For much of the history of the automotive industry, the role of the graphic designer was relegated to designing slick brochures after the cars were already built. This is changing.
In the past, cars were machines that were powered only by hardware. Some of them were really, really, really cool machines, but they were still pretty simple by today’s car standards.
Now, while cars rolling off the production floor are still machines built with hardware, they are also electronic devices that are partly controlled or supported by software. In 2010, vehicles had about 10 million software lines of code, and they have at least 150 million now. All of that software is accessed by someone–whether it’s the car’s driver or the car’s mechanic.
Up until now, little thought has been given to the UX design of the interfaces for these systems. But don’t expect UX design to stay in the… er, the backseat.
UX Design in Automotive Touch Screens
Vehicles in decades past had switches, buttons, and knobs to control the radio, windows, air conditioning, heating, and so on. While some vehicles still have a few buttons and knobs, more and more are asking drivers to use a touch screen.
And unfortunately, in most automobiles, the touch screen experience has been ghastly. It’s as though car manufacturers are not hiring qualified graphic/UX designers to create these systems; everything looks like it was made in the 1990s. Read Jacky Li’s article, “Why touchscreens in cars don’t work” to see a product designer’s take on automobile touch screen user experience.
UX Design in Automotive-Related Apps
Many newer vehicles have apps; these vary based on the manufacturer. There are apps that allow owners to lock or unlock the vehicle from a smartphone, and apps for remote starting. In some vehicles with navigation systems, there are connected apps that can send navigation data from a phone to the car’s system.
Real-time diagnostics for a growing sector of the app field; for example, a user may be able to check tire pressure from an app. Some vehicle makers include Wi-Fi and hotspot capabilities in cars. A useful app for people who forget where they park in large lots or structures is a vehicle locator. This type of app connects to the car to show its location and guide the user back to it.
All of these useful apps present a growing opportunity for graphic designers–especially those with UX design experience.
UX Design in Vehicular Operating Systems
Since vehicles today have their own computer systems, they also have operating systems. Ford, Kia, and several other brands use a form of Windows operating system that is designed specifically for automotive applications. The operating system is customized to solely support the features of the vehicle.
As another example, many automobiles have in-vehicle infotainment systems (IVIs). The IVIs are responsible for all audio and video applications, and if there are digital screens for rear passengers, the IVI supports that.
When was the last time that you tried to watch a DVD in a minivan or SUV? Chances are, you hated the graphical interface. However, the car-buying population has now been using slick phone UIs for a lifetime, so we can expect a growing need for better UX design in these systems.
UX Design in the Electric Vehicle Field
Finally, at least the electric car field is getting some UX design love. For drivers of electric cars, there are plenty of apps that connect features of the vehicle to the end-user. For example, a level 2 charging station by Enel X comes with an app to remotely monitor recharge. Everything about this app is uncluttered, easy-to-understand, and user-friendly. The Tesla dashboard is another shining example. While it may not look like Steve Jobs designed it, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Electric automobiles are already a field of forward-thinking innovation. When you think of Tesla, you probably think of it as more of a tech company and less like the big automotive companies such as Ford or Chevy–and rightly so. The rest of the industry will soon begin to turn to companies like Tesla and Enel X for inspiration, creating more and more opportunities to showcase top-level UX design.