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Is Tesla’s v11 update… bad design?

The mistake even the best design teams make, and how it can be avoided.

A photo of the new v11 interface
Screenshot via Reddit user u/ClarksonianPause

After months of anticipation, Tesla finally released a shiny new UI update for their vehicles — v11 is here! Tesla drivers rushed to install the update, excited to play with it. But as they started spending more time with it, an overwhelming consensus started to form:

They hated it.

These drivers — who knew the old interface — were discovering that many common interactions were now different, meaning they now needed to spend effort learning how to do things the new way. Adding insult to injury, the new ways they were learning were often no easier than the old ways — in many cases, they were actually harder.

What was going on here? Had Tesla’s design team gone downhill since the departure of its UI design lead Pawel Pietryka? Was the company prioritizing good looks over usability? Was this the work of an ill-prepared new design leader desperate to leave their mark? What were they thinking?!

These are real questions being asked by frustrated drivers across the internet. The reaction has been a vocal one, even by Tesla-fan standards — a LOT of people were pissed.

So, what happened?

From a design perspective, this is largely the result of changes that impacted both upfront effort and long-term effort. It might sound technical, but it’s actually quite simple.

With the previous v10 interface, new Tesla drivers had a learning challenge ahead of them. The interface was plagued with a number of one-off solutions that made it messier and harder to learn. These new drivers would be forgiven for not knowing how to view their odometer, wiper settings, or tire pressure, which all oddly resided together in an interface that only appeared when they swiped in an unmarked corner of the screen. There was a lot of upfront effort — it was confusing until you learned it.

Designers at Tesla almost certainly didn’t want new drivers to be faced with this much difficulty, so they reorganized the interface into clearer, more logical groups: a settings menu, an app menu, and so on. This means that moving forward, it would be easier for new drivers to get up to speed. Upfront effort was reduced.

It was like being asked to take a course on how to make less money — spending more effort for a negative payoff.

Unfortunately, this also meant that existing drivers would be faced with figuring it out again. They’ve effectively been given a learning assignment to continue using the thing they were already using. This isn’t inherently bad, though. Often, people will tolerate being asked to learn a new way of doing things, provided they can see how it will help them save substantial effort or discomfort as time goes on.

In this case, though, the new ways of doing things didn’t help. Despite the effort they were putting in to learning them, many functions required more effort than they did before. It was like being asked to take a course on how to make less money — spending more effort for a negative payoff.

In other words, while the upfront effort was reduced, the long-term effort had increased.

A video on the backlash to the new UI changes

So it’s awful, then?

Is this interface a design failure? It’s a mixed bag. To start with, new users do indeed have less to grapple with when getting up to speed with the new v11 UI — learnability has been improved. And in addition to real benefits for new users, there are many benefits for the development team, as well. Having a more structured framework makes it easier to develop and maintain features moving forward. These are design wins.

On the flip side, the designers at Tesla neglected to adequately address UI Ergonomics. Despite the v10 learning curve, these frustrated owners knew the myriad shortcuts of the old system. Learnability becomes less important to users the more they use something. Instead, these drivers cared about Ergonomics — the long-term day-to-day efficiency and comfort of their environment.

Learnability becomes less important to users the more they use something. Instead, these drivers cared about Ergonomics — the long-term day-to-day efficiency and comfort of their environment.

For the team at Tesla to really get this right, they would need to ensure every widely-used interaction from the old interface had a way of being done in the new interface — with the same amount of effort or less. This is something they failed to do. Instead, these drivers were being asked to spend effort learning the new way, and they were going to be upset if they didn’t get some benefit in return.

Getting this right

Fortunately for Tesla, there’s plenty they can do to address this, including the following:

  • They can allow for custom one-touch shortcuts to settings in the bottom bar, alongside app shortcuts. This can provide easy access to the same settings that were previously just a tap away, with customizable icons and placement.
  • They can extend their voice controls to give direct access to a larger number of settings, bringing them just a sentence away. Couple this with better natural language support and offline in-car voice processing to make this work more consistently.
  • They can give drivers access to adjustable icon swipe or long-press shortcuts, which cuts down on visual clutter and reduces the number of distracting screen inputs down to just one.
  • They can give drivers the ability to customize their own multitouch full-screen gestures (e.g. from anywhere on the screen, do a three-finger swipe to the right to turn on the passenger seat heater, swipe down with five fingers to open the glove box, etc.). This allows drivers to quickly trigger a large number of commands without ever taking their eyes off the road or pausing their conversation.

These changes will take effort to learn, yes, but they can dramatically reduce the Ergonomic effort over time.

Key takeaways for designers

These are the key lessons for a design team like Tesla’s:

  • There’s more to Usability than Learnability. You need to consider the long-term Ergonomics, too. These matter to existing users — a lot — so be sure to understand the difference, or risk angering your users.
  • Users see the process of learning something as effort they are expending in order to get something in return: namely reduced effort, longer-term. Making users expend effort upfront in exchange for working harder long-term feels like a raw deal — or worse, a betrayal.
  • When redesigning the UI for an existing tool, find out what the common tasks are, figure out the easiest way to accomplish them, and ensure that the new UI allows them to be done with the same amount of Ergonomic effort or less.

Overall, it’s my opinion that despite these hiccups, the new v11 UI provides substantial benefits, both to the development team and to the many new drivers going through the process of learning the interface. With any luck, the team at Tesla will quickly be addressing the effort that sticks around after that — the Ergonomic effort — as well.

What do you think? Do you like the v11 interface? Are there changes you think Tesla should make right away? What kinds of things did you find easier in previous versions? I look forward to your thoughts.

Hans van de Bruggen is a designer living in California. He has previously worked for LinkedIn and Netflix, and led design at a number of startups.

Follow Hans on Twitter and here on Medium.

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If you’ve enjoyed this, you may also enjoy my upcoming book on design and usability called Learnability Isn’t Enough. Learn more and join the email list for updates at book.hansv.com

Learn more at book.hansv.com

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Hans van de Bruggen

Hans van de Bruggen

On sabbatical; writing a book (book.hansv.com)

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