The Battle for the Automotive User Interface

The user interface and user experience plaguing the automotive industry has entered an awkward stage of puberty

7w ago

The user interface and user experience plaguing the automotive industry has entered an awkward stage of puberty, but hopefully we can see it though to the other side. Recent efforts from Microsoft, Google, and Apple have aimed to put it through adolescence, but now is the time to accelerate that process.

Geoff Teehan in The State of In-Car UX lays out the problem of bad User Experience in automotive models.

"Some of what is being produced is inexcusable for any company, regardless of the constraints put in front of them. There is no excuse for a system to use type that's unreadable. There is no [defense] for an interface that uses obtuse iconography. You can't rationalize a palette with poor contrast or bevelled buttons lifted from Windows 95. Bad design is sometimes just bad design—and it's all too common in automotive interfaces."

So why exactly is this problem occurring and how can we fix it?

I'm glad you asked...

Complicated Awe vs. Ease of Use

I recently just applied for a job that entails (without giving anything away) designing computer-led controls for a real-life system of sorts. Now, I don't want to claim that I know what is going on with it the system's UI (because I don't yet, just went thought a light interview), but from what they let on, the owners of the system do not know what it does; they think that the system looks way to confusing, yet they like the latter fact and brag about it's complicated nature in passing.

Now I do understand that there are multiple components that have to be monitored that the client doesn't entirely know what they do, but that doesn't mean that we can't communicate the information to them in a way that he/she can understand.

This complicated essence of various controls led on by technological advancement has been implemented by automakers in a way to show that their offering can do a greater many things than their opponents, leading to rushed and overcomplicated design.

There is a tendency for some consumers to buy complicated goods that they don't understand for the reason that they are overly complicated. I wonder how many buyers were infatuated with a Ferrari's traction control systems without knowing or proceeding to learn what they do or mean?

The problem exists on both sides of the aisle.

As Geoff Teehan notes in The State of In-Car UX,

"The clarity, simplicity, and aesthetic of these systems should be more important to manufacturers. They should see it as a major opportunity to bring moments of joy and delight to customers. These are systems that allow us to physically interact with their brand. These should not be ugly exercises of frustration. They should exude the brand with every interaction. When I get in a Ferrari California and I turn on the stereo, or adjust the climate control, it should feel like Ferrari. It shouldn't be the same experience I get when I turn on the stereo in my Chrysler Town & Country minivan. In case you're wondering, that's a real example. Can you imagine if those two cars shared another part, like the headlights or door panels? It would never happen. How on earth was this acceptable to them?"

Why CarPlay Isn't the Answer

Apple's CarPlay will be welcomed by most users of the iPhone who love to use their phones in the car and hate going through current overly-complicated systems made by other companies that roll the dice as to how much integration with iOS they give.

I for one will greatly welcome CarPlay as a small step, but unfortunately it's just a facade for the current manufacturer-brewed system that you will have to deal with when not operating a function of your iPhone. Here is a Ferrari FF example of that.

I hate facades. I once bought an old HTC windows phone; it was just the old Windows mobile 6.whatever with a frosted HTC home screen plastered on the top. It was absolutely awful. If you ever wanted to do something on it like accessing an app or part of the system that made this an actual "smartphone," you had to exit the frosted HTC cloak (not that the HTC side was all that great) and dig through an atrocious version of windows mobile.

Also, do automakers really think we're going to choose a $20,000+ car based on our phone's ecosystem (Apple or Google)?

The entire car's UI/UX needs to change, and CarPlay is not the way.

The Bad

Here are some examples of bad infotainment systems (please note that the UI/UX problem expands beyond the infotainment touchscreen to buttons and other controls). Most current infotainment systems are included, but I will only list a couple.

MyFord Touch; this is the bane of my existence.

I understand the reason for the colors as to quickly identify a selection, but the color palette is horribly depressing. And there are way more problems that I wont get into, as you've probably already heard from angry Ford owners.

Tesla's 17-inch touch screen. This is a classic example of way too much information all at once.

Not to mention the clashed design everywhere.

Look through the tweets at the bottom of The State of In-Car UX for more examples and explanations for why they are badly designed.

The Good

Audi's new air vents. The single input radial nob control is absolutely inspiring.


That's pretty much it, but I hope the rest of the Volkswagen group can expand on this design.

So, What Can I do About it?

Demand it; it's that simple. We need to communicate the problem to Automotive companies by simply talking to them, and we also need to raise awareness to the media that this is a problem worth addressing (looking at you Jalopnik staff).

No longer is having iPod connectivity or Bluetooth enough to attract us to a car. No longer is having an infotainment system that does overly-complicated calculations brushed off as "only something a teenager could understand" enough; that is a terrible excuse, by the way.

Dear generic automaker, fix the issue or else I won't buy your car.

(This post was originally published on OppositeLock.Kinja.Com on 4/10/14)

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Comments (18)

  • I hope that 10 years from now no cars will have screens and all nav (which lets face it is the only thing you actually need a full on screen for) will be displayed in a heads up display where you can keep your goddamn eyes on the road. We will look back at this era and think "man, that was dangerous and dumb."

    Probably won't happen, but here's hoping.

      1 month ago
  • With enough loss of life due to accidents and collateral damages resulting from distracted use of interactive screen controls will hopefully lead to a ban and the industry reverts back to proper tactile knobs and buttons. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      1 month ago
    • I hope you realize that car are aiming to drive themselves.

        1 month ago
    • I’ll believe it whenever full autonomy is available for commercial production and widely adopted on a global scale. When the dependable fully autonomous private vehicle arrives, I’d probably be too old to legally drive. Until then, it’s...

      Read more
        1 month ago
  • I will not be buying a car without physical control knobs and buttons for essential functions, lights, wipers, climate control, windows, door locks, etc. Screens are just unreadable in sunlight and even more so in a convertible with top down. Touch screens need one to take the eyes off the road for far too long while searching for and operating any control.

      1 month ago
  • 1. physical buttons, accessible without looking, for stuff that is necessary during driving. Climate, volume, etc

    2. complicated settings can be on a touch screen. The screen must be able to turn OFF. If it's a luxury car - have it rotate away and be replaced with a pretty panel. Or an analog clock.

    3. that's it. Oh, and don't try to prevent people from entering an address into the GPS if the car's moving. It's just stupidity

      1 month ago
  • Absolute nonsense. The “car companies” all spend millions truly believing they are Apple. They are not Apple, they are Eastern Airlines. As CEO of GM I would immediately fire 99% of my UX team and order the last man standing to eauip every 2021 GM vehicle sith an iPhone cradle and API. Get real, carmakers. You CANNOT differentiate via the UX, you will NEVER be Tesla. Look elsewhere!

      1 month ago