My Car Match Helps You Find Your Auto Mate
A Few Keystrokes Reveal the Cars You Really Want
Most of us have a car-savvy friend we consult when we're searching for a new set of wheels. But suppose you also had a friend with an infallible memory who could weigh and compare vehicle features and even reveal to you what you subconsciously want from a car. Not only that, but this friend would also be up to date on all of the 3,000 cars for sale in the ever-changing market.
Car shoppers can find that friend in My Car Match, a new car-compatibility tool on Edmunds.com. The free tool isn't trying to one-up your car guy friends. And there's definitely still room for one-to-one human input when it comes to picking a car. But My Car Match is based on data and science, not just one person's knowledge and a pinch of instinct. Consumers who use it might be quite surprised by what they learn about cars — and about their automotive preferences.
My Car Match is easy to use and only takes about five minutes to complete. Against a background of an open road and a blue sky, the opening screens ask you to choose a vehicle size (Two people? More than four? Six plus?), how much stuff you need to carry, vehicle type (such as sedan, wagon or SUV) and price ranges. The next screens show you photos of actual cars and ask you to pick one from each set of three (even if you don't like any of them).
You're also presented with a breakdown of features for each car pictured, such as the number of seats, its fuel economy and its level of sportiness, luxury, technology and performance. On a results page, My Car Match presents you with a list of about 10 cars and the percentage of match to your preferences, along with a graph that indicates the criteria used to select the cars for you. You can easily filter the results and change the price range to vary the results.
An Informal Test-Drive
I tried the tool several times and also recruited friends and family to use it. I found that people often had two kinds of experiences: For some users, the car that My Car Match presented as the top choice was exactly the one they'd been considering. This was a comforting validation of their choice.
For others, My Car Match reminded them of cars or brands they'd forgotten about or overlooked in their shopping. The results provoked a nice "Oh yeah" moment. It's like hearing news about a long-lost friend. Still others learned about cars previously unknown to them.
Not everyone loved the tool, however. It confused and annoyed one user, who seemed to resent a computer program trying to figure her out. A few users said they wanted more explanation surrounding the tool's prompts. And it seemed as if some users didn't take the tool very seriously, regarding it as a gimmick rather than a car-shopper's resource.
Two Years in the Making
UCLA marketing researcher Ely Dahan and a team of designers and programmers at Edmunds spent more than two years developing My Car Match. Behind its unassuming façade is a mountain of data that the Edmunds data team updates frequently. Dahan says that My Car Match helps people overcome "the paradox of choice."
"If you give people too many choices, they can't make any choices," he says. The tool helps people narrow the choices without making the selected list of vehicles too restrictive.
I've seen the paradox of choice in action, through a friend with a bad case of paralysis of analysis. He carried around a clipboard and folder stuffed with car reviews, specs, prices and spreadsheets. Six months after his car search began, the folder was thicker but he was no closer to a decision. After another six months, my friend seemed to be losing ground. He'd added more cars, further clouding his decision. At last report, he still hadn't chosen a car.
Dahan says the car shopper who insists on comparing vehicle specs can easily get bogged down and off track. My Car Match takes a different approach, gathering up all those specs, plus sales information, consumer reviews and other criteria and metaphorically putting them into a single shopping cart. Then, that shopping cart can be compared to other shopping carts, rather than comparing individual specs inside the cart. "Then you are looking at the whole car versus another whole car," he says.
What Goes on Behind the Scenes
A breakthrough in the development of My Car Match came with the decision to display actual vehicle photographs, rather than cartoon representations of cars with various features, says Rob Hardy, one of the developers of My Car Match and Edmunds' product manager of consumer preferences. Dahan was Hardy's mentor while Hardy was getting a master's degree at MIT. In testing, the photos seemed to tap an emotional response with users.
"We can't quantify what people are doing in their heads when they see those pictures," Hardy says. But he believes that by including photographs, the tool can "explicitly show you what you might subconsciously be thinking about as you look at cars."
Dahan says that the list of matched cars represents a nearly even split between the rational and emotional sides of someone's mind. "A good 45 percent of the decision comes from very subjective, emotional-type criteria — things like how you feel about the brand, the body shape and whether you or others perceive it as sporty or luxurious," he says. The other 55 percent is made up of objective factors, including the importance a buyer attaches to a car's body type, roominess, price, fuel economy and warranty.
The team took specs from more than 3,000 cars of varying makes, models and trim levels and from them created 285 different data points, says Mike Woods, another developer of the tool and Edmunds' director of mobile Web products. From these data points, the team formed 24 different "dimensional spaces" surrounding preferences such as luxury, technology or body type. As users make choices in My Car Match, they are moved around in the virtual space among these different clusters of cars.
In addition to car specs, the tool's matching process uses "crowd sourcing," including car-preference information gleaned from the tens of thousands of consumers who have rated cars on Edmunds.com. It also brings in automobile sales data, another indicator of consumer preferences. The designers decided to keep the user interface very simple, to "cloak the crazy complexity under the surface," Woods says.
Hardy says the team tested My Car Match extensively, which gave him a chance to watch many different users interacting with the tool. People come with their own set of assumptions about cars and features and perhaps about the tool itself, but he recommends: "Don't think too much about your answers. Just go with it."
Using My Car Match
After spending years advising people on what cars to consider as they shop, it seems to us that My Car Match is an excellent resource for the shopper who has no idea of where to begin. For someone who's already made a choice, it's a way to validate the decision. It's also a portal into Edmunds reviews and data.
If you're curious about trying out My Car Match, here are tips from the designers and from our own experiences both as users and as people who watched friends and family put it through its paces.
- Use the tool twice. The first time, do it quickly. The second time through, consider the ratings under each vehicle photo for fuel efficiency, warranty, luxury, acceleration, sportiness and technology.
- Make your choices instinctively, especially when you're just looking at the photos. A 21-year-old finished the survey in two minutes, saying, "I just looked at the photos and thought, 'Yeah, that looks cool.'" He said the final result was a car he would be interested in buying. It was a model he hadn't ever heard of.
- Use the filtering features on the results page, particularly the slider that fine-tunes the price range. You can also eliminate brands, a feature that's helpful to dyed-in-the-wool Ford or Chevy fans, for example.
- Check the graphs at the top of the tool's results page. They show your preferences for such things as luxury, fuel economy and technology. If you think the proportions shown don't represent what you want in a vehicle, reset My Car Match and try again.
- Don't resent My Car Match for trying to figure you out. It's not telling you what it wants. It's giving you matches based on your preferences. You are still in control.
- Check the boxes to the left of the recommended cars on the results page to compare up to four vehicles at a time. From there, you can go deeper into the reviews and specs if you want.
- Once you settle on a number of interesting vehicle candidates, narrow the list to three choices and test-drive them back-to-back. This will help you make your final choice.
In a rapidly changing automotive market that adds more car choices every year, My Car Match is a resource that can help you make the perfect car choice.