UX inspiration from history: the Minivan Taxi

image by diecast43

Our next “guest” came straight outta the Soviet Union in 1964: The Minivan Taxi.

The Minivan Taxi started its journey in 1962 at VNIITE (All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design), when a talented team of engineers and designers developed an extraordinary car, something reliable, compact, maneuverable, and roomy with the aesthetic of a bus. It was to be the first of its kind and is now a global icon.

The story of the Minivan Taxi is fascinating, from the way engineers handled the prototyping process, to real-life, big city testing — which all happened during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

That’s what makes the development of the Minivan Taxi even more exceptional. It demonstrates that even in times of hardship, revolutionary ideas are still born.

The project began with the general concept of a minivan, something that is now universally recognized, and used in many countries. But half a century ago, a minivan-style taxi was “mind-blowing” for people in the USSR.

The guidelines for development was purely based on an assumption of what kind of car people would prefer to use as a taxi, what needs they have and how this minivan can surpass existing taxi.

In other words, the engineering bureau at VNIITE was trying not only to reinvent existing taxi but potentially create a brand-new market which did not exist in USSR.

THE EXTERIOR

The design began by addressing a few assumptions: Why do people use taxis? What are they using them for? And, how can this minivan surpass all of its soon-to-be predecessors?

In other words, the engineering bureau at VNIITE was not only trying to reinvent what was already recognized as a taxi, it was also trying to create an appetite for a brand-new market that did not exist in the USSR at the time.

The car needed to be more compact than the Volga (another contemporary cultural icon popular in the USSR circa 1950). It should be relatively cheap to mass produce, much like the Moskvitch 407. It was a strategically smart move from the engineering team to source the most critical internal parts from a model that had already proved its reliability and stability in the real world.

To begin with, the designers provided exterior and interior sketches, they presented multiple different prototypes at a scale of 1:10. After obtaining the seal of approval from senior management, they immediately began on the development of the life-size prototype.

The initial stage work, the construction of the layout, the sketches and the development of large-scale prototype took almost three months. It took about a year to develop final blueprints. Manufacturing parts and car assembly took around four months.

THE INTERIOR

By prioritizing the needs of the passenger, and with meticulous attention to detail, the engineering team created a life-size prototype playground.

The prototyping process is always the most crucial stage of the development; it’s integral when testing different sizes, textiles, materials etc. in short time frame. Designers were able to check the landing layout by themselves in real-time, they could immediately recognize how a passenger could comfortably enter, exit, sit, and move baggage, etc..

The cabin prototype allowed the team to work on the ergonomics of the driver’s workplace to the most minute detail. For the interior trim, they selected the most modern materials with attention to colour. Ultimately, they were able to efficiently determined the overall aesthetic of the final model in a relatively short time-frame.

The spacious interior could accommodate four passengers and a driver. Three people could sit on the couch in the car’s back. Fourth — in a folding seat, in front of other riders.

Luggage or any other items could be stored behind the passenger seat, and the passenger seats could move back creating space for larger items such as luggage or even a baby carriage.

The door opening size was huge: 750 mm width and 1200 mm height to speedup drop off and pick up of passengers who carried baggage. It was possible for a taxi could make up to 100 stops per day.

To give a greater illusion of interior spaciousness, huge windows gave close to a 360 degree view, and provided an entry for vast amount of light.

To mitigate driver distraction, the engineering and design teams separated the driver’s seat by using a transparent plastic partition.

USER TESTING

The first generation of the taxi was used as a prototype to test the durability, design, comfort, and convenience of the car.

They even tested visibility, acceleration dynamics, maneuverability, fuel efficiency in different driving modes, the possibilities of repair and maintenance, etc..

There were no problems with the engine or other internal elements of the car. After proving its technical sustainability, the taxi then went on to seek the approval of potential passengers in order to validate the interior design of the car.

In November 1965, this taxi had been working for 8 days collecting feedback from passengers.

Passengers were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the quality and satisfaction of the new car.

Without the internet, a website or a smartphone, the only way to leave feedback was a good old-fashioned pen and paper, and an envelope attached to the front of the passenger seat.

Despite some problems, the passengers left mostly positive reviews. They noted a very spacious interior, comfortable seats and a lot of light in the cabin.

After the final results, the car was poised for the production line at the Yerevan Automobile Factory.

Another thing to note, is that a special service vehicle followed the taxi during these reviews, with parts, tools and a qualified mechanic. During these tests, the team identified many problems.

The biggest problem was in the design of the driver’s cabin, especially in terms of driver safety. This is likely due to crash-tests in the USSR becoming common-place after the development of this prototype.

UX CRITIQUE

As successful as the overall design was, they failed testing all hypotheses on themselves.

They would have benefitted from consulting with other outside professionals for their thoughts and solutions.

They could even have created a user testing process and collect data about passengers’ habits and preferences, rather than just their general opinions.

A simple understanding of driver/passenger needs and safety rules can lead you to excellent results even before any user testing or interviews are needed.

Though relatively small, these UX solutions could have solved the problems of passengers and drivers simultaneously, without relying on merely opinion.

Let’s consider the driver’s seat. It had several ineffective features.

For example, the seat was an anatomical non-adjustable seat for people with different body types at an optimal distance from the steering wheel. To compensate for the non-adjustable seat, they opted to make the pedals adjustable; 80 mm back and forth relative to the seats by using a lever mechanism.

This is a very ineffective decision that could have been easily identified after continuous use of the automobile by a professional driver. Maybe it was a second failure by the engineering team because if you are driving a car, you probably know how it’s important to adjust a seat and drive comfortably. So, in this case, they had to test different versions of the seat mechanism and after collecting all data, decide what mechanism works better.

Despite the overall of all positive aspects, this car didn’t go for mass production.

There is no general consensus as to why this happened.

Some people say this was because of bureaucracy. Others say it was because of the front body structure and the lack of safety in the cabin.

But the reality is that the feedback was never retroactively incorporated to the design. None of the technological developments, solutions or designs ever hit the production line.

If nothing else, this case can teach how to chronologically build a product. The fact is, in 1965 user testing wasn’t quite how we would recognize it today.

Most of the fundamentals of the design and engineering was finalized before user testing, leaving little room for solution and resolution. Today, data is gold dust; most products, in fact, aren’t even conceptualized without it.

For this particular project, the key error was designing a product based on pure assumption. Remember that the product should first and foremost have the user in mind — their investment into your product and their opinion of your product should always be more valuable than your assumptions. Period.