User Experience (UX) and the Car

Technology has crossed the barrier of the few to the many, where mobile phones now have the ability to take a picture, access the internet, contact someone else anywhere in the world using a variety of methods (text, IM, voice, VOIP); televisions now come Internet ready and video/audio streaming is becoming the norm. Even the terminology has gained acceptance in everyday – MP3, streaming, torrents, IM are all terms that are heard and understood more and more.

Yet many of these technological advances would have had a harder time gaining traction if it wasn’t for User Experience (UX).

Apple – The UX company

Apple Computers is a leading UX company – not just through their software, but through everything they do:

  • Marketing – Apple started in the music and high-end art / marketing groups and slowly propagated through those channels (where as Microsoft went to the Business market). The channels chosen are more exclusive – i.e. you have to have a good product, otherwise you fail quicker – but conversely, you will be held with respect if your products do hold up and the user experience is great.
  • Products – Having owned several Apple products myself, it’s clear that Apple takes great pains to make sure the product won’t fall apart the day after your warranty runs out. From the iPod, iPhone, iPad and Mac ranges, everything exudes quality.
  • Support – AppleCare is a huge success with its’ userbase because they offer straightforward replacement/repair should things go wrong, There’s less of the fine print that goes on with many other warranties, so that when things do go wrong, you don’t have to face getting past a policy or person in order to get things working again.
  • Interconnected – If you own several Apple products, you’ll notice they’re designed to work with each other (or at least that the idea). Got iTunes? (in theory) Your iPod, iPad, AppleTV can all work from one iTunes repository. You can stream content from your Mac computer to your AppleTV…

UX in your Car

As you can see from our Apple example, User Experience permeates everything they do; it’s not an extension of their products and services, it’s part and parcel – there is no separation. In order for the general public to accept a more leading edge technology based product, it must have great user experience and Apple undersands this more than most.

However when we look at the typical car, User Experience has not taken the same strides; That’s not to say there haven’t been advancements and considerations, but they’re more from the extension of the car, rather than being part of the car.

Simple Things Make All The Difference

Take for example heated front windows – if you’ve ever had a car with them and have found yourself in the middle of winter with a frozen windshield, you’ll know how thankful you are that you either don’t have to get out and scrape the window, or sit there waiting for the car to warm up in order to clear the window. I had one a 2002 Ford Focus, yet my current cars (Ford Mustang and Mazda Tribute) do not (and it wasn’t even an option for the Mustang – and I don’t believe it was for the Mazda either). You would think that 10 years on, car companies would have grasped that these types of features would be standard as part of a total User Experience. You can also extend that into other “extras” such as heated wing mirrors, boots/trunks and doors that open and close themselves, climate control, self-adjusting seats/steering wheels, etc.

When you also consider that many people now have their cell / mobile phone as an extension of themselves (it’s always there, always connected, always referred to), that the car should be considerate of this fact and be linked up to the phone – That is to say,  when the driver sits down and plugs their phone into a dock (wouldn’t it be great if docking stations were one size fits all including the connector!?!), or connect via Bluetooth (or similar) it knows their preferences for seating, climate, wing mirrors, the radio presets they favoured, the playlists they liked and connected them so they could make handsfree calls. Not only that, but it would be intelligent enough to use GPS, weather and traffic reports to help the driver understand if there would be any delays etc. and offer alternatives.

“My car already does that”

There are after-market players looking to solve some of these things, but there is no interconnectedness between any two manufacturers. Equally car manufacturers are looking at some / all of these types of additions, but rather than considering the User Experience, they’re addressed as premium extras.

Whilst I believe that there needs to be a premium model line for certain extras, there is no reason why some common user needs aren’t addressed as standard on many cars. And it isn’t just limited to the electronics of cars; simple things like seatbelts that don’t require you to reach back, oil filters and spark plugs that are easily accessible (I had a Buick that had to be hoisted up to access 3 of the spark plugs), folding seats that don’t require you to work out how to use them, storage capability that is well thought out, how the car adapts to you (and feels connected to you) etc should all be part of the Car User Experience. The car manufacturer that acknowledges that is one that will succeed over the majority.

Who Are The Players?

Right now there are a few to watch out for; for total quality vs feature it’s limited to a handful. The one that really stands out for me is Ford Motor Co.; they have worked significantly on the quality of their car and with the introduction of the Ford Sync they lead the way with in-car features. Kia and Hyundai are also making significant advances in their products, but neither has yet to completely adopt the right approach.

That being said, I don’t believe one car manufacturer has yet to embrace UX across all aspects of its’ products. It won’t be long until the public starts to demand a new standard of motor vehicle which integrates with other devices and adapts to the driver/passengers. Time will tell how the motor industry adapts to the new way of thinking; let’s hope given their lack of progress with the internal combustion engine that UX doesn’t face the same trials.

1 thought on “User Experience (UX) and the Car

  1. Funny you write this today – I use zipcar so I get to use different cars/interfaces, and I don’t get why they keep reinventing the controls. Today I rode in a new-ish Ford Focus. For a radio, you basically need two knobs: one for volume, one for tuning. This car had a turny- knob for volume (plus THREE sets of volume up/down buttons) and a zillion and one buttons for tuning. Never did find a way to manually go up and down the band. Only presets and switching between them.

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