Five questions put to Dr Götz Renner, Head of the Customer Research Center: “Interplay of the senses”

Jul 29, 2011
How comfortable we feel in a car certainly depends on more than what we see. How important are the other human senses? Is one more important than the other?
In addition to our visual perception, our haptic, acoustic and olfactory experiences play a key role when we are in our vehicles. There is no clear order of priority; rather, the interplay between the different senses is important. For example, a material that looks like leather also has to feel like leather. A massive control element made of metal should make a different noise than a delicate control element made of plastic when it is being operated.
Our overall impression of a vehicle is also heavily influenced by the order in which particular sensory perceptions are received. A solid sound when closing the door, for example, strongly influences the subsequent psychological processing of the vehicle interior. Visual impressions are also available from an early stage, which leads to a first judgement. However, this is gradually added to and modified by additional stimuli, for example haptic stimuli provided by the various control elements, vibrations and noises when driving etc.
What are the criteria according to which interiors are perceived to be high-quality? Can they be measured?
Quality can be imagined as a hierarchy of different assessment criteria. At the bottom we have functionality and qualitative aspects such as longevity or stability, for example. If these requirements are met, attention turns to ergonomic aspects such as the intuitive operation of the individual systems and instruments. At the top of the hierarchy are aspects of perceived quality such as image or the haptic qualities of the materials.
The various levels of quality are measured in experimental studies that link physical attributes to the subjective enjoyment judgements of customers. For example, it is possible to determine what force/motion pattern when operating a switch or what surface qualities of a flat material (e.g. the dashboard) are judged to be high-quality.
There must be differences in judgement based on personal preferences and experiences? What about age and gender?
Age and gender are characteristics that are often recorded in customer studies, and are certainly significant to some extent. However, in many areas it is apparent that they are not sufficient to explain the differences in the way that people perceive a vehicle. Certain values as well as general lifestyle often play a more important role. Age is often related to a certain stage of life which can lead to certain requirements and corresponding preferences. However, these are more important than the person's actual age. A young family, for example, will usually have different requirements for a vehicle than single people of the same age.
However, many aspects of the assessment of a vehicle are also very strongly shaped by individual preferences and experiences. This is why the issue of personalisation is so important with regard to vehicles.
How important is brand image in this context?
A “brand” constitutes a promise to the customer regarding the quality and attributes of a product. The customer therefore also has very specific expectations of a brand. Brands are important to the customer in order to find their way through a complex world. They help reduce the complexity and uncertainty associated with purchasing decisions. This is why the expectations of a brand also play a key role in how an interior is perceived. The challenge for Mercedes-Benz is to exceed customers’ expectations and pleasantly surprise them. If expectations are not met then customers are disappointed. This is why we at the Customer Research Center aim to analyse the needs of our customers and incorporate them into the development process at an early stage.
What influence does the media have on how an interior is perceived?
The media is an important source of information for our customers. It helps customers compare vehicles and access expert assessments. It therefore helps customers reduce complexity and uncertainty, and make a purchasing decision. Above all, the media is useful for assessing the objective qualities of interiors such as fittings, ergonomics and operation. The media is of less help with subjective assessments. After all, the decision regarding whether they like an interior is the customer's alone.