What we learned designing a car user experience

A five month graduate project by Luc van Loon

At Hike One we like to actively support internships and graduate projects. Often students come to us with interesting topics they want to explore. We support them throughout their project and as a result we gain new insights while the students learn and grow as a designer.

During a period of five months, Luc van Loon took on the challenge to research, design and prototype a travel experience that includes the Tesla Model S as a follow up to this post:
For @Elonmusk: 8 improvements for the Tesla UI.

Interaction with the car


The Tesla Model S is an electric car. Because the range on electric cars is limited, users try to get the maximum out of their battery. However it is not communicated to the user how to make the battery last longer, frustrating users and resulting in many different theories on how to squeeze more out of the battery.

Because it’s confusing how to use the battery efficiently, some users pre-heat the car every single day in an effort to pre-heat the batteries and get the maximum out of them. However, users can’t automate this and often have a reminder set in the morning of every working day to then manually pre-heat the car via the mobile app.

The mobile app, steering wheel (controlling the Instrument Cluster and a button for voice commands) and the Main Computer Unit on the right, the 17 inch touchscreen.

Besides the mobile app, users can interact with the car by using the steering wheel and it’s buttons controlling the Instrument Cluster (IC) and by using the Main Computer Unit’s (MCU) touchscreen.

The users


Tesla cars are used by many different people, all using their cars in different ways. From soccer-moms to cab drivers. We decided to focus on Tesla owners using their car for business purposes, as this is one of the most common users we encountered. The business people we investigated drive from home to work on a daily basis or have multiple meetings throughout the day, at different locations. We identified two types of business drivers:

  1. Commute drivers
    Daily commute drivers. From home to work and back. They can often charge at home and at work. The car’s range is more than enough for them.
  2. Meeting drivers
    Drivers who have multiple meetings throughout the day at various locations. They’re often not sure whether they’ll have to charge during the day, or if their even able to.

The business driver is also quite tech-savvy, like most Tesla drivers are. They enjoy trying out new technology and frequently test-drive new apps on their phones. They also like to multi-task while driving: calling their colleagues and clients, checking in with wife or husband, listening to the radio or a Spotify playlist and so on. The car is a very personal device.

Managing meetings is a tough job to do.

The problem


Users find managing their meetings to be a stressful and mentally heavy task. An overall unpleasant experience.

For both the commute and meeting driver, managing meetings and scheduling their rides to ensure arriving on time is a daily struggle.

Especially for the meeting drivers who have multiple meetings throughout the day. Calculating when to leave in order to be on time for the next meeting is quite a heavy mental task. Factor in the limited range of the car, traffic information, a possible charge along the way, a meeting that runs a little longer and you’re having a tough day.

The solution: a travel strategy


The travel strategy forms a link between the user’s calendar, the mobile companion app and the car. It helps the user to leave and arrive on time for the next meeting.

  1. Users link their calendar and the car via the mobile app. There, they can activate the travel strategy. It now knows where the user needs to be at what time.
  2. Before leaving, the travel strategy tells the user (based on their calendar events) if charging will be necessary today.
  3. Throughout the day, the user actively receives notifications to notify them for the right time to leave.

Because the travel strategy factors in the calendar events, traffic information and possible charging time, the user doesn’t have to think about leaving and arriving on time as much as they normally do. The user interface is completely designed with this mindset. Notifications on the phone, the mobile app and the interface in the car are designed to create a travel experience that is as smooth as possible.

Starting the day as a meeting driver

A scenario with the travel strategy

It’s Monday morning and you have a couple of meetings planned for today.

In the mobile app, you turn on the travel strategy that will guide you throughout your day. At this point, you have already linked the calendar to the app. The travel strategy knows where you need to be.

At breakfast you receive two notifications. One that tells you to leave at a particular time and the other tells you if you’ll have to charge today. Charging can take quite a bit of time so knowing if you’ll have to charge before starting your day is very welcome.

After breakfast, you hop in your car and a simple ‘yes’ via the scrollwheel button on the steering wheel starts the navigation to your next calendar event.

Navigate to [event] in [event location]?

While driving you turn on your favourite radio station which is easily accessible via the shortcuts on the Main Computer Unit.

The shortcuts are an added menu item at the bottom of the Main Computer Unit. There, a user can create their own shortcuts to actions or screens:

  • Call Joe
  • Navigate to office in Rotterdam
  • Call latest missed call
  • Play Discover Weekly on Spotify

Upon arrival of your first meeting, the travel strategy gives you a notification to inform you on your next meeting so you’ll know exactly when to leave to be there on time.

To summarise:

  1. The travel strategy actively manages the calendar of the user and gives accurate ‘time to leave’ notifications to the user.
  2. It lets users know if they’ll have to charge today, before starting their journey.
  3. It complements user behaviour and fits their style of travelling.
  4. Shortcuts allow for quicker access to common tasks while driving.

Takeaways and tips

What we learned while designing

  1. Big tap targets
    Make sure to have big tap targets. A bumpy country road is the ultimate example, but a highway is often quite bumpy too. Users are not that accurate in tapping while in the car. So make sure your buttons are big enough, especially vertically. I would recommend your button to be at least 180 x 250 pixels on a 300 dpi screen.
  2. Typography
    MIT has done a lot of research on finding the right typeface for the job. Realise your users often only glance at the screen in the car and don’t have the time to read every letter carefully. Readability and contrast makes all the difference when trying to read the information in a split second.
  3. Color
    Unfortunately we didn’t get to design different UI’s for day and night situations. However, this is a very real context and something that definitely needs design attention. The Tesla’s big screen is a large lightsource and can become a distraction while driving at night when using colors that are too bright.
  4. Check for confusing calls to action
    As mentioned above, users often use a car interface in glances. Therefore it’s essential that your design has clear calls to action and an interface that is easily scannable. Check any given screen for elements that are drawing attention unnecessarily and remove them if possible.
  5. Join groups with users
    There is a big Tesla community on both Facebook and LinkedIn. Joining them is a continuous source of inspiration and keeps you thinking like users. If your target audience has a community you can join, it’s likely to be helpful.

What we learned while testing

Our setup consisted of a custom made dashboard where users could interact with an iPad that resembled the Main Computer Unit in the car. The steering wheel had three buttons that controlled the Instrument Cluster.

The test setup on display.

The user would sit in front of the wheel and watch the driving footage. Meanwhile the user would be given tasks to complete throughout the test. While testing we’ve learned quite a few things that we would like to share:

  1. Get the context right
    Driving is a complex task and users will often forget what they’re actually doing in the car. Therefore it’s important to talk and test in an environment that is as close to the real deal as possible. Interviewing a user on their driving habits is best done in the car, for instance.
  2. Use a realistic script
    Users will calculate routes in their head and if it’s not realistic, it will hurt their ability to empathise with your scenario. So make sure your prototype resembles real driving distances and travel times.
  3. Give your test subject a task while driving
    Not every user is focused on driving the car while testing. In our setup a user couldn’t crash, so we had trouble making sure users would actually pay attention to the road. In order to do so, we gave users tasks to complete while driving: tell me when we’re changing lanes or let me know when we enter a roundabout. Not every user will take this seriously, so either stress the importance or make it a game and write down the score for them to see.
  4. Record the test
    It’s difficult to manage a setup with multiple screens and possibly a phone prototype too. Filming everything will make sure you won’t miss a thing. You’ll get useful footage and be able to judge your own testing practices.

Behind the scenes

Prototyping and testing

Seven different Tesla’s and multiple trips with real users helped us find out how users operate the car. In the early stages of the project we used the Tesla browser to access a simple html prototype to view in the car and find the right concept direction.

Since the Instrument Cluster (screen behind the steering wheel) and the steering wheel are important interactions, we decided to create a physical dashboard and use iPad’s to mimic the displays in the car. Some wood, paint, manual labour and a steering wheel got us a feasible way to prototype that helped us test with users for less than $300.

In total, 7 Tesla drivers tested the design and concept in the setup we built through 3 iterations of the concept and design.

The process of building the setup.

Read and see more


Learn more about this project by visiting caruxd.com: a website showcasing the entire project in a little more detail. There you’ll also find downloads to the designs that we made and the visuals that helped present it.

About Hike One

Digital Product Design.

At Hike One we design digital interfaces that are useful, easy to use and meaningful for people. We know what people understand, are experienced in design and have a good understanding of technology. We get satisfaction from providing the best tailored solutions. We are engineers, scientists and artists and we’re all in love with our smartphones.

See our work on hike.one

Feel free to comment and share your feedback on this post. We are open to elaborate on the concept.



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Hike One

Digital Product Design. We guide you to new and better digital products. Writing about digital, design and new products from Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven.