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Humanizing the automotive user experience

How Mercedes MBUX reminds me that my Toyota RAV 4 makes me think too much.


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Josh Andrus

3 years ago | 7 min read

I have always been interested in cars. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, driving was a rite of passage. We went to great lengths to make cars our own, tinted the windows, adding colored lights inside and out, subs and 1000’s of watts to bump in the trunk, replace the factory head units with aftermarket Alpine and Pioneer with the ultimate hopes of one day having a DVD player and screens all around.

Some of us customized the drive of the car as well. We’d add turbos, drop-in big blocks, some fools even would add NOS to their POS rust buckets. Some of the cars were so rusty, we’d stand in between them and joke we could hear them rust in stereo.

Alpine Head Unit from around 1999.
Alpine Head Unit from around 1999.
JL Audio from Wikipedia
JL Audio from Wikipedia

All jokes aside, what we were doing was humanizing our driving experience through personalization. Though most of the upgrades we added made the overall experience less safe for us and others around us. What we did was dangerous, mainly because we were kids learning from trial and error. But, we generally made antiquated cars more unintuitive than they already were.

1976 Ford Thunderbird — an “old Boat”
1976 Ford Thunderbird — an “old Boat”

Our parents were kids in the ’60s and front-seat lap belts didn’t become standard until 1964. To them, safety meant as a 16-year-old, you’d be driving an old boat, so you’d be less likely to get hurt when you inevitably wrecked into something.

We didn’t have the slightest idea about regulations and compliance requirements that automobile manufacturers must design by. We just wanted to define our own experience, no matter how crude the tools.

Screenshot of MBUX site.
Screenshot of MBUX site.

MBUX — Mercedes-Benz User Experience

Mercedes-Benz User Experience

Last week, I saw a job posting for a UX design role at Mercedes-Benz/Dailmer AG at their Research and Development Lab in Carlsbad California working on the user journey for their in-car and mobile experience.

That sent me into a hole of exploratory readings about how Mercedes thinks of their design essentials, their vision of new technology, machine learning, interaction design, and general car/ life integration. I’ll link their Design Essentials and Intuitive Interaction Design if you want to read about what they’re doing now and the outlook on the design of the future. Here’s a blip from their media kit;

The UX designers from Mercedes-Benz shape the relationship between human and machine and vice versa. The focus is on the simplest and most intuitive operation by the user. An important motive is the self-determination of the user and the approach to use the entire interior for information. The goal is to display the right information at the right time — and only as long as it is actually needed.

I found this both inspiring and fascinating that they were speaking to the user with the empathy of Human-Centered Design while being able to further reinforcing the luxury brand Mercedes is known for. They’ve humanized the automotive user experience.

I started wondering, “why doesn’t every car manufacturer do this?” I learned a couple of key insights that differentiate from UX/UI design in a car and mobile and web apps.

They think about UI as a differentiator and not a utility

Conventions for Design

Car UI is always different for each car manufacturer to maintain brand identity. By not standardizing a design system, they aren’t operating with users first.

They continue to sacrifice the user experience by trying to invent their own interaction design, in turn, forcing the user to learn a new mental modal with every manufacturer.

I currently own a 2018 Toyota RAV 4 Adventure that has Lane Departure Alert, Lane Tracing Assist, Radar Cruise Control, and Pedestrian Detection. I like these features and they work well taking my mind off of long drives, making them much more manageable. The infotainment system is difficult to use, in particular calls, texts, music, and most importantly navigation.

How do I use these features?

The overwhelming problem of infotainment systems is their complexity of use — followed by issues with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, connectivity, and in-car apps.

J.D. Power latest Initial Quality Study Infotainment Problems
J.D. Power latest Initial Quality Study Infotainment Problems
J.D. Power latest Initial Quality Study Infotainment Problems
J.D. Power latest Initial Quality Study Infotainment Problems

How many steps can a call-to-action take?

Primary and secondary actions being clear to lessen the visual, cognitive, and temporal demands associated with common in-vehicle tasks.

