Illustration by Serge Bloch
It’s an unseasonably cold day at General Motors Co.’s Technical Center in suburban Detroit, but Cody Hansen and I are cozy warm inside a ­Cadillac SRX as he runs through the electronics on the touch screen.

Interface with iPod? Check. Hands-free calling? Gotta have it. Proximity sensing? Hmm, I don’t have that. Haptic feedback? What’s that? A GPS that knows to shut up when you and the hubby are talking? That would be handy. A GPS that knows I’m driving in my neighborhood and won’t annoy me with directions until I need them? Nice. As Cody flips through functions on the eight-inch LCD screen, I realize I have car lust.

Cody’s a farm kid from South Dakota who is living his dream working for GM as an “interaction designer” — an expert in human-machine interface (HMI). At the ripe old age of 29, he has two U.S. patents to his name and six pending, including several for that smarter GPS of the future.

His team designed the Cadillac’s CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment system, which operates more like an iPad than a traditional dashboard. It comes to life as your hand nears it (thanks to proximity sensing), thumps reassuringly­ when you press a command (haptic feedback) and remembers your favorites (not just radio stations but addresses, phone numbers and apps). You can swipe and pinch just like an iPad too. Another bonus: It recognizes your natural speaking voice; even a Valley Girl accent or a Texas twang.

These systems are all the industry rage now, but what makes Cody’s approach unique is how the GM team got to this point. Designing CUE took four years of customer interviews and research — using a process called “contextual inquiry” — and a room with 2,500 Post-it Notes on the wall.

Starting in 2008, Cody’s team rode around with 30 customers as they commuted, ran errands, worked and played. (Literally. They went on vacation trips with some people.) Webcam on his shirt, Cody recorded it all, noting the issues that frustrated or annoyed drivers.

Cody’s first ride was with a Boston mom who worked — well, really lived — in her car. His team made a model of what she did, step by step: getting in the car, dropping her purse in the back, starting the car, entering destination info into her GPS — even noting when she made mistakes entering addresses. It was an eye-opener.

“Wow, they had to go through that many steps just to put in an address?” Cody says. “That’s crazy.”

Worse (but no surprise), driving seemed secondary to all the other things people were doing in their cars: talking on cellphones, texting, ­getting navigation instructions, finding radio stations, getting traffic info and adjusting devices they had plugged into the car.

“You’d see all the issues people had and wonder why they weren’t getting into wrecks all the time,” he says.

Growing up in Chester (down the road from South Dakota’s famous Corn Palace), Cody says he always knew he would end up at GM designing “the cool stuff” in cars: the electronics. He showed a knack with computers early on. As a kid, he would play with his dad’s Compaq computer, inevitably breaking it and having to fix it. By fifth grade, he was the “computer guy.” By high school, he was running a business in computer repair and discovering a passion for cars — GM cars.

“One of my earliest memories is plugging into the belt buckle, and it had a GM logo on it — branded in my brain,” he says, tapping his head. His first car was a GM Pontiac Sunfire compact. Its main attraction? The word Pontiac lit up at night on the deck lid of the trunk.

At Northwestern University, Cody interned for Northrop Grumman, but he had an eye on his real goal: GM. He badgered Northwestern alumni until he found one at GM who got him in the door.

First, he worked on Chevy Camaros, designing the company’s first audio-infotainment-control system using Bluetooth wireless technology and USB connectivity. After less than a year on the job, he was picked for the CUE team.

In a basement at the Technical Center, Cody’s team set up shop, covering the walls with white butcher paper. Using the customer interviews, the team created a diagram highlighting every problem area they had seen on every control panel. Each problem, in turn, was printed on a yellow Post-it Note and tacked to the wall — 250 square feet of problems on 2,500 yellow sticky notes.

The Cadillac engineers would walk the walls silently, scribbling solutions on more sticky notes. By the time they finished, says Cody, they had 180 design ideas and a crazy quilt of notes in four colors. Then the fun part — the visioning — began.

“We started to create a vision, designing the perfect world for a specific person in a car,” he says.

This spring, design work by Cody’s team started­ popping up in the 2014 Chevy Impalas, Corvettes and Silverados. One of the breakthroughs was realizing that the navigation systems of the future need to be more adaptive (going silent when you are driving near home, for instance). How soon will we see that? Cody’s not saying. Right now, his team is working on designs for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 cars — no doubt with more yellow Post-its.