Alto Design Is Full of Ideas

Marc-André Coutu is one of three associates at Alto Design, a product design firm based in Montreal. He is vice president of operations and handles business development for the transportation sector.

by Atelier 10
Alto Design Is Full of Ideas

Tell us a little about your company and the services it offers.

At Alto Design, we work closely with clients from all business sectors to create exceptional products and experiences.

Our multidisciplinary team starts by mapping the customer journey, recreating the customer’s reality to successfully envision and understand user needs and unlock new opportunities. With our wide‑ranging expertise, we’re able to take into account everything from the manufacturing process to the esthetics and functionality of a product or service.

In the transport sector, whether for smart mobility or electric vehicles, we mainly focus on interior and exterior body design. We also work in collaboration with our transport partners on peripheral devices and equipment to give the systems a cohesive look and feel.

What kinds of qualifications does it take to design things that don’t exist yet?

That’s a good question! I would say it takes a multidisciplinary team and an excellent methodology. To put yourself in the position of current and future users, you need to weave together a number of different elements. Our team is made up of mechanical engineers, technicians, UX experts, graphic designers, industrial designers, model makers, and more. We have to be able to anticipate what Anne‑Marie, our fictional accountant who lives in Boucherville and works in downtown Montreal, will need for her smart transit 20 years from now. To look into the future with that degree of precision, you need expertise in a number of different fields and a lot of imagination.

Why does design matter when it comes to electric and smart vehicles?

Design can be the difference between a user experience that’s enjoyable and one that isn’t. And that can determine whether a new product or service gets adopted. Vehicle manufacturers have very precise criteria for defining the performance of the chassis and the supporting technology. As designers, it’s up to us to worry about the rest.

A bus doesn’t have the same function as a shuttle, a car-sharing vehicle, or a personal vehicle. The user experience is vastly different from one mode of transportation to the next. Interior design needs to account for a host of specifics and also ensure that each design element contributes to the essential function of that mode of transportation.

And our role extends much further. In addition to ideating the customer’s experience in the vehicle, we also have to think about—and this is extremely important—urban design. For example, we have to select good charging stations, determine how best to integrate them, and make sure they’re optimally located; we have to figure out how to adapt municipal infrastructure like parking lots; and much more. Making the right changes in the smartest way possible means working in collaboration with all stakeholders.

In terms of smart and electric vehicles, what major design challenges have yet to be tackled?

Smart mobility involves the use of big data and artificial intelligence by traffic management software and onboard systems. That technology, in all its complexity, needs to remain transparent for the user. So we’re working very hard to make sure that the user‑facing products and interfaces we design are clear and straightforward.

Hopefully, we’ll be seeing widespread use of smart vehicles in public transit. So we need to think about how all the “Anne‑Maries of Boucherville” will use those services to get around. Chances are we’ll need to ensure that people can work while they’re in transit, for example.

For transport electrification, it’s always a question of getting governments on board and firmly committed. Without their active involvement things move a lot more slowly!

What are your priorities for the coming years?

First, we’re going to need to build cohesion between all the different elements involved in the smart and electric transportation ecosystem, whether it’s physical products or interface software. The user experience needs to be positive, enjoyable, and intuitive. People will always gravitate towards the easiest means of transportation. If we want public transit to become the norm, we have to remove any and all barriers to adoption. It depends on numerous factors: elegant, functional products and services; appropriate infrastructure; an efficient, reliable mobile app, etc.

We’re also going to need to look at the infrastructure necessary to support a growing fleet of smart and electric vehicles, be it municipal or other. And maximizing our use of space, products, and services will be essential if these vehicles are to outstrip traditional vehicles in their appeal.

Lastly, in developing the products and services used in smart and electric mobility, we’ll need to continue to maximize our use of innovative tools and industrial design.

In the coming decades, the way we conceive of vehicles will need to change. When you think about it, it’s pretty ridiculous that we have all these cars parked all day while we’re busy elsewhere. Still today, vehicles are seen as personal property and are often a measure of someone’s success. In twenty years, they’ll need to be seen as public property. So we’ve got our work cut out for us!