Design from X to Z
June 26, 2001
San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art has a current exhibit on the work of legendary auto/industrial designer Jerry Hirshberg, the founding director of Nissan's American design facility. While the exhibit, which runs until September 3, is mostly a collection of artifacts that could use better contextual explanations, if you're in the area it's worth seeing. And the story of Hirshberg's development of Nissan's Xterra offers an interesting case study in the value of user research.

The Xterra is reportedly a cult favorite among SUV owners who actually take their SUVs off-road. Just as Hirshberg intended. But ironically, the Xterra started as a solution in search of a problem: Nissan had invested lots of money building a chassis for their trucks and wanted to see if there was another vehicle where they could use them.

The obvious answer was to use the chassis in an SUV, so Hirshberg's team went out trailheads and other outdoor spots to talk with people. To their surprise they saw few SUVs parked there, since despite their pretentions of being off-road vehicles most were too nice (and too expensive) to strap a kayak on top of, or have a muddy dog climb into the back of.

Consequently, Hirshberg set out create the vehicular equivalent of blue jeans for outdoor enthusiasts who weren't afraid to get their SUVs dirty. Instead of leather interiors, Hirshberg used fabric that literally could be hosed off. Various other features were designed based on observing what people were doing—perhaps the most gimmicky addition, a built-in first-aid kit, came after seeing an injured mountain biker drive home.

When it came to aesthetics, Hirshberg's team took an interesting approach to user testing—they created collages out of real items used "in the field," such as bike shoes and climbing gear in one example, and asked people which felt most appealing.

Of course, at the end, Hirshberg had to fend off Nissan's marketing staff who wanted to add chrome and leather. But keeping the focus paid off. While owners appear to have some complaints about the Xterra being underpowered (probably a consequence of Nissan trying to keep it affordable, they appear to love it judging by owner reviews, the number of fan sites and the fact that the Xterra reportedly has sold above sticker price.

Two side notes:

During an interview that was part of the exhibit, Hirshberg made an interesting comment that one of the worse myths is that you when you have a great idea you should immediately run with it. In reality, Hirshberg said, creative ideas are incredibly fragile at their birth and need nurturing before you do anything with them.

More of Hirshberg's thinking can be found in his book "The Creative Priority." Haven't read it myself, although Amazon reports it's popular at Sapient—and in Naperville, Illinois, where ever that is. Now there's an interesting example of a recommendation engine at work… (and my apologies to the good people of Naperville). ::

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