It is easily agreeable that car infotainment systems are one of the worst experiences of driving. In a world of such advanced technologies, our car infotainment systems seem to be stuck in the past.
The recent release of Apple's CarPlay directed a lot of attention to that market, so I decided to take a look at the design and user interfaces of the many infotainment systems, including Apple's CarPlay. This is my first Thoughts & Analysis post here in the blog, a section devoted to showcasing my thoughts on all things design, ranging from urban planning to car interiors.
If you think about it there are two main sides to user interfaces in infotainment systems: the output of displaying information and media, and the input of user interacting with the system. Basically, a physical (hardware) and a logical (software) component. In a car, something like this:
Sadly we are years behind on both aspects. One of the reasons being most of the infotainment systems out there are developed in-house by the car makers themselves, and we know they aren't experts on user interfaces. So we end up with systems that look ugly and are hard to use. They usually have more features than any driver could possibly need and they become obsolete incredibly fast.
I always thought when newer cars came out they would have better user interfaces, but the brand new electric BMW i3 is a proof that isn't true. Sporting one of my favorite car interiors, the i3 uses BMW's Connected Drive software which is controlled by a rotary dial on the central console instead of the popular touch screen.
The idea of the dial is that the driver wouldn't actually have to touch a screen and would use the rotary dial without having to look at it. The knob actually works a lot better than a touch screen, but it still needs a great UI to go along.
I was ready to love the i3's infotainment system. It look very fresh and modern, just like the car, but than you realize how hard to use it is. It is not made for somebody who is driving a car; it is cumbersome and bloated with features.
This seems to be the tone with most systems, when they are not ugly, they are completely unusable. I'm guessing it is basically impossible to discern the icons on that screen below from the drivers seat.
The new Range Rover Evoque is another proof of a car with such a forward thinking exterior design but a dashboard User Interface stuck in the 90's. Land Rover produces incredibly expensive cars and their UI's still look like this:
Even when the system is actually not that poor-looking, like the Audi system in this Q5, the learning curve is pretty steep. Over designing seems to be the only thing consistent among all these user interfaces.
The Mercedes system in this CLA follows the same path as the Audi: it isn't that ugly, but trying to get the hang of how to operate the system while driving will take you quite some time. They also tried the knob as a replacement for touch screen, but again the UI for that was too cumbersome.
More expensive Mercedes models like the S-Class have a completely different system that appears to be almost equally over designed and hard to operate. There is a lack of simplicity and modernity you would expect from new car models.
To be honest, I don't blame car makers for the clunky interfaces. After all, their main goal is to make good cars. Their main goal should be to make good cars. But for todays buyers the infotainment system is almost as important as the car; having a clunky one might make you lose a sale.
Which is why I asked myself why didn't automakers outsource their entretainment system for third party makers? Give it to someone who works with technology, let's say. Well, Ford did just that handing the keys of its system over to Microsoft. The problem is their partnership resulted in this mess:
Microsoft was able to lend its voice recognition software and add a ton of features to the Ford system, but the interface still looked horrible as shown in the 2012 Ford Fusion above. Even on newer versions of the SYNC system, like in this 2014 Fiesta, the interface was still hard to navigate and very DOS-like.
Ford actually appeared to have something good at a certain point with their AppLink platform which allowed for applications to be developed for the system; Pandora, NPR, and Slacker all had an app for the car.
The problem is that the interface and app installation was so clunky and poorly executed by Microsoft that Ford is reportedly ditching them for Blackberry’s QNX platform for their next Sync system. Summing up, there isn't a single system out there that is both well designed and usable; sad, but true.
So this is the world where CarPlay comes in: one with a mess of proprietary systems, ugly interfaces and over-designed dashboards. Apple's approach isn't to create a whole new system for car makers, hoping they adopt it in next years models. They made an UI that displays you information in a car-appropriate way simply by connecting your iPhone to a lightning connector on CarPlay compatible cars.
Compared to the interfaces we looked at before, the CarPlay almost looks too simple. But if you consider that the people who are using it are driving, it is to-the-point in a great way. There is no learning curve to an iPhone user, the UI design mimics iOS7—just in a car-adapted fashion. It is also always up to date, the software is in your phone, not in the car. A simple, fresh approach.
People are usually with their iPhone all day long. They have their music, videos, maps and everything they could possibly need on their phones. They don't need a new system, they just need a screen that shows their everyday system in a car-appropriate format. Car makers have all failed to do that, so it appears that the phone makers themselves will have to do that task.
It does make more sense if you think about it: Nexus-phone, android car interface; iPhone, iOS car interface. It doesn't matter what car you are in, it matters what phone you have. Car makers will differentiate themselves with display quality, speakers, and positioning. Phone, not car makers, have all the technologies developed already: personal voice assistants, map technologies and UI experts available.
A proof of how it makes more sense for makers like Apple and Google to develop in-car solutions is Siri on the car. I knew if Apple ever went on with their iOS in the Car initiative, Siri was going to be a big part of it. The ability to dictate voice commands is crucial to the success of any car dashboard system today. The only other manufacturer that appeared to do that well was Ford.
The difference in how Apple understands UI is clear when you look at the way voice works in the system. When Ford did their voice dictation, the user would often be greeted with screens like this when they clicked the phone app:
In the CarPlay interface, the interactions appear to be less in a cumbersome UI with touch screen and more in a conversational manner with Siri. Instead of ordering something with your voice to have the car deny your response, Siri converses with you part by part of who you want to call and message.
There is a big difference between trying to dictate an entire text message and Siri have it ask you the parts of the message while driving. The talking instead of ordering facilitates the dialogue between the system and the person driving. Having a conversation with the system humanizes it to the point of voiding any possible frustrations. User Interface done right.
CarPlay isn't a direct challenge to car makers proprietary in-house systems though, Mercedes opted to have its COMMAND car information be an app in lieu of the main CarPlay interface. Volvo and Ferrari did it differently though:
Instead of bringing CarPlay center stage, Volvo incorporated it alongside it's proprietary system. Ferrari on the other hand added a button to their existing FF dash that allows access to CarPlay as sort of a media system replacement. This is where I see the most danger of this possibly great solution turning bad, Apple and other phone makers might lose control over their software quality.
Tesla for instance, has control of both its software and its hardware on the Model S shown. They are able to make things work the way they want. Apple will be dependent on the display quality its partners put out and if its interface is the center stage or not. But while Tesla might have that advantage, both solutions share a big disadvantage that car makers can actually help with: display positioning.
It doesn't matter how great an iOS or Android in the car interface works, if the driver still has to look downwards towards the screen it's a failure. The new Mercedes S-Class, for instance, has a gorgeous display right at the line of sight of the driver. It's a big