Digital Shroud
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Digital Shroud

Entering The New World of Automobile UX: A Take On Tesla 🚘

***important to note — this article was written before the Model S and Model X Plaid were announced, there is currently not enough online information about these models for further discussion on said models

Over the past two decades, digitalization has altered our daily lifestyles and has proven to have a grand impact on each of the products and services around us. Whether it’s amusement parks, school environments or grocery shopping, we as humans have instilled a deep trust in the digital world and heavily depend on digitalization for a convenient, efficient user experience. Technology has gained power and value throughout the years within many industries, including one of the most recent and newest ones, the automotive industry.

In particular, one player in the game is changing the vision of driving through its combination of highly trusted safety features and advanced in-car technical functionalities. Tesla is currently worth more than Mercedes Benz, BMW and Volkswagen together and is one of the biggest star powers amongst all cars. Tesla is considered a luxury item to own and is widely known as one of the best electric vehicles with a safety-first design, with autopilot technology, impact protection and more, as well as an exciting range of functions, most of which are accessible through the iPad Pro-sized touchscreen in the center of the dashboard.

Tesla Interface Usability

Most of the cars on the road today include small, amateur-level digital interfaces with a few, basic functions and there haven’t been many drastic changes made to the average vehicle in the past decade. Branding is extremely important for cars, as well as a “cool” and enjoyable car design and nowadays, the automobile digitalization and UX is now a factor in someone’s purchase decision, which Tesla succeeds at. The automotive industry is a competitive one, as every car has strict priorities for meeting user needs, those of which include an overall safe driving experience. Interface usability in the car needs to meet safety measures and keep users less distracted, which is difficult considering there is essentially an easily accessible iPad in the Tesla. Decisions need to be made on the basis of safety through screen arrangement, feature type and quantity, physical and digital functionalities and the overall interactive and visual design. The UX inside the Tesla is already sleek and offers amazing usability, so I’ve decided to challenge myself to apply my own perspective on how I can improve a Tesla driver’s user experience.

User Research

Many friends and family members of mine own Teslas and hopping in their car to go for a late night drive or make a quick trip to McDonalds feels like an upscale and exciting experience each time. I decided to ask 13 of these Tesla users about their driving experiences with the touchscreen to gauge whether or not they felt they were acting in a safe manner and observe them, too.

I was able to conclude that each user used the touch screen. More than half of users agree that browsing through all options to find a specific request is not effective or easy, probably because 77% of users would say they perform the same actions each time they drive, eliminating the need for excessive browsing.

The Problem

Great UI Can Still Be A Distraction

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many friends and family members driving their Tesla in the past and a majority of those did not look distracted, and from their own perspectives through the survey, they too felt like they were safe drivers. I watched them periodically look at the screen to check their mph or the GPS, and watched them engage with the screen for longer times to change the music selection, the car temperature and more. After my observations, I initially would have never thought to describe their driving experiences as distracting. However, distracted driving is any activity that diverts attention away from the road, usually for more than 2 seconds, and said activities are included.

Driving at 55 mph while looking at a screen for even just 5 seconds is the same as driving the length of an entire football field blindly.

Realistically, telling every driver to keep their eyes on the road for the entirety of their trip would not work, so coming up with solutions to decrease the risk of danger is difficult, but possible.

The More The (Less) Merrier

The benefits of the Tesla are its numerous functions available through one interface, but this benefit can also result in consequences. Unlike the average car, Tesla gives users a greater number of features and interactions possible, but this results in a greater amount of information users need to process, as well as the number of clicks needed to perform said actions. Other features available in driving mode are displayed by small clickable icons on the bottom of the screen, key word: small, plus some features are hidden and require more than one click or touch to navigate properly to said action.

Take a look at the small arrows next to the temperature and volume, as well as the third button from the left, which indicates clicking to view more, hidden features.

Users are forced to look at the screen to know they are hitting the correct button due to small button size versus experiencing the ease, most would agree, of using physical functionalities in other cars, such as twisting knobs or hitting certain large buttons to indicate turning up the car temperature and more, which felt familiar and oftentimes performed in a quick, swift manner while eyes stayed on the road. With a quick glance to the screen, user’s eyes often go to the biggest components first, as well as the ones that are nearest to them, for example seeing the music icon before the volume icon, which is why mapping components on the screen is such an important part. It’s this reason in itself why automotive UI is difficult to execute, however simple key factors, such as icon location, size and color, as well as mapping, can have a drastic positive impact on the user experience.

With Tesla’s current UI, there comes learnability and memorization factors that one must uphold, learning the way around the screen, the buttons and all of the different features and its meanings, which takes a couple of times. With any UI, this factor exists, but Tesla’s large number of functionalities makes it more difficult and time-consuming, as one may still be unfamiliar with some components and may take a longer, thus more dangerous, amount of time to complete an action.

However, there is a way to combine the perks of size, location and mapping, to create a more seamless, and more importantly, timely way to navigate features and perform desired tasks.

The Solutions

Two Screens Is Better Than One

To start off, some Teslas have a small screen directly in front of the user’s vision on the dashboard to display the speed limit information and the imaging of the cars and other cars, too. Some of the users that answered my survey did not have this feature, but I would implement this into each upcoming Tesla model as every single user agreed that the imaging of the personal vehicle and surrounding vehicles was a feature they liked to see and use, with the speed limit feature following shortly behind, which was not surprising in any way since these are key factors for any universal driver. The imaging of the user’s moving vehicle along with other vehicles on the road is a unique feature to Tesla and is extremely helpful as noted by every single user. Having a screen right above the steering wheel that displays this information plus other factors such as battery level, as humans are familiar with reading the car mileage right in front of them, and PRND signs is easy to read on the eye and as heat tracking proves, it presents a less distracting and more efficient way to comprehend the information. I would slightly adjust this screen by making some typography and imagery larger, as shown below.

