The future of automobile UX, bright or bleak?
Last week brought the close of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It has traditionally been the largest and most well respected of the big auto shows, although some might argue that it is in decline. I’ve always been attracted to auto shows because they, much like fashion shows, are a venue for forecasting the automobile trends that we will see in production in the coming years.
Often we see wild and fanciful concept cars that have little or no resemblance to their production offspring, but that’s OK. Those concept cars give designers a chance to dream, play and stretch their legs so to speak. And if you pay attention, you will see many of the design and innovation traits that they display reflected in the production cars that follow.
What struck me while reading reports coming out of this year’s show was that there were as many comments about what’s inside the cars, as there were about their outsides… their overall looks. When I say inside the cars, I don’t mean the engines, but the features, the infotainment systems, and the technology.
More and more the interaction design, hedonic, and interior aesthetics are seen as important factors in determining the appeal of a car. I see this as both a good and a bad thing.
The next-generation, Porsche Panamera, has done away with many of the physical buttons and knobs that control infotainment, climate control etc. and replaced them with smooth capacitive touch controls. While this gives the interior of the car a sleek and futuristic look, it also presents certain dangers for the driver.
We see this trend also reflected in the Bentley, and the Audi concepts, and in some lower end cars such as the Kia.
The design trend with automotive interiors is heavily skewed towards technology-focused hedonics. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, as the root of the word might suggest, hedonic means a focus on pleasure, or a pleasant state of mind. The danger I see is this focus on what is visually appealing will most likely impact usability, affordance and ultimately safety.
Touchscreens in cars are already common and if the concepts that we are seeing are any indication of what’s to come, they won’t be going away any time soon. However replacing all physical knobs and buttons means that the driver can no longer simply rely on a sense of touch to determine what controls he or she is interacting with. Modern vehicles are more complicated. In days gone by, the only infotainment choices presented to the driver, were AM or FM. And if you were particularly advanced maybe you also had the 8-track option. These big chunky devices had an advantage. You could put an 8-track into the player, change the radio station or adjust the volume without ever having to take your eyes off the road. Today’s choices include satellite radio, Global Positioning Systems, peripherals such as phones and MP3 players connected by wires and wirelessly, backup cameras, HVAC systems, and even in the case of the Kia concept, biometric feedback about the health of the driver and passenger.
These information displays are now no longer confined to the instrument panel. They are in the center console, the headrests, even the door panels and mirrors. With the rise of the connected car, we can reasonably expect more complexity, more functionality and more systems competing for the driver’s attention. The Hick-Hyman law proves to us that the greater the complexity presented to the user, the more time it will take that user to make a decision. This is the basis to the concept of cognitive load. While managing cognitive load is a basic tenet of UX and Human Factors, it seems to be lost on automobile design.
How then can designers compensate? How can we ensure greater safety while not compromising features or aesthetics?
I believe the answer is based on understanding driver behaviour through research, combined with more creative use of haptic feedback, coupled with sensor and IoT technology. We are still a bit removed from mass production of fully automated vehicles, but small, self-contained decision support systems are within our grasp.
For example, Bosch has designed what they call an “active” gas pedal. It helps drivers make decisions based on haptic feedback. Volvo for some years now have had cars that will autonomously brake if they detect a person, or object suddenly in their path. These systems react faster than a human driver can, to stimulus a human driver may not detect. This interaction, based on sensor technology, takes some of the responsibility off of the driver but it does not alleviate the responsibility of the designer. We cannot design more and more complex interactions in the hopes that safety systems will evolve at a pace fast enough to protect drivers.
Speech recognition, and gesture recognition (as seen in the new BMW 7 series) will certainly play a large role in helping drivers maintain focus. The challenge however, remains that invisible structures such as speech and gesture, require a high degree of consistency to compensate for their low degree of affordance. So there is a misplaced belief that speech and gesture interaction, do not place the same cognitive demands on the driver. Research has shown that any significant cognitive load impairs situation awareness1, and as such these tasks should be very carefully designed in order to not increase the likelihood of driver error.
In my humble opinion, we still have a long way to go before we achieve the correct balance between safety, functionality, usability and aesthetics. The key to solving this conundrum is careful user research, thoughtful design and rigorous usability testing.