We are living in a time where User Interface/User Experience is affecting every product we touch. Design and experience has never mattered more. Demand for User Experience as a career is increasing and devices continue evolving into something better. However, one arena is having a great deal of trouble pleasing users: automobiles. The current state of in-car UX can only be described as confusing. We have to ask ourselves, if there are more UI/UX designers than ever, how can in-car infotainment be only getting worse? How did automobiles get to this point and why is it where it is?
The in-car user experience has become increasingly complex.
In the days before computers and LCD screens were mainstream, cars had simplistic interiors; their center stack arranged by three areas: radio, climate, and auxiliary vehicle functions (hazard lights, traction control, etc). These three areas controlled only the functions pertaining to that area (for example, you wouldn’t adjust the temperature in the radio section). Digital screens were either non-existent or mediocre at best. The interfaces were simple and intuitive; all functions relied on hard buttons. After computers were introduced, small screens began to be incorporated for functions such as the odometer as well as for the radio screen. As computer technology progressed, so did the in car infotainment.
The pivoting moment came when in 2001 BMW introduced its new iDrive system, based on Microsoft’s Windows CE, which was released in 1996. Once Microsoft had released the technology, the automotive industry took about 5 years to catch up and develop this system. This system moved almost every vehicle function from the center console into a screen controlled by a rotary knob located between the driver and passenger. Soon after, every manufacturer was rushing to debut similar systems, such as Audi MMI and the Mercedes Benz COMAND. Once the iPhone debuted, this furthered the development of systems that replicated Apple’s home screen UI as well as the development of apps. Cadillac goes so far as to boast that its system is just like an iPad. Also the use of touchscreens became much more widespread as Apple made touchscreens incredibly mainstream. One drawback to all these systems is that as much as they follow the technological trends of computers, they are all awful to use.
As bleak as the present is, the future holds some promise. Leaders in mobile technology and user experience have jumped in to fill the void: Apple, Google, and Research in Motion (otherwise known as Blackberry).
Apple recently introduced CarPlay, initially demoed (ironically) on a Ferrari California. CarPlay is the new software Apple has built into iOS 7. When users plug their device into the car they see a car-optimized version of iOS takeover their existing infotainment system. Essentially, your screen went from being Ferrari’s infotainment system, to an iOS in the car. Apple’s solution is promising since it not only it builds upon the software that everyone knows and loves, but also lends Apple’s UX expertise to the space. Although more promising, I don't find this system to be effective because it doesn’t fix any of the issues at hand. The touchscreen will remain unresponsive, the graphics still don't look as good as they do on an iPhone, and the system continues to be immensely distracting. Also, instead of having one great system you have two half baked ones because the manufacturer will be less willing to innovate. If you don’t have an iPhone, you have to go back to lackluster system that Apple intends to replace. I appreciate the work that went into this, but I don’t think this is the right solution; this is merely a coat of paint to a broken idea. What’s needed is a ground up solution.
Google unveiled Android Auto. Similar to other Google projects, this is an open source program that entices developers to jump on board. Google will be taking a two-pronged approach, there will be Android-powered cars, but there will also be enhancements to Android smartphones geared and making them more car-friendly. Multiple carmakers have jumped on board of Google’s project, mostly the same that have adopted Apple Car Play support. I think Google will also run into the same problem Apple has, attempting to fix a broken system.
Research in Motion is the final tech company to try to fix the in car experience. The company has actually created an entire subdivision dedicated to only in car technology, named QNX. Unlike both Apple and Google, they seek to make in car technologies better by building a new system from the group up and incorporating it directly into the car, not requiring you have a Blackberry device for their system to work. Their system has been used in various applications but has not been widely adopted yet. Of all three major companies, I think they most promising product. It’s great in that it doesn’t depend on having an iPhone. However, I once again believe this solution doesn’t fundamentally rethink our approach to the in car experience.
Do a holistic rethink of the in-car experience using a three pronged approach:
1) Screen Consolidation: The greatest example of this is in the 2015 Infiniti Q50, which has 3 different screens, two on the center console and one in the instrument cluster. This redundancy is confusing to many people. I believe that the instrument cluster should be become one big TFT panel that handles the main functions and get rid of the screens on the center console. This may be a little jarring at first, but having the valuable information in the drivers line of sight will not only reduce distraction, but this will also make the placement of the screen much more intuitive. The interface that is there must be incredibly simple, having four tabs along the top: radio/maps/phone/vehicle. I would keep the climate controls on the center stack since those should not be lumped into this system.
2) Heads-Up Display: Just as rear view cameras have become mandatory, I think HUD should be mandatory as well. Projecting essential information (i.e. speed, speed limit, navigation directions, incoming notification display) is not only beneficial to the driver but also decreases the need for drivers to take their eyes off the road. These systems are in use in sports cars already because of their effectiveness and should be implemented in mainstream vehicles.
3) Voice recognition: In the era of Siri and Google Now, I think accurate voice recognition software isn’t hard to implement. Current voice recognition systems are either slow, inaccurate or require you to memorize ridiculous commands. What QNX has done with their system should be a model for the industry. In a demo video, one man says, “play the Beatles” and within seconds a Beatles song is playing. I should be able to give more complex commands such as “it’s cold in here”, and the system turns up the heat. Seamless, intuitive, and natural, the way in car voice control should be.
I created a mock-up of what I believe the instrument cluster should be. For comparison, I included what a gauge cluster looks like today on a 2015 Cadillac CTS. While not unattractive, it's busy and necessary information isn't seen immediately. For my redesign, I stripped away all the unnecessary information. The instrument cluster has just four tabs in the center: radio, maps, phone, and vehicle. These remove all functions from the center console and instead bring them directly in your line of vision. The bottom center houses a notification center which will display warnings or the current music playing. I don't understand why digital gauge clusters still use digital versions of dials- it's a skeuomorphic design that we can do away with. I made the speedometer and rev counter large circles with digital read-outs. The speedometer changes colors depending on speed. When driving below or close to the speed limit, the circle glows green. At, or slightly above, the limit, it glows orange. Way above the limit, it glows red, to quickly signal to drivers that they are exceeding the speed limit.
The mode of input will be a multi-way controller similar to what is currently seen on iDrive, MMI or COMAND as well as steering wheel buttons.
The 2015 Audi TT employs a version of the idea I am envisioning. The center console is devoid of a screen and very progressive. The air vents house a Nest-like climate interface with three different vents: one temperature, one fan speed, and one air direction. Simple, intuitive and elegant. Other necessary vehicle functions remain on the center console, such as hazard lights, traction control, etc.
What Would I do Differently?
For a version 2 of this product I would:
- Change the vehicle settings page because at this point I don't think it looks great.
- Now that I have set a foundation for the new experience, I can expand from there. I will start playing with the idea of apps and how to incorporate that without ruining the core experience.
There are, on average, fifteen million vehicles sold every year. That is fifteen million vehicles with frustrating in car experiences. This industry is begging for improvement, and I believe that consolidating screens, adding HUD and incorporating excellent voice recognition will go a long way towards making the daily livability of vehicles something people enjoy again. Just as software design and user experience has recently come into it’s own, I believe vehicle design will do the same in the near future. Creating a futuristic “wow-factor”, along with a brilliant and intuitive in car experience, will reinvigorate the next generation of vehicle interiors.