Having the speed limit and car imaging in an easier place to see means the touchscreen would then display the map and the rest of the features. However, sometimes, the map isn’t always necessary to view if the user is making a familiar trip somewhere. I would add a split view adjuster for users to change the sizing of both screens in a split view, making it possible to make one side of the split view larger or smaller, with options of seeing the split view in a horizontal or vertical manner, whichever the user chooses. I would also add the option to get rid of the map if users choose they don’t want to see it for any reason, if they think it’s unnecessary at the moment or want to view more of the other side of the screen, which would highlight features in a more discoverable fashion.

Mockup of front screen on dashboard that highlights vehicle imagery, mph and more. Increased size of speed limit sign, mph and made split screen view to show off imagery.

A Focus On Favorites

With a whopping 77% of users choosing to perform the same actions each time they drive, it would only be fair to display a section highlighting user’s favorites. Many music and TV streaming services, food delivery services and more use this idea due to the fact that many humans like to stick to a routine and what they are used to; people feel comfortable ordering the same three food options on DoorDash and enjoy re-watching the same tv series.

Widgets are the newest and most anticipated features on touchscreen devices, most notably, Apple’s latest iOS update where users worldwide had fun playing around with widgets of all sizes and colors for their own customized aesthetically pleasing home screen. Widgets act as informational, contextual and personal to users and serve its main purpose of helping users avoid performing repetitive actions. Users may feel frustrated continuously repeating the same actions each time they drive and throughout their driving journey and are also more prone to going through more clicks to get to said action item each time. Not only does navigation time decrease with widgets present, but so does the time spent using the touchscreen while driving.

If a user plays their Spotify playlist everyday on their way to work, they can add this as a widget so they can just have this to focus on and click through it. Or if it’s the midst of winter and a user needs their heated seat on at all times, the user can make seat heating a widget so a simple tap on the screen is all it takes.

Widgets eliminate a lot of user problems and still offer the sleek design Tesla is known for. Each widget offers the same features as the original interface, but icons appear in a larger formatted way and are mapped on the screen in a more logical ordering, as each widget presented is marked as the user’s favorite and is from most used to least used. Larger buttons are acquired and pressed faster since there is a decreased risk of accidentally hitting the wrong button. Customizing the screen creates a more personalized and easier-to-use experience and is also quick and easy to create thanks to the use of touch gestures.

Mockup of front screen; Scenario: User who doesn’t need GPS during specific trip and performs routined drive to work in the winter time. She plays the same playlist to work and is always in need of heating and heated seats as her car is parked outside. She chooses a vertical split-view screen with widgets clickable nearest to her. She can use the split-view adjuster to view more of her favorite features through widgets.

Clicks Are A Thing of The Past

Touch gestures are gestures you make with your finger to perform an action, such as double tapping to favorite something, and are used to lessen the visual time needed with a digital experience like Tesla’s. Touch gestures are the new clicks in UX and are changing the future of usability due to their natural and effective state, even if there is a learnability associated with it. They result in less clutter, seamless interactions and the ability to interact with multiple input modalities. While driving, touch gestures would help users avoid looking at the screen, whether it’s touch gestures users can customize themselves through settings or touch gestures registered in settings beforehand, users will be able to perform actions in an easier manner now.

Mockup of front screen; Scenario: User who needs GPS as first priority, perhaps they drive as part of their job, and chose a horizontal split-view screen with widgets clickable at top.

Tesla offers an amazing range of touch gestures but I would apply these gestures to the new feature implementation to further the development of a smoother process. First off, applying a force touch to the smaller icons in the footer would let users create a widget out of the feature. Creating a zoom in motion with two fingers on widgets will expand it and lead the user to more information. Swiping widgets left with one or two fingers in a quick motion would indicate getting rid of said widget and swiping the map left with four fingers, since one or two fingers are often used to navigate the map in many ways, in a quick motion would indicate getting rid of the map. Swiping left to indicate no has gained its popularity due to popular dating apps, such as Tinder, in which swiping left means you are not interested in the person and has even become a slightly popular phrase in which people use to exclaim their disinterest in something or someone. The split view adjuster would work the same as the one on the Mac as a user would have the ability to hold down the split and move accordingly for their own customizable interface view. These gestures would soon be registered as muscle memory and are easy to control while focusing on the road.

Tesla: A Game Changer

The UX in the automobile industry is not as grand currently, but with an increase in technological advancements being made to cars nowadays, we can expect to see a sharp rise in similar vehicles to the Tesla. Tesla outdoes many cars when it comes to the high power and value their digital interface offers with the incredibly unique features offered, as well as the ability to combine high-class safety standards with each of its modernized features. Having a huge touchscreen in the car comes with some consequences as distractions are more common, but I believe focusing on size and location of icons and screens not only offers a more personable feel, but a more effective way to find and recognize features in a time-friendly way that can prevent users from focusing on the screen for more than 2 seconds. All it takes are these small, but essential details to the main screen involving touch gestures for navigation purposes, and the split-view interface and widget feature implementation to significantly enhance each individuals’ safety and overall usability of the Tesla home screen.

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Mira Patel

Aspiring Designer & Assiduous Student — living life by her very own blueprint https://mira-patel.com/