Car Interfaces Are in Desperate Need of Attention

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Someone mentioned to me recently that there are rumors that Apple is getting into the car business. My immediate reaction was, "Well maybe we'll get a decent interface then."

Why is it that interfaces on cars are so bad? This is something we should be good at by now. Last year I bought my first new car since 1996, and the interface to the technology played an important part in my decision making. Ultimately, I chose a car more for its reliability than for its interface, and while I don't question that decision, the interface does sometimes make me crazy.

Exhibit A. The display screen shows a list of preset radio stations numbered 1 to 6, from top to bottom. The steering wheel has buttons to let you change the channel, an up arrow and a down arrow. Now imagine you're on preset 3 and want to go to preset 2, which you determine by glancing at the display, because the car is new and you're not exactly sure which channel you programmed where. Which button do you push? I pushed up, because 2 is above 3 on the display. I was wrong.

The correct choice was to push down, because 2 is a smaller number than 3. This is an example of conflicting mental models; the visual says up while the numerical says down. I wonder if the engineers sat around and debated this. My guess is no. More likely, one of them simply chose the numerical model, maybe having never even seen the visual display and not realizing there could possibly be a problem. And they sure didn't test it with real users. In this case, the visual model clearly trumps the numerical model. This would have become evident with minimal user testing. A year into owning my car, I still have to think hard about which button to push when I want to change the station.

For Exhibit B, I give you the display of song information. I like my XM Radio a lot, and listen to little else. The XM feed provides two pieces of information, artist and title, which are displayed in that order. The other day when I got in the car, it was set to FM. I glanced over to see what the song was and ended up spending more than a glance trying to find it because the title and artist are in the opposite order for FM and my brain simply couldn't compute.

My guess on this is that two different engineers did the displays for XM and FM and simply never spoke to each other or compared notes. These aren't hard design issues to solve. The problem is, nobody even realizes they need to be paying attention to them. Car interfaces to technology are important on two levels. From a business perspective, they could tip a buying decision in favor of a different company if you don't get them right. But there's also a safety component.

That glance to check the song that turned into several seconds could have had serious consequences. Trying to figure out how to work things while driving can as well. Some people think voice is the answer to this, but honestly, the voice interfaces I've seen have been just as bad and often worse. In my own car (which I do truly love), I use voice for phone calls only, and for that I have had to memorize nonintuitive commands. I find it downright silly that I can use voice to switch from XM to FM. Push a button, speak a command, then look over to see if the display changes versus look over and press a single button. Useless.

My message to car manufacturers is this. You are now in two businesses: cars and technology. You need to think like a technology company to stay in the car business. Hire good interaction designers. Usability test. Don't wait on Apple to show you how to do it. Maybe they'll get it right by the time I'm in the market again in the year 2030 or so. 

Jenni McKienzie has worked as a consultant with SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm, since 2013. Previously she held positions at Travelocity and Intervoice. She is also a founding board member of the Association for Voice Interaction Design.

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