Tech vs UX: CarHMi and the battle for better user experience

Rob explores the car of tomorrow and its immediate feasibility following Car HMI Europe.

I attended Berlin’s Car HMi conference in search of clarity on a few things i.e. what might the future of the car (as we know it) look like? Will EVs take over? And if so, what will become of the data they produce?

Unfortunately, the only thing I’m now certain of is that car manufacturers don’t have the answers to most of our queries and concerns. One thing is for sure though – the in-vehicle interface of tomorrow is in need of serious work and consideration.

Tech for tech’s sake

Most of what I saw seemed to lack an understanding of drivers and their needs. Instead of addressing and relieving pinch points, manufacturers are filling cars full of gimmicky tech, including whoopie cushion car seats selected from the dash. Comical yes, adding anything no.

There is often no evidence to suggest drivers need this kind of tech so my question is, how did these customer journeys make it into the UI? When the allure of tech is placed above the customer experience, manufacturers establish tenuous links to tie it back to real-world problems. In reality, novelty functions become redundant after a few uses.

I work with a lot of big brands  and - in my experience - those that yield the best results are open to suggestions and prepared to listen to their customers. They leave their own point of view and PHDs at the door.

Autonomous futures  

The focus of CarHMi was firmly on autonomous driving, its safety and how to go from driving to driverless. One presentation featured a clip of a driver screaming with fear as she released the steering wheel, handing control of the car to “chauffeur mode”.

This exchange of control is a hot topic and something both Volvo and Continental are committed to tackling through extensive user research.  

We were shown research that looked into how cars might perform and create new behaviours for drivers, pedestrians and other road users. In my mind, manufacturers must instil confidence through design for each respective party.

One university has made significant progress in this area and identified where pedestrians look when approached by regular vehicles versus driverless. Their study revealed that pedestrians feel more nervous when they see a car without a driver.

For those racing to boast the safest and most innovative solutions, this will provide a real hurdle.

When it comes to autonomous driving at speed on the motorway – look no further than Continental whose researchers sat in on test drives. 

The car’s back seats formed a viewing room and remote recording area which captured the physical, non-verbal aspects of driving such as the fear of letting go of a steering wheel at 70mph, or as the car comes to a sudden halt at traffic lights. 

Whilst tech can do so much to measure success rates of new tools – we must employ these kinds of tactics when testing AV. Even though recording behaviour only paints a portion of the picture, it provides enough insight to replicate the autonomous driving experience and ultimately safeguard our roads.

This kind of insight is beginning to inform all-new visual and audible design solutions. The cabin of one brand’s prototype turns red when approaching a potential hazard while others are using external sound to relay the same message.

But brands will have to walk a fine line next to safety legislation that will inevitably adapt as autonomous driving evolves.

To put in frankly, user experience design needs to feature at the very centre of this process - it is not an implied function, or a nice to have.

VR for good/bad

The conference had a room full of VR tools designed to help brands user test new functionality but most were reminiscent of dated simulator games, and not truly immersive.

Some tried and failed to replicate the driving experience. That said, these methods generate interesting results, and something is better than nothing, but who analyses all this data and what are they doing with it? 

With age and experience, I have become sceptical about replicating any real-life experiences to gain user insight. Somewhat controversially, the same goes for lab testing – where possible I will always look for ways to test in context.

What was missing?

No one talked about the customer lifecycle and experience of the electric or autonomous car over time. There was little to no mention of what role data will play in defining the future of smart cars.

It’s either untapped or represents a lot of work and investment. Instead the focus is on short term solutions, with an air of novelty, that use VR as the tool for testing them.

Inevitably many of the VR companies will offer to make sense of the data their tool provides, in order to improve user experience. But this reminds me training for my first marathon and buying a sports watch. I looked the part and it could tell me tons of things I didn’t know how to improve my running. Did I need it? Probably not. What I needed as a first timer was a coach who could structure a long-term plan for me based on my goals.

The bottom line is: Automotive design isn’t truly embracing UX disciplines in the same way businesses have to transform digital experiences.

As a seasoned UX designer, it all felt quite primitive and short-sighted despite being technologically on trend. Most brands would happily talk about what needed to happen today, but fewer thought about tomorrow. If you want my advice, don’t be lured in by shiny new tech that you aren’t quite sure how to use, find yourself someone who knows how to create long term plans that look at use cases to create better outcomes.

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