The “Innovationswerk” in Garching near Munich has served the BMW Group for the past five years: A small team of designers, engineers and psychologists conducts research into people's aspirations and preferences, both today and for the future. The aim of it all? To create the ideal customer experience. We talked to the team’s two visionaries, Astrid Thomaser and Knut Mayser, about how this is taking shape.
Astrid, Knut, what does the Innovationswerk do exactly?
Knut Mayser: "Our job is to develop user-centric innovations for predevelopment projects. That might mean in-car innovations – but it could also be new developments outside the vehicle, including digital and other services."
Astrid Thomaser: "We act as an innovation consultancy within the company."
That sounds exciting – so you’re basically the company’s own futurologists. How is your team organised?
Astrid Thomaser: "Our core team has the classic make-up of a design-thinking team. My colleague Claire and I are experts in human-centric innovation with a special focus on the userWe understand how people tick. Marc and Stephan are user-experience-designers and the technology experts. They focus on the technical feasibility of meeting the user needs we have identified. What’s the business context and what would commercial implementation look like? Which processes and milestones do we need to consider? What cultural and organisational obstacles do we have to overcome to meet these needs? That’s what Knut and I do. Our colleague Christina complements the team with many years of market research expertise and knowledge."
What areas are you currently working on?
Knut Mayser: "We just did a project on innovations to enable indulging experiences for our future luxury vehicles."
Astrid Thomaser: "We’re also working on various digitalisation projects and thinking about how people can benefit from digital services in the future."
Those are big issues. How do you go about resolving them?
Knut Mayser: "In a traditional big automotive company, the technology often comes first. At the innovation lab, we approach things the other way round: We try to understand customer needs and define the ideal customer experience. Then we think about which technology we could use to turn that into a product."
Astrid Thomaser: "We always take the outside-in perspective, rather than inside-out. We illustrate a colourful vision and highlight the possibilities for our products. Our mission is to get people excited about the future. We apply design thinking methods, and we are uncompromisingly visual. That means we put all the images and quotes we have gathered in our heads up on the wall, so that we can make topics visible and tangible."
Knut Mayser: "We start out with a number of hypotheses and ask ourselves: Which technologies and inventory of innovations do we have in the pipeline? What does the business case look like? Where can we find inspiration for this topic? Where can we find people who experience a sense of pleasure in a particular way?"
Can you give me an example?
Astrid Thomaser: "From the luxury of doing nothing we went on to the Japanese art of archery, in which the shooters find a special peace, through the theme of meditation. That's why we were seeking a Buddhist Zen archer and visited him at home."
What is there to learn about innovations for more enjoyment in cars from a Japanese archer?
Astrid Thomaser: "We try to recognise patterns in what people perceive as luxury and enjoyment and where they find these things. For example, we called one of these concepts “My Temple”: the contemplative space where you can find peace. Luxury is much more of a sensory perception. We researched fragrance in Paris and visited the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg to learn more about sound. That provided us with the basis for our ideas."
Sounds like a dream job. What skills do I need to work with you?
Astrid Thomaser: "It takes a lot of patience. You have to be able to deal with uncertainties and you definitely have to be tenacious."
What was your most unusual project so far?
Astrid Thomaser: "For a service project, I interviewed a Japanese man who lives with his digital wife. He was fully aware how surreal this is, but the appeal for him was that he can be exactly who he is with this woman. It was a desire for authenticity not possible in the real world."
You work in a whole new world. What can our colleagues learn from you?
Knut Mayser: "Our job is more and more about connecting different disciplines. And the common denominator is the customer. We want to open our colleagues’ minds by thinking the task at hand through from the customer perspective. It’s about replacing the silo mentality with transparency and openness. In the future, we will need even more start-up-thinking, as well as the courage to take more risks."
Astrid Thomaser: "You could call it an “anti-ego approach to innovation”. We need less egoism and we must learn to shape the world of mobility consistently from the perspective of our customers."
Knut Mayser holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering and has a soft spot for cars, design and customers. He has worked at the BMW Group in various functions in vehicle development, product and portfolio strategy, market research and product management for the past 27 years. He has headed the innovation lab since 2016 and is responsible for the business aspects of projects.
Astrid Thomaser holds a degree in Design and has worked at the innovation lab since 2014. She manages strategic innovation projects in particular for the luxury class and digital services. As an expert in customer-centric, agile innovation processes with a focus on user research, her international experience, Dutch design optimism and Californian can-do attitude help her drive cultural change at the BMW Group.