As a financially irresponsible American, I’ve purchased my share of new cars in the past few years. Each year auto makers lure us in with better performance, more comfortable interiors and sleeker body styles. Which leads many of us to wonder why with all this advancement even luxury vehicles ship with digital consoles that look like websites from the 1990’s.
One driving force for this might be that cars are differentiated by their features. Salesmen are quick to point out everything from usb ports to cupholders as soon as you walk on the lot. So in an effort to make a car appear feature rich, designers may be cluttering the UI with everything up front. Of course as a user this approach presents safety concerns when you need to find a control in a sea of beveled buttons and text as you drive thru traffic.
The bar for console interface design is unfortunately low.
To solve this problem some automakers disable certain controls while the car is in motion. This is of course particularly frustrating to the passenger that just wants to adjust something for the driver. Cars themselves are potentially dangerous. But the solution is not to restrict users from using them. We craft the vehicle and the environment (roads, laws.. etc) to make safe driving intuitive. We need to embrace this same ideal in the console UI.
These interfaces are unlikeable because they’ve born from the needs of the manufacturer, not the needs of the user. Perhaps that’s why user focused companies like Google and Apple have entered the space. There are billions of consumers that would love the attention to UX that they’ve come to expect from their mobile device. We have the talent and the technology to do much better. Matthaeus Krenn made a fantastic prototype last year based on multi-touch gestures and I’d like to piggy-back on his concept:
What if you could just drag up or down anywhere near the left edge of the screen without looking away from the road?
1) Simplify Views
We need to get away from the misconception that complexity communicates value. Car drivers are not all tech savvy engineers. Modern consumers can perceive the value and elegance of simplicity and we need to dignify them by acknowledging that in our design of the automotive UI.
2) Embrace Context
To accomplish simplicity we need to determine what information is relevant to the task at hand. When I’m driving along, do I really need to know what the cabin temperature is? I’m either hot, cold, or not thinking about it. No one needs the temperature displayed for them to determine whether or not an adjustment needs to be made. The same could be said for 90% of the noise on a typical console. Let’s put some thought into this.
3) Employ Gestures
I wish Matthaus had designed the UI in the car I bought this year. That said, my amputee father (and 50,000 other Americans) wouldn’d be able to use an interface that relied on 5 finger gestures. What I’d like to suggest with these quick mockups is that we relegate tap targets on the edges of the display for certain functions. Press and drag anywhere near the right, and you adjust audio volume. Anywhere from the left, and you adjust temperature. The edges of the display could provide enough context for the driver to not need to look down. Users are also familiar enough with swipe controls for us to be able to rely on dedicated views for disparate tasks. Swipe to the left, audio. Swipe to the right, navigation. I would imagine that more consumers are confused that their cars don’t employ these conventions.
I’m sure automakers have unique challenges when it comes to UI design. Laws, cultures and economics all play their part. But in case anyone is listening, I wanted you to know that our team of designers and developers live on these challenges and we’d ready to help you build your frontier.