Two groups of participants — between ages 21 and 36 and between 55 and 75 — were asked to use the interactive vehicle technologies to make a call, send a text message, tune the radio and run a navigation program.

To do that, they needed to use voice commands as well as touch screens. Some of the more complicated systems used multiple menus and cumbersome voice command functions that made it hard to complete tasks while watching the road.

  • The center stack interactions were the shortest, on average.
  • Programming navigation and text messaging each required more than 24 seconds for both younger and older drivers.
  • Both older and younger drivers reported they felt voice commands were less demanding to use than the center console or center stack controls
  • All drivers reported that the calling and dialing and text messaging tasks felt less demanding to perform than the navigation and music programming tasks

Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety research and advocacy stated,

”We found that older drivers take their eyes off the road for longer when they are trying to interact with this technology, whether it’s easier-to-see signals or striping on the roads, if it’s good for seniors, it’s good for all of us.”

It seems that accessible design is the main issue with infotainment systems

A project I shot at the MIT AgeLab about accessibility over the age of 65.
A project I shot at the MIT AgeLab about accessibility over the age of 65.

I could state the 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design, but that won’t change the main issue that automakers aren’t dedicating enough resources to uncomplicate infotainment.

Why?

Product development cycle and reliability Automotive manufacturers are partially handcuffed by high requirements on safety and reliability, making their product development and testing 3–4 years.

Economic incentives for keeping closely guarded system By making a custom infotainment system they can upsell features that require integration with the infotainment system.

On top of all of this automotive manufacturers don’t have brilliant designers to develop competitive devices like Apple and Google.

“just because it’s built into the car doesn’t mean it’s safe to use. You can’t make the assumption that using technology like this while you’re traveling down the road at 70 mph is going to be safe.” — Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety research and advocacy.

With most infotainment systems, the cognitive load becomes exceptionally high, and it impairs driving performance, making the chances of getting in an accident far greater. By taking your eyes off the road every five seconds you negate any high-end safety features that most car manufacturers focus on.

Safety and Distractions

Auto manufacturers are held to the highest standard for regulations and compliance requirements that they must design by. To them, the design has to be all about safety first.

Automobiles have come a long way in the past 20 years, humans have not. Personally, I think we shouldn’t be fully operating vehicles. We’re dumb, we can’t see well, we get physically and mentally tired, and we react slower than necessary to surprises. We are also more easily distracted than ever, spending around 47 percent of every waking hour “mind wandering.” All of this gets worse as we age.

Basically, we’re not machines. I love the idea that we’re getting closer to fully autonomous driving every day and I trust that the car can drive better than we can.

(My mother would disagree) I look forward to the day of AR navigation to inform the driver and better receive data, but these glorified overcomplicated radio systems have to go away. I’d buy a dedicated iPad, but in the Rav4, there's nowhere to mount it or even my phone.

Immediately after we bought the car, when we were about to drive off the lot, we got in together, looked for a place to put the phone, then looked at each other and went “Shiiiiiiiii… argh. Why on earth did Toyota design a car without a clear place to put the phone? — Bravos user from Rav4 world.

Some questions I’m left with:

  • If safety is the highest standard with car manufacturing, why is using a dangerous system a priority fix? Is it considered a non-essential item to meet safety requirements?
  • If as a manufacturer, you’re creating such a problem for the users that could result in death, are you actually designing for the user?
  • A rhetorical question: What kind of language do these teams use when talking design? If you’re defeating the concept of usability and frustrating users, you can’t speak in common design thinking terms, unless you’re delusional or don’t care.
  • Toyota, do you know about the information hierarchy within interaction design? I never know what page I’m on within my info screens.

At this point, I’d be happy to know where I left my keys…

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Josh Andrus

ward winning photographer & digital artist turned UX Designer with over 10 years of experience in content creation and content strategy. From hands on projects, to managing & nurturing creative teams, I am a visual storyteller dedicated to solving complex problems & producing creative solutions.


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