Are we there yet? – The road to better UX in the car.

You’re a busy professional with a very critical job. Even a brief distraction could cost lives. So would you rather have a reliable, albeit limited assistant that took no initiative, or a very proactive assistant that regularly made all the wrong assumptions? They insist on screening your calls and then convey incorrect information. They turn up the heat when you’re already warm. They insist on verbal communication even though they barely understand your language.

These are the inadequate choices we’re all presented with when it comes to the user experience of modern cars. As automotive consoles evolve into ‘infotainment systems’, we’ve all felt some of the growing pains. How could UX improve in modern cars and what are the safety implications of the assumptions that are already being made?

How could UX improve in modern cars and what are the safety implications of the assumptions that are already being made?

Ideate on this:

  1. What are the safety concerns of all touch displays in an automotive console?
  2. How close are we to autonomous vehicles?
  3. Are there any parallel experiences we can draw from to improve information architecture in the car?
  4. What is being done already?

Let’s start with the issue of safety.

The integration of electronics in cars has become increasingly complex. In fact, as YouTube Mechanic Scotty Kilmer points out, modern cars have become little more than computers on wheels.

Because of this, consumers have come to expect features that can’t be limited by knobs and buttons. Auto manufacturers are listening and replacing analog controls with dynamic, responsive interfaces in their vehicle consoles. And where do they turn to for design inspiration? In speaking about his vision  for the iPhone, Steve Job’s famously said Apple would, “get rid of all these buttons and replace them with a giant screen.”

Great idea, Steve Jobs! But we have to note that Buick beat him to the punch by 21 years. In 1986, Buick released the reimagined Riviera. Front and center for this redesign was a cathode ray tube, touch-sensitive display in the center console. It was backed by  2 8-bit microprocessors that could support 13,000 words of memory for the graphics.  Users could use the green touch display to control the climate, radio, trip information, and even an animated fan. The Buick Riviera was quite ahead of its time and aside from the 1980s graphics limitations and a loud beeping sound for feedback, the UI is identical to modern solutions.

But even in the 80’s, users had their concerns about a completely touch-based interface in a car. Popular Mechanics reported that Buick “dropped the system in 1990 after owners found it onerous and distracting.”  They noted that the system “violates the First Commandment of ergonomics—you must take your eyes off the road to make any adjustments.”

Today, manufacturers seem to be looking for a “happy medium” between dials for temp/volume/etc and a digital display for other things. But the safety concerns are real. According to a recent study, distracted driving accounted for 424,000 accident-related injuries and some 3,154 fatalities in 2013 alone.  The fact is, the more you look down, the less safe you are.

This leads us to a polarizing topic in the automotive industry.  What if we just relieve the driver of having to look at the road, and put the decision making in the hands of the vehicle itself? Believe it or not, even self-driving cars have been in the works for decades, starting with features like cruise control and anti-lock braking systems. This has slowly been appended by features like lane assistance, automatic braking, and adaptive cruise. Soon, many vehicles will add “level 3” self-driving features, where the vehicle will drive for you on the highway, but you’ll need to take over on side roads. After that, “level 4” vehicles will drive in most conditions, and we’re already seeing concept cars that incorporate “level 5”, where the vehicle doesn’t even have a steering wheel?

The middle ground we find ourselves in today leads to some common UX challenges. How do we communicate to a user that they may need to take action when we inconsistently train them not to? Our vehicles are priming us with audible warnings and visual prompts, but will we simply learn to ignore these?

Levels of self-driving

0: Nothing

1: Driver Assistance – cruise control, ABS

2: Lane assistance, braking, adaptive cruise

3: Drives for you, but might need you take over

4: drives in most conditions

5: No steering wheel

Maybe we need to plan ahead.

In the meantime, we need a way to organize all of the options available to a driver in a way that won’t distract from the critical task at hand. How can we allow them to navigate a GPS, play music and find a comfortable temperature without taking their eyes off the road?

In our personal computing lives, we’ve become increasingly dependant on a search to find what we need and we can see some momentum in personal assistants like Alexa, Google Home, and Siri to use voice-activated control for our IOT devices. Some auto manufacturers have implemented these controls in their vehicles with varying success. For the time being, between screaming kids, road noise and passenger conversation communicating to a car system with voice commands can lead to some frustration.

This elevates the need for good information architecture. Information architecture has a correlation with traditional architecture. A good architect is concerned with the relationship between the intended purpose and activities planned for each room in the house. They want to provide easy access to common features of the structure, while not cluttering the layout with unnecessary or irrelevant elements. Software designers approach UI design in a similar way, nesting different data types in separate ‘rooms’ or menus. So some car designers have simply put the equivalent of a tablet in the center console.

