What's it like to work at TomTom?
Interviews Emma Tracey
Cees van Dok is Head of UX Design at TomTom, a global leader in navigation and mapping products. Cees is passionate about the possibilities of design and UI. He talks to Honeypot about trends in UI design, his role in TomTom’s navigation UI redesign and the many options available for developers in Amsterdam.
TomTom is a rare example of a consumer brand that has emerged from Europe in the 2000s. What are the ingredients for its success?
The root of TomTom’s success lies with the four founders who started the company 25 years ago. In fact, TomTom is an excellent illustration of how long it takes to become successful as a startup! They are still highly committed to the company.
The product which made us famous about a decade ago is off-the market navigation; that brought map technology, navigation software and hardware thinking together in a single box, which was a very clever play. It required a lot of different skills and it’s the biggest achievement TomTom made.
Combining the technology with a strong sales and marketing attitude, a good knowledge of the European customer and an association with the European automotive industry and you have the ingredients for TomTom’s success.
What impact has TomTom’s success had on startups in the Netherlands?
I think it’s important that companies like TomTom and Phillips, exist in Amsterdam. It provides a good example to Dutch startups of how they could eventually grow. I think it’s very motivating.
The Netherlands is traditionally strong in technology. What is it like for developers working in Amsterdam?
There are many options for developers in Amsterdam. For developers who feel they need to make a career switch to touch more customers with their skills, it’s also great to have a company like TomTom around. If you have the ambition to impact millions of people’s lives, then it’s a good alternative to startups.
For companies, It’s a tough landscape out there to attract and retain web developers and definitely for more specific technologies there is a real scarcity. Getting skilled, affordable talent is hard.
How many software developers and designers work at TomTom?
The design team at TomTom is about 40 people, including product designers, interaction designers, visual designers, user researchers and copywriters. They are largely focused on our consumer product line. Across the company, our engineering group has about 1000 engineers. Those engineers are software, hardware and test engineers.
That is a small group of designers in comparison to engineers. How do the teams interact?
The majority of TomTom software engineers work on low-level platform technology which does not have end user integration or involvement. Our map making requires a lot of engineering, especially around how you take the input from mobile mapping vans into map production. There is a lot of tool development and core technology development that doesn’t require too much – if any - design focus.
Most of our designers work on frontend. Device UI, web sites and apps are covered by a subset of the engineering team and that’s who the designers work closest with. As soon as there is a visible component or as soon as something is communicating with an end customer - UI on watches, apps, end-devices, companion apps - design enters.
How did the emergence of smartphones impact TomTom?
TomTom saw huge growth from 2005 to 2007, but then free maps and free navigation emerged. Maps basically became a free commodity. It was seen as a big threat but if you look at it in hindsight, it’s not either or. Today you see people using navigation on their phone, as built-in or as an after-market device. All of those three products have a lot of relevance.
TomTom is contributing hugely to the development of autonomous driving. What are the technologies behind autonomous driving?
In the automotive space, we are a technology provider. The foundation of automated driving is very precise road condition information and maps are the core asset. We are making true HD maps, with all the lane info, which helps an automated vehicle very precisely position itself on the road network and understand the situation ahead. Our technology brings the surroundings of the road into a 3D model. The mapping vans drive around, create a point cloud of the environment and we distill that point cloud into what we call HD maps and Road DNA. This allows the car to know and understand its surroundings precisely - information like the height of a bridge or the distance to a building.
On top of the HD map and the Road DNA, we build our navigation software, which functions in real time. We build navigation software which helps automated vehicles understand where they are, how they are positioned and where they should go and how they relate to other objects. That’s a core foundation of the industry’s attempt to create automated driving.
Along with Google and HERE, we are one of three players in this field and that’s incredibly exciting. HERE is now owned by a German consortium of car manufacturers, which opens doors for us with non-German carmakers.
You led the redesign of TomTom’s navigation UI. This must have been a huge challenge. What was your process?
The redesign opportunity was one of the reasons why I joined TomTom. From a UI point of view, the product had gone stale a bit. Four or five years ago, our product was very similar to other products in the market, we didn’t have a unique identity or brand. At the same time, we also had a UI made for the navigation boxes. We needed to be able to transfer our UI to any product - to phones, to navigation devices, to cars and to all these frontends which have very different capabilities.
The challenge we faced was to define a user interface which could automatically morph itself to all those different frontends. What you see with responsive design on web today is what we did four or five years ago. We realized we could only move forward when our technology was unified - different products for different markets but all based on a similar flexible core. We wanted to create a UI which was visually more honourable, less cluttered and more recognizable as as TomTom.
A group of four or five designers and me designed the base principles and did a lot of concept development, little prototypes, and designs on paper. We worked with a dedicated group of developers to test our ideas and see what worked and what did not. That then developed into a much bigger project which became the 4th generation of our navigation products. That is still the foundation of the products we ship today.
What is the core of TomTom’s navigation UI?
In the last four years, we added a lot of new features but the base is still the same - a UI that you don’t have to touch while driving. A driving experience changes with context. If you are on the highway you can see far ahead, if you are in the city you get a closer view, if there is traffic you are informed, the whole UI is meant as TV watching, you should not have to take your hands off the steering wheel to get the info you need.
What do you see as the biggest trends in UI currently?
Designers are becoming much more technologically-aware. Customers get accustomed to new tech very quickly. For example in the early days of touchscreen technology, every mechanism had to be advertised. If you wanted to swipe up you needed a little up arrow to indicate what’s possible. But if people pick up a device today they know how to use it. Their behaviours have changed because of knowledge of interactions and expectations. Your customer will try anything with your product and you must be aware of that.
In our discipline, it’s not just about the screen, we have to deal with a very constrained time factor. If you are running you can only look at your watch screen for two tenths of a second, so the information needs to be spot on. I think same in the car. It’s a highly constrained context and that requires a certain mindset and skill.
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