TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Crystal Rutland and Gregg Sloan, co-founders of Empirical, sit in the office of the business at the East Bank Commerce Center.When dozens of electric vehicle advocates gathered in Portland last week, only a handful were from Oregon.

And only one expert was not obsessed with overcoming the challenges of high prices, limited driving ranges, long recharging times and limited public charging stations in order to increase EV sales.

Crystal Rutland thinks all those problems will soon be solved as EV technologies move forward. Instead, she is focused on how owners feel about their vehicles.

“People who buy EVs are into technology. They want their EV to behave like an iPhone. They want a ‘wow’ experience. If manufacturers can do that, they’ll transform the industry,” said Rutland, who appeared on a panel at the Eighth Annual EV Roadmap conference last Wednesday.

The panel, titled Electric — and Connected, included four other experts. One, Chris Gearhart of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, urged those attending the conference to take Rutland seriously.

“What she’s saying is absolutely critical. The technological part is easy. It’s the human part that’s hard,” said Gearhart, whose lab is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Rutland is co-founder and CEO of Empirical, a Portland company that studies and advices on how consumers experience products. The “user experience” field of research — or UX, as it is known in the business — is rapidly becoming essential for high tech and other companies to market their products to increasingly sophisticated consumers. Emperical has benefited from the growing interest. Since Rutland and co-founder Greg Sloan opened their doors in 2008, their company has enjoyed double and even triple growth every year.

Empirical conducts its research by interviewing consumers and watching them use products in their everyday lives. Over the past seven years, Rutledge, Sloan and their employees have studied thousands of consumers interact with a wide range of products, most notably mobile consumer electronics. Some of their major clients include Intel, HP and Nike.

The company has also attracted automakers as clients, including Chrysler, Toyota and Jaguar Land Rover, which is why Rutland was invited to speak at the conference. Her insights apply to the design and marketing of all vehicles, however, not just EVs.

COURTESY: EV ROADMAP 8/HALEY WUNDERLICH - Oregon Gov. Kate Brown addressed participants at the EV Roadmap 8 conference in Portland last week. “Cars are becoming consumer electronics products these days, so manufactures must learn how to design and sell them as such. And they need to be easy to use and work right. Users won’t put up with a bad consumer electronics experience in their car,” says Rutland.

In the popular media, the concept of wanting a good consumer experience is most often applied to millennials, usually described as those born between the year of 1981 and 1997. It is commonly thought that millennials are more demanding than older generations about the products their buy, in large part because they grew up with increasingly sophisticated mobile consumer electronics. But Rutland says that assumption is wrong.

“Older people are using mobile consumer electronics, too. The iPad is very popular among seniors. And everyone wants to have a positive user experience,” says Rutland.

Embodiment of Portland values

The growing demand for Empirical’s services would seem to bear that out. The company started with two and a half people, including Rutledge and Sloan, in a small office on the first floor of the Eastbank Conference Center in the Central Eastside Industrial District. It has since moved to spacious quarters on the fourth floor. The 21 full-time employees and numerous regular contractors now work in a contemporary office with an open floor plan and large windows.

Rutland says she and Sloan intentionally chose an inner eastside location because the area embodies Portland’s sustainable, do-it-yourself values. The Eastbank Commerce Center is a 1923 furniture warehouse that was purchased and renovated into creative office spaces by Beam Development, the city’s leading reuse construction company.

“We wanted to be part of the redevelopment of the inner eastside that we saw was coming,” says Rutland.

Rutland and Sloan were not sure their company would be so successful. Both had previously worked in the user experience field, Rutledge at Xerox PARC and Sloan at the Architecture and Allied Arts School at the University of Oregon. But they got together and opened the doors of their new business at the beginning of the Great Recession, when sales of just about everything plummeted.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘What have we done?’” Rutland remembers.

But as it turned out, many of those companies that weathered the economic downtown the best were looking ahead and working to make their products more competitive. For them, understanding how to improve not just the function but use of their products became a high priority. And because even the most successful companies don’t usually have in-house UX Departments, contacting with firms like Emperical makes good business sense.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Electric vehicles at Drive Revolution include the Toyota Maria fuel cell car (left) and the BMW i8 hybrid super car.

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