The State of Car UI

Why can’t quality brands get it right? (Hint: It’s hard)

Jonathan Shariat
Apr 7, 2014 · 4 min read

Everywhere you look a new car manufacturer is coming out with a screen-based User Interface. Many of these companies have a long legacy of premium designs and a focus on the driver’s experience. Why is it then most of us wince when they reveal the tacky, confusing, or overwhelming user interface?

Before we get into why, let’s review some examples of some the current Car Interfaces actually in use…

Corvette Stingray
Ford (2013)
Windows Car UI (Concept)
Volvo Concept

When we look at these interfaces we intuitively know something is “off.”

Here is why:

1. Distraction

With modern cars and especially with a dynamic new playground the touch screen offers a UI designer, there is a lot of information that can be displayed to the user: Cabin temperature, speed, car height, engine alerts, RPMs, battery percentage, avg. miles a gallon, etc. There is even more features one could add on top of that: A music player, web browser, games, driving history, maps, etc. The possibilities are endless and each company feels pressured to out do the other. This lends it’s self to the UI you saw above: cluttered, confusing, and bursting at the seems with “stuff.”

2. Touch

Touch is great, but it’s hard. Our fingers are not precise, and when we aren’t looking, like someone driving a ton of metal at 70mph might need to, touch has no tactile feedback. Have you ever tried to get directions on your phone while moving? It’s almost impossible and it’s extremely dangerous. Additionally, if touch isn’t done right technically, as Andriod learned when it first started out, it can put people off to the whole thing, it can throw users off from their actions, and cause mistakes. Here is a short example from Tesla, who has a NVDIA Tegra 3 behind their screen, yet the scroll is a little off, which breaks the “direct manipulation” illusion Apple has been able to pull off so well…

(You can pause it after a few seconds)

Scrolling with Tesla’s high end 17in screen is a little off

Touch almost seems like a bad idea in car UI, but it want’s to happen anyway. There is so much potential here to enhance the lives of people, especially considering how much time people spend in their cars.

3. Visuals

Visually car UI is in an interesting spot. It’s where the iPhone was when it first started out. People were used to real life objects and not to touch interfaces. The iPhone solved this by using a Skeuomorphic style. However, mobile design have passed that stage now. So you can see why UI designers for cars have often felt they too need to use the Skeumorphic style in order to transition from buttons and knobs to a touch interface. Another aspect is that high detail is a way to show the craftsmanship of the designers, and in luxury cars, there is a desire to show that through overly colored, textured, and detailed icons and UI elements.

With these challenges also comes the understanding that this area is new, which is why I find this challenge so fascinating. I believe with a focus on user needs and an influx of mobile designers into this new space, we will start seeing this medium mature and to serve consumers better and start to really “wow” them.

Thank you for reading. Look for my next post soon on how car UI can be better designed, plus some examples of companies who are starting to get it right.

If you enjoyed this article, than I like you and we should be friends. Follow me on Twitter (@DesignUXUI) and let’s talk about car UI some more!

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