Ever since the late 1800s cars have moved us. Some people value speed over safety, others value aesthetics over practicality. For some, the most emotional characteristic might even be the interior scent. A car’s user experience (UX) is a multi-sensory experience which can’t be reduced to a single screen or device.

Even though we as humans constantly perceive the world with all our senses, car user interfaces (UI) remain primarily unimodal. Multimodal, or multi-sensory interfaces including auditory and haptic interaction are only slowly gaining popularity, despite their promising effects on usability. The auto industry has always been relatively good at addressing the visceral and reflective levels of emotional design, but the behavioural level has long suffered. Most UIs are designed to look pleasant rather than to work well with users.

Due to the complexity of cars as a product, development processes are slow and lifecycles are long. A car is expected to live longer than a simple consumer device, and must be able to endure harsh climates. Components that meet these requirements are expensive and the supply chain is intricate. The industry is slowly shifting toward modularity and agility, and away from excessive bureaucracy — it is starting to work proactively rather than reactively. In this shift, it’s crucial to understand that UX needs to be driven by a strategic perspective, and not only by day-to-day industrialisation sprints or technology itself.

Technological innovation has brought us new features, which at first led to complicated interfaces with a plethora of buttons and knobs on the dashboard. In life, we often cherish simplicity, yet these UIs seem to promote the opposite. As a reaction to the early 2000s button-fest, digital touch screens have started to invade cockpits. Although these dynamic interfaces allow for even more functionality within the same physical space, they also suffer from spatial inconsistency, deeply hierarchical information structures, and most prominently, a lack of proper haptic feedback.

BMW Z9 Concept — and the first iteration of iDrive — itself a reaction against button-festooned interiors.

Most brands — such as Ford (above) implemented touchscreens.

These screens mimic interfaces that we’ve grown accustomed to through our everyday smartphones. However, a common malpractice within the industry is to merely copy design patterns and best practices, without adapting them to the context. Familiarity and recognition is good for usability, but the in-vehicle context is fundamentally different. A driver cannot divert an unlimited amount of attention toward attention-seeking UIs without suffering from visual/manual distraction — often resulting in unsafe traffic situations.

Up to 95% of road accidents are blamed on human beings. The statistic however fails to explain the root cause of the problem, which often has to do with mismatched design. After all, interactions are team efforts between systems and users. Even though some automakers are getting better at preventing distraction by designing interfaces that require shorter and fewer glances, the cognitive aspect is often neglected. Tasks and interfaces frequently require a vast amount of cognitive load, as is the case with many poorly performing voice user interfaces.

Moving forward, designers have a responsibility to design for safe yet exciting experiences, supporting users in their daily encounters. Whether we’re designing extravagant mid-air gestural holographic interfaces or subtle conversational interfaces, the work needs to be based on user value, by applying user-centered design. User research allows us to provide meaningful services rather than suffocating users with all the latest technological innovations.

Constraints, cultures, and user groups need to be understood, through ethnographic studies and qualitative research, in order to solve real problems. And iterative user testing with prototypes of varying fidelity will help focus on solutions that actually generate profit, in contrast to many of today’s features, that remain unused and unappreciated.

Connectivity allows the car to fill a new role in our lives. What we ultimately seek is a seamless experience from our first sip of coffee in the morning to the last kiss good night in the evening. The car is not the primary enabler, nor is any other device. It is all about the seamless experience, not the hardware.


Automated vehicles will allow us to design for new use cases — Audi Aicon concept, above

Automated vehicles will allow us to design for new use cases and eventually introduce new user groups, in a distant future possibly even kids. Behavioural patterns will shift, and our design choices will play a huge role in that transformation. In our quest to create a safer driving experience, we need to be aware of the following paradox: drivers who feel safe are more likely to allow themselves to be distracted by tasks other than driving. Ironically, a car communicating less road confidence and more danger could possibly make the ride safer.

Roller coasters are, for instance, designed to feel exciting and dangerous, even though they statistically are considerably safer than road vehicles. We can use the same lesson to trigger certain behaviour and expectations, but we also need to be careful doing so. What comes to mind when you hear the term “autopilot”? What expectations do you have on a car with such a feature, and what is your mental model of the capacity of such a car? Our design choices need to be carefully considered from a safety perspective.

With power comes responsibility. We shall not forget about basic principles of situational awareness and users’ mental models. We need to design for trust and avoid mode confusion, as we must understand the effects of under-stimulation and lack of vigilance over time, due to boredom or redirected attention.

Riding a horse — an ecosystem between rider and animal. Parallels to our world?

Riding a horse is a teamwork between the horse and the rider. Horses quickly pick up the routine, and once they have, everything runs smoothly due to adaptation and anticipation. An ecosystem, in which the automated car is an integral part, can easily provide the same feeling. By showing its intentions and current confidence levels, the car provides a blanket of trust for the user. This intuitive kind of teamwork is what we need to achieve in order to succeed.

We know from other highly automated areas, such as nuclear power plants, aviation, and astronautics, that the human being will for a long time to come, remain a crucial part in driving, as we slowly move up the automation ladder. In a future dominated by UX factors other than speed and power, perhaps this kind of adaptation and seamlessness will serve as the new meaning of horsepower.

by J Nilsson — A European Automotive Interaction Designer making intelligent cars safe, usable and enjoyable; self-driving or not. Follow him on twitter here

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