A lot of UI Going on Here…

Why Your Car’s UI Sucks - Part 1 - The Problems of Design

Vehicle Navigation & Entertainment Systems UI’s Near Universally Blow, and Here’s Why.

I’m testing the Ford Focus ST, a hotted up 5-door that singlehandedly erases the car’s family-car drudgery heritage in tire squealing, blasting towards the horizon, laughing maniacally way. Until you try to play a song your on iPhone and the joy stops. No car should ever tell you, “Please fill out the metadata for your music library.” MyFord Touch is a branding exercise and touch screen wrapping Microsofts SYNC, one of the automotive-doms worst User Interface (UI) offenders. Other automotive UIs are marginally better, but there’s very good reasons why car UIs generally suck.

The most obvious reason automotive UIs are horrible is, apart from Elon Musk’s Tesla, car companies are not technology companies - at least not in the traditional sense. Think about the time, energy and number of iterations, software startups put into user interface design and navigation. For a car company that is a major investment oblique to producing a product consisting of approximately 3,000 components. One that needs to convey the brand experience in the way it drives, needs to sound right, not deafen people inside it, actually go around corners, can be seen out of, carry cargo, can be gotten in and out of easily, meet safety standards… you get the idea. A massive number of considerations go into a vehicle’s design, before you go to the dealership and say, “Wow, that Fiat 500 is too cute.”

So media, communications, and navigation interfaces seem to get short shrift in the list of priorities, but following the steering wheel, shifter, doorhandles, they are likely the fourth most interacted with element in a vehicle. That makes this UI hugely important in the hierarchy of interaction. You live with a poor interface here every day of your life with a vehicle, and that maps to your perception of the brand.

Auto makers attempt to compensate, by partnering with out of house technology companies. One issue with this is they are grafting another companies brand experience onto their offering, so there is a discontinuity. Ford and MicroSoft with MyFord Touch and SYNC being the most pertinent example. Why a car company would go to MicroSoft for UI is a bit baffling? Except of course the UI is tied to a fairly complex embedded system, where deeper and darker technical knowledge comes into play. That Ford wraps SYNC in its own MyFord Touch touchscreen interface is the worst of all worlds - a ridged and unfriendly operating system, paired with a poorly executed touchscreen with small hard to hit hot-spots and deep, complex menuing.

Things aren’t hugely better for GM, who is using the CUE (Cadillac User Experience, and future Tron villian) touchscreen, that is built atop Linux and provides an underpowered sluggish experience. Premium brands, like BMW and Audi, hit the best balance wrapping the QNX system from Blackberry, which, coincidentally, is the basis for BB10. Across the board though, the trend towards touchscreen UIs is a problem.

Apple decided against a touch screen MacBook laptop, reportedly to avoid gorilla arm syndrome. Go ahead, hold one arm out, now try to hit a small target like an icon. Poor targeting, and a slightly tired arm. Now, map this experience to burrowing though several menus, to set an equalizer so SirusXM doesn’t sound like a sea of mud. Arm fatigue? Now, let’s break away from the laptop as an example, and put the screen you’re trying to hit at arms length in a vehicle’s center stack and execute all this while you should be paying attention to the road.

The experience equates to arm fatigue, distraction and frustration. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who’s taken the time to look at where touch screens work well. Held in your hand, well within your line of sight, largely thumb operated, relatively large target areas (due to proximity) — in short a smart phone or tablet. Either item which is sitting on the bleeding edge of iterative UI design, versus a car which has approximately a 3 to 5-year development cycle and where software updates still require a trip to dealer. Without a better update process your car will always lag about 5 years behind current UI thought.

The center stack placement for a touch screen, is an outright fail. It’s also a concession to the passenger, who would periodically and randomly like to turn down the volume on that NPR or CBC show you’re listening to and talk to you about it right before the crucial conclusion. The historically center stack also saves production costs, as it obviates the needs for both passenger and driver controls. Until, steering wheel mounted controls entered the scene.

The complexity with steering wheel mounted controls is they have to map to the center stack’s functionality. If the center stack is a touchscreen, you’re mixing your UI metaphor by mapping a load of buttons and maybe a roller dial to a touch oriented design. The steering wheel now makes an X-Box controller look straight forwards, and you’re expecting an elderly driver with bad eye sight on a freeway of uncooperative traffic to operate it.

One of the best executed UIs in this area is BMW’s iDrive, which is largely scroll wheel based allowing for relatively consistent mapping. Often though, car companies (Ford and Chrysler, I’m looking at you) don’t even try. Often the functionality available from the wheel doesn’t fully connect with the center stack’s primary communications system. Even if you have a menu button on the wheel, it just scrolls you through the trip, odometer, fuel efficiency readings on the dash. The expectation would be menu affects the center stack.

Of course, Car UI doesn’t have to be this way. What falls out of these observations, are Human Interface Guidelines for the automotive design - that will be a forth coming part two.

P.S. I know, that a second part is bad UI design, but this was meant as a two coffee post - a single sitting draft, fueled by dark roast in a mug.