not reach the potential that he envisioned, with the old hardware still in place. Good thing for me, though, because that pruning job supplied us with a spare Vega engine—just what my car needed.

I had my own pruning and grafting tasks to do, but on a smaller scale. Prior to installing a new AM/FM stereo cassette player in my car, I dug into the lower region of the dashboard, and removed the stock AM radio. Since I had no plans to reuse the in-dash speaker, I just left it there as a makeshift backing for the speaker holes in the dash. As a replacement, I built a wooden box large enough to hold four new 6” x 9” speakers, and mounted the box in the hatch area, behind the rear seat. I did not predict it at the time, but the experience of removing and replacing the radio, mounting new speakers, and routing wires marked the first of a series of radio installations that I did for friends and family. Thus, even the pruning segment of the overall process was a valuable learning experience. And the orchard grew.

When I finally decided to upgrade my dashboard, my Dad suggested that I add a few more gauges. I certainly wanted a tachometer, and once I installed one, I could not understand how I ever got along without it. I thought it would be nice to have a water temperature gauge, too, so that I could tell when the engine was running hotter than normal, long before the standard idiot light would inform me. The final design decision was mine, of course, and I opted to go for a suite of eight gauges, enough to tell me everything I could want to know. Naturally, they would not fit into the stock dashboard, so I had to rip it out, and build another one. Dad’s love of boats was behind my choice to make a stained mahogany dashboard, and to fill it with Stewart-Warner® gauges. I have no photo of it, but here is a facsimile. Talk about a new UX!

After-Market dashboard upgrade in Chevy Vega

Along with those changes, I managed to yank out the old transmission and squeeze in a replacement. At a junkyard, I located both a four-speed manual and a five-speed manual. I desperately wanted the latter unit, but the price was $250, literally twice the cost of the former. I did not want to part with that much, so I opted to pay $125 for the four-speed, and spent a little more to order a new Hurst shifter for it. Worth every penny.

There are times when the best choice is to reuse components. There are times when that may not be a clever idea. For instance, if your past UX designs were based on 2D graphics, with many of the images pre-drawn in Photoshop®, then you will likely need to prune some things as you succumb to the market peer-pressure currently pushing 3D graphics as the new standard. What were 2D images created in a drawing tool now need to be 3D models created in a modeling tool such as Maya®. The SOC or low-functionality GPU that could draw text and copy those 2D images to a frame buffer may need to be replaced by a chip with a high-functionality GPU, capable of dynamic 3D rendering. With that upgrade, you have a much broader range of animation possibilities, so the ways in which you can display information and create user controls expand dramatically. It all begins with deciding what to keep and what to toss. But bear in mind that just because you can do something does not mean that you should do it.

Lesson #4: Spice up your secret sauce.

Before you even think about doing something, chances are, someone else has already done it. I have reached the point in life where, whenever I begin to think that I have an original thought, I do a quick web search, and find hundreds of reasons to be humble. That is why when you get inspired with a truly novel idea, you must keep it under wraps, until that future day—if it ever comes—when you choose to reveal your secret.

My Dad thought ahead when removing the factory engine from my brother’s Vega. He knew that the stock pistons and aluminum cylinder walls could only withstand so much force without dire consequences. So before dropping the engine into my car, he had it rebuilt. As part of that process, the engine shop installed steel sleeves into the cylinders, along with forged pistons and moly rings.

After driving it for over two years, I started thinking deeply about improving my car’s performance. My car-enthusiast friends and my brother all had V8 engines, and I did not wish to be left out, so my thoughts tended in that direction. My challenge-conquering Dad suggested an entirely different approach—turbocharging. This was not a new idea by any means, but at that time, it was not widely available in American-made production cars. Ford released an optional turbocharged engine in the 1979 Mustang, and GM did something similar in the Trans-Am a year later, but most cars did not have such equipment.

I took my Dad’s suggestion seriously, and started researching turbochargers. Through magazine ads, I discovered that I could buy one for $300 from Turbo City in California. That was just the turbo, not the other parts needed to make it work. Not an inexpensive prospect, but I determined to save up enough money to do it.

You might be thinking that since most folks knew little or nothing about turbos back then, the turbo was my secret sauce. Yes and no. You could say that the turbo was the sauce, but the tuning and installation of the turbo were the spices in the sauce! When I ordered the turbo, we chose one that was designed to fit the specifications of my engine quite well, in terms of the exhaust flow required to spin the turbine, and the potential output from the compressor.

Here is a photo of the first iteration of our turbo installation, using a side-draft, single-barrel carburetor. Note the top black pipe connecting the stock intake manifold to the turbo compressor outlet. Underneath the turbo was a steel tube connecting the stock exhaust manifold to the turbine. With this setup installed, my car behaved very differently, so much so that I added traction and stabilizer bars to the car chassis! Another bit of polish to the shiny new UX.

first iteration of our turbo installation, using a side-draft, single-barrel carburetor

Yet there was still a way to enhance the secret sauce. Those pipe and manifold runs in our first iteration spanned quite some distance. More distance between the engine and the turbo, on either the turbine or the compressor side, meant more lag and less performance. We had long runs on both sides! Dad to the rescue. He used the manifold gaskets as a template, and built a completely new combination manifold, with both sides of the turbo mounted just inches from the cylinder head. We also swapped out the small carburetor for a 290 CFM Holley four-barrel, so I could run on the front two barrels normally, and kick in the back two barrels when “necessary”. Second iteration ready.

I have been told (but could not verify via the web) that the turbo on the 1979 Mustang produced about 5 pounds of boost pressure. This means that when the turbo was fully active, rather than the car’s four cylinders sucking fuel mixture in based on a vacuum (i.e., negative pressure), the turbo would force the fuel mixture into the cylinders at up to 5 pounds of positive pressure. More fuel/air mixture packed into each cylinder meant more power when the spark plugs ignited the mixture. This resulted in the Mustang going from 88 HP to 118 HP, a power increase of about 34%.

It takes about 15 pounds of boost pressure to double the horsepower of the engine. With the enhanced setup of the second iteration, the Vega turbocharger put out over 24 pounds of boost pressure. We could tell by monitoring the combination vacuum/pressure gauge just to the left of the tachometer in the new dashboard. Of course, focusing on that gauge was a bit difficult with my head planted against the headrest, because the tachometer needle swept so quickly that all I could think about was shifting gears, and holding on for dear life. You can imagine the taste that this secret sauce left in our mouths. Exhilarating!

We discovered right away that the extra fuel could cause the cylinders to detonate (to fire too early), which can destroy pistons, so we sprinkled in one final spice. We added water injection using an extra windshield washer tank and pump, activated by a 5-pound pressure switch connected after the turbo outlet. Think of it as a homebrew form of intercooling. When turbo boost flipped the switch, water cooled the fuel mixture, preventing the detonation, which enabled the engine to reach higher RPMs. The switch also controlled that little green indicator light on the dashboard. One of my friends made it his personal mission to inform new passengers to be aware, commanding them to, “Watch the little green light!”

Your secret sauce may be a group of forward thinkers who dream of how amazing a custom UX could be, the extremely talented graphic artists designing assets to help you visualize it, the unbelievable developers writing code to use those assets, the terribly organized people tracking and managing your company processes, or the overall way in which you push contemporary designs from concept to sales floor in record time. Or some combination of those. You introduce a little pizzazz mixed with a lot of functionality, while simmering and spicing the sauce that makes your offering unique. You can taste it, and you know it is ready when people point to your UX and say, “Watch the little green light!”

Lesson #5: Check your priorities.

I will never forget the time when my humble little Vega shocked one of our local braggarts. He was proud of promoting his undefeated position within his auto-loving circle of associates. I give him credit for trying, but after he razzed us to the point where I decided to show him that he had stepped into the wrong circle, he leaped from his car and publicly, loudly exclaimed, “I have never seen anybody go by me so (censored) fast! Let me see what’s under that hood!” So, I did. And he had no clue what he was looking at. He stood there completely dumbfounded. Thanks, Dad!

A few more aesthetic tweaks later, this is what “old yeller” became. It never looked like a factory sports car, but it sure acted like one. The car is gone now, but Dad still has the turbo and gauges in his collection of old parts. He kept them for the past three decades, in hopes of one day installing them again. Well, there is a lonely stock Vega sitting quietly in my neighborhood, but the owner refuses to sell it. Ah, memories…

After several tweaks, this is what the Vega looked like. Never a factory sports car, but it sure acted like one.

Looking back, I realize that my fondest memories related to working on my Vega, exploring its enhanced capabilities, and relying on it as my primary means of transportation for seven years, center around time spent with those individuals who helped me to enjoy the successes, and to face the failures. I have had three Camaros, but I still believe that the Vega was the most fun car that I ever owned. Sure, I enjoyed driving the car, but what I really enjoyed was sharing it.

Whether you design graphics for a new dashboard, contemplate in sundry user interactions for a new infotainment panel, write tons of application or driver code, verify the content of hundreds of rendered output frames, or manage or assist the folks that perform those tasks, make sure that you have good people in your design, development, testing, marketing, and service circles. In the long run, the most important thing is not which items you pruned or grafted, which plans you made that did or did not come to fruition, or even how well you spiced your secret sauce. When you think about what you have accomplished 30 years from now, you will not be thinking just about some fancy UX, but about the lives you encountered and the stories you wrote, while producing it.

Design on!

FYI, I still drive a stick. ?