There is a disconnect, however, in the focus of a driver and that of a dedicated user. A better metaphor might be in that of a chef that shouldn’t take his or her eyes off the frying pan. We don’t really want them to have to travel to another ‘room’ to access what they need. We don’t even want them to have to dig thru drawers to find tools or ingredients. Conversely, we wouldn’t want to dump everything they might possibly need on the counter have them dig through it while they’re cooking.

French chefs have an ideology they preach,  “Mise en place” (French pronunciation: ​[mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]), which advocates for having all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, sliced, grated, etc. before you start cooking. Pans are prepared. Mixing bowls, tools, and equipment set out. Cooking shows make dishes seem so easy to produce, but much of this can be attributed to everything being in its place.

Is there room for car designers to employ “Mise en place” in the UX of automobiles? Many of us  are already being trained to check traffic conditions for our route before we even get into the car so that we leave on  time. We may also already be using our mobile devices for music and  entertainment. If the same mobile device were better integrated with the vehicle’s system, we could reduce the need to interact with a new system after we’ve pulled out of the driveway. We might then leave climate controls to be controlled by dedicated physical knobs that are consistently positioned and provide tactile cues so that the user doesn’t have to look down.  It would be great to have Tony Fadell (iPod, Nest) take a pass at some intuitive dial integration.

In the not so distant future, autonomous vehicles may alleviate many of these concerns. Without the need to navigate, GPS UI will no longer be a concern. Perhaps biometrics in wearables will communicate with temperatures to automatically make the cabin comfortable without the need for explicit controls.  And without the need to keep your eyes on the road, the entertainment aspect of the automobile will without a doubt go thru a complete overhaul to include much more than audio. Who knows, maybe podcasts will be a thing of the past!

Who have some ideas?

As we saw Kylo Ren navigate his own vehicle in the first trailer for The Last Jedi, we heard him say, “Let the past die, kill it if you have to.”

Poorly designed interfaces come from a desire to hold on to the past analog versions of meters and readouts in older cars, where users needed to be more aware of RPM, engine temperature, etc. etc. Basically a skeuomorph of the original.

Skeuomorphic designs tend to alienate users when done without understanding the principles behind it. From Wikipedia:

“A skeuomorph (/ˈskjuːəˌmɔːrf, ˈskjuːoʊ-/) is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues (attributes) from structures that are inherent to the original. Examples include pottery embellished with imitation rivets reminiscent of similar pots made of metal and a software calendar that imitates the appearance of binding on a paper desk calendar.

The idea is that using representations of the old you can help users to understand the underlying inner workings. A metaphor if you will. The problem with it in cars these days is that most drivers have never even seen the original object they are trying to reference. As a user, you need a history lesson just to understand the interface. iOS infamously took this  a bit too far in some interfaces, my favorite one to hate was the reel to reel tape in the podcasts app pre-iOS 7

USTWO
In an article about rethinking the in-car UI, USTWO (the makers of the amazing game Monument Valley, and an incredible design firm), wrote of this and more as a starting point for their rethink of an in-car user experience, which they went so far, not only to create a prototype, but also to release a Github repo for the automaking community to do with it what they want; unfortunately not much.

Matthaeus Krenn
Another interesting exploration is from a designer named Matthaeus Krenn. In his video, he outlines a multi-touch interface that, based on how many fingers you use to touch the screen to control different functions. A swipe up and down of 2 fingers for volume, 3 for audio source, 4 for temperature, 5 for air flow. I love this ideation for the complete rethink and going all in in one direction. I think in practice it would prove to be difficult to use for the less tech-savvy and in general just lacks basic affordance of what is possible. Difficult to learn, but once you get it, you could fly through your controls.

It’s great that there are some ideas out there to build off of. Certainly, these ideas and others not mentioned must be helping the industry to move forward right? RIGHT!? 😕

Ustwo’s repo on Github has been available for over 2 years and we can find no evidence that anyone has adopted it in a production vehicle.

Matthaeus Krenn, who works at Apple now, has long been rumored to be working on their automotive vision. His Twitter bio states, “Designing experimental interfaces and products at Apple. Choice tweets about design, tech, fashion, Lucky Charms.”

We (The Smyth Group) would love to help.

Surely the first step in fixing a problem is realizing that there is a problem to fix. Even when the work has been done for them no one from the existing big auto manufacturers seems willing to adopt it. There is no question these companies need help, they just need to admit it to themselves. Better designs are out there.

What we’d like to see:

  1. Embrace the devices we already carry in our pocket and create an infrastructure for these screens we update regularly to seemlessly integrate with the car for navigation and audio.
  2. Keep up the good work toward autonomous vehicles. Let’s get to level 5!
  3. In the meantime, stop making poor assumptions about our needs. Let’s ‘mise en place’ our automotive features so we can keep drivers comfortable and safe.

Hiromi loves creative challenges — anything that involves beautifying, building, making, solving or overcoming obstacles. He's toured in a band, done art installations, produced short films and facilitated maker events. Hiromi currently lives and works in Sacramento, CA with his wife and English Bulldog.

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