Thor Lewis Talks User Experience

His name is Thor. He’s Canadian. He used to work for Google. And he knows a lot about connecting users with technology. Wanna know more? We did, too.

January 08, 2019

Thor Lewis is an interesting guy.

And it goes beyond his amazing beard-growing ability and his exceptionally good-natured demeanor.
Dude is smart. And when he left Google to join the Toyota Research Institute to work on the user experience (or UX) for autonomous vehicles, it was a coup for CEO Gill Pratt’s Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Driving organization. Since we sat down and talked to Thor at TRI’s Bay Area offices, he’s moved on to a new role at Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development (TRI-AD).
But his work as TRI’s director of user experience is still poignant, and his explanation of TRI’s autonomous vehicle research is on point.
Read our interview below.
Thor, love the name. Tell me about your family growing up.
Both my parents are artists, fairly hippy, fairly amazing people. Very interesting people. My mother is a painter, father was a painter and then he became a large-scale water architect sculptor.
If your parents are painters, how did you get here? And what exactly is UX?
Truth be told, painting is my side profession. UX stands for user experience, and it’s about creating that relationship between humans and technology. Traditionally, there are different fields of UX: HCI, HRI, HMI – human-computer interaction, human-robot interaction, human-machine interaction. UX was brought about to merge all of them. To unite all of these groups into one family. It’s neat because there’s a spectrum. On one side you have the artistic side, and on the other you have this strong academic side. And the roles and responsibilities along that spectrum are very diverse. In the center you have your interaction designers. And more on the art side you have your UI, or user interface, designers and visual designers. And if you go toward the academia side you have UX research and human factors.
So, you’re an interactive artist. How are you going to create something people will find useful?
Not only useful, but that lowers the friction they’re experiencing throughout the process. Like, if it takes seven steps to pair your phone to Bluetooth, an interaction designer will come in and try to reduce that down to three or something that makes the experience acceptable.
Leisurely Drive -- TRI's user-experience guruThor Lewis gets work in on a driving sumulator.  

How does this work with what TRI is doing?
We’re taking UX to the next level. This is about creating a fantastic experience, but it’s also about helping create a safer experience. We’re dealing with a lot of complex technology under the hood of these vehicles. And it’s our job to abstract that, make the technology useful, but safe as well. If we think about some of the autonomous driving technology, like Guardian Mode, we have this omnipresent safety system that’s watching out for the driver. Within that vehicle, we have a lot of screens, a lot of different ways to communicate what’s happening to the driver based on what the car is doing. And if we don’t do that right, the user could lose trust in the vehicle. We have a huge responsibility here.
What are the keys to creating a user experience that is going to earn that trust?
First, we’re unifying the user experience throughout the vehicle. If we look at some of the vehicles out there today, there are different design languages across multiple screens. So, the first thing we’re doing is creating a unified design language across all the screens. And it’s not just the screens, it’s throughout the entire cockpit of the car. If you think about it, it’s the tones, the lights, the haptics (interactive touch), working in conjunction with that user interface, creating that symphony together, all working together. So, when the user sits in the vehicle, the user feels like they’re experiencing something that was all designed by one company.
Are we talking about just the buttons I push to make stuff work, or are we talking about how it feels when it’s moving?
Both, actually. With this unified design system, we’re working with all of Toyota – Toyota Motor Corporation, Calty, Toyota Motor North America – thinking of this first from a UI perspective, but then branching out to interior design and exterior design. It’s really about making sure all design teams across Toyota are working together to create that holistic experience for the user.
What is your history with this?
Prior to Toyota, I was at Google for 10 years working on a variety of different research and development projects in user experience. I worked on cloud robotics. I worked on the 3D scanning initiative for Google Search. I worked on Daydream, the virtual reality program, as well as a lab that was pretty secret within retail, called ACME, which was a sensory fusion lab all about making smart spaces for robots.
You worked for Google for 10 years? Why come to TRI?
It really comes down to an opportunity that presented itself. I had worked with (former TRI Chief Technology Officer and current TRI-AD CEO) Dr. James Kuffner before, and when I found out he came to Toyota, I approached him about opportunities. And then I also found out I’d be working closely with Dr. Gill Pratt. And if you combine that with working on UX that actually saves lives, it was a really easy decision for me.
What’s your grand vision for UX in autonomous vehicles?
To have someone approach a Toyota vehicle and for that vehicle to know that person before they get to the car. For the user to sit in that vehicle and feel completely confident and at the right level of trust with that vehicle. That the vehicle has their back, that it is a companion in their journey. For them to feel a connection with that car, whether – in the future – it’s in a Level 4 state of autonomy, or whether they’re just having a really good time driving it. Having that strong relationship and fun driving experience, that’s really at the core of it. And to help make it safe.
Is Level 4 the top level of autonomy?
There is actually a Level 5.
What happens there?
If you think about it, a car could potentially go get a car wash while you’re at work. Or get an oil change. It would operate without people. If you think about Level 4, it’s constrained in some ways. Constrained by geography, weather or road conditions. Level 5 has no constraints.  
We have Akio Toyoda telling us he wants more heart-pounding user experiences in our vehicles. And now we’re talking about taking away the driving part. This seems like a really interesting challenge for you. How can you keep people emotionally invested when driving goes away?
Well, I think that depends on the type of car you’re driving. If you’re driving a vehicle and you’re getting sleepy, and that car is capable of Level 4 for a certain duration, it can help you throughout your day. If you’re thinking about bringing that joy to driving and still having autonomy, it’s really about still having control from a user perspective. Having the ability to turn it on and off is super important. At some points in your driving, you may want to have that as a feature. And it’s giving the user that flexibility in the car if they want it. What we are working on with Guardian is helping to make sure that the user is safe while they’re manually driving. And I think that’s where TRI’s real strength can come into play with that Guardian system. It’s a bit like putting bumpers on the bowling alley. You can experience driving, but we can help you be more and more safe.
Do you think we’ll see Guardian Mode become part of the culture in the coming years?
I do. With different levels of Guardian being released by Toyota, we’ll have drivers experiencing safer and safer driving as the features become more involved.
How fast is this technology progressing?
We’ve made leaps and bounds of progress in terms of how we’re approaching Guardian and looking at the technology in a much simpler way for how users would experience it. We were definitely concerned with the previous approach of how a user would experience the handback stage – transitioning from manual driving to autonomous driving – with Guardian. But now we’re exploring this much more parallel approach which guides the user, teaches the user along the way, making them better drivers so Guardian won’t have to intervene.
OK, that’s all we’ve got, Thor.
By Dan Nied 
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