The Design of Current Apps for Drivers is Bad. Let’s Improve it.

In other words: meet opinionated software.

Yiannis Konstantakopoulos


(This article first appeared on the blog of NaviDeck)

Not many years ago, when the term “mobile device” was introduced, it was bound by actions of secondary priority, e.g. you talk on your mobile phone as you move. Moving was a prime concern, while talking came as a nice-to-have extra.

Things have been dramatically evolved since then. Nowadays, mobile usage carries unmistakable signs of addiction. While watching TV and tweeting at the same time can’t harm anyone, using your smartphone when driving can be quite dangerous. It seems too many people keep doing it. Here’s a relevant very successful ad made by Volkswagen.

Volkswagen makes the message very clear

To ask people change their habits is one thing that doesn’t work. What we call “recommended use” of an app and driving can’t go together and the risks are clear. Still many people do it.

Problems with current apps

Most of the current apps aimed at drivers make things even worse in various ways. The main problem is they are mediocrely, if not badly, designed. I’m not talking about the style, the look and feel of them, although this is undoubtedly an aspect of the problem. What I’m actually talking about is the general conception of such an app and the way it has been implemented.

Very often in most of these apps’ User Experience comes as an afterthought. They appear to have been tested in a laboratory, not on the road. Common issues are:

  • Difficulties to understand how they should be used while driving
  • Blurred flow of actions required to finish a task
  • Bad prioritising of the goals of an app
  • Inaccurate feedback messages
  • Uninspiring use of language

All the cases mentioned above have to do with User Experience. However, there are more issues coming. In many instances of apps for drivers break the conventional rules of good design such as:

  • Contrast (e.g. driving during the day and the night are different things)
  • Hierarchy (the flow of priorities set for an app specifically designed to be used in a car)
  • Dominance (not all data are equally important)
  • Balance (each UI provokes an amount of tension which must be precisely designed for drivers)
  • Harmony (color harmony, rhythm etc.)

Both types of issues regarding User Experience and the principles of good design can be a game changer for an app. If you Google “best apps for drivers” you are going to be noted with regret by the results. It seems there is always a big gap in the particular market for apps which are going to join the game in the future.

So what can we do about it?

Successful UI remains there no matter how old it is.

A different design approach for apps for drivers

Maybe it is high time we treat drivers differently. May we should commence adapting a unique design approach, called opinionated software.

Opinionated software refers to a design tactic which imposes users to do very specific things in a restricted environment. An example: you can write text in MS Word or in Writer Pro. MS Word provides numerous tools in terms of creating and editing text. Furthermore, it leaves users free to explore and use the application however they want. On the contrary, Writer Pro imposes a specific workflow and it provides no editing tools at all. Writer Pro is an opinionated software.

Such apps often provoke controversial impressions and heated comments since users need in order to adapt to new, regulated environments. Remember when iOS, the operating system of the iPhone, didn’t have a proper way to copy and paste text? It was ridiculous. Yet the device remained extremely popular. Why? Because the software, no matter its lacking features, it was extremely well designed. iOS certainly was and still is a very opinionated piece of software.

Which leads us to the next level: when something is well designed people will love it despite the restrictions it brings.

In my eyes opinionated software for drivers is absolutely crucial. Furthermore, apps for drivers must generate two important outcomes:

  • They should partially quench the thirst of a driver to check his mobile device all the time.
    Since we can’t change the habits of people, let’s help them remain safe. At least, as much as we can.
  • They should provide help. Obviously.
    Despite the fact the word “help” could mean a thousand things, let’s focus on what’s useful and what makes users feel well while driving. How should we design such opinionated apps for drivers? The answer is not straightforward and it depends on each specific app. However, there are a few principles regarding User Experience.
  • Designers should think like users, not like designers.
    This is not difficult to be said, but hard to implement. When it comes to driving it is twice more important and harder. User Experience can be measured with many tools. Expert designers are aware of them and most importantly they are ready to change their minds according to their findings.
  • There’s a tendency to add to an app as many features as possible.
    This is no longer a viable option, especially when designing apps for drivers. It is essential to design to design a minimum set of features very well and only then move on to new ones. Again, Apple is an excellent example. As noted above, they don’t mind launching software and hardware that lack certain features. However what’s incorporated is well designed, it is something ready to be used with ease and most times than not it is beautiful too.
  • Usability is extremely critical when driving.
    Take the speedometer of cars as an example: there might be a dozen ways to approach the design of a speedometer, but cars only use only a couple of distinctive of design approaches. Why? Because drivers need to grasp the precise kind of information instantly and they don’t care about fancy details when they’re on the move. All in all, good design is a combination of sound aesthetics and usability. We need both of them.
  • Not everyone will like an app in the end.
    We need to go used to it. So when designing apps, especially apps for drivers, one should concentrate on her target users, not everyone. This is not just a business decision, but also a decision tied with the philosophy of the team building an app. If the target group finds an app functional then the app is successful, so the rationale remains intact.

If a team designing apps can embrace the principles above, then it is willing to design opinionated software. It comes naturally—there’s no four-letter word in this decision.

In reality such restricting software will help drivers remain sound and enjoy their trips. This is a big thing and people are eager to pay for lofty things. They always did and they will certainly put this back in the future. This is the final and most probably one of the most significant advantages of opinionated software.



Yiannis Konstantakopoulos

UI & UX designer. Scribbler. Insignificant morning runner. Once a physicist, always a physicist. Rationalist by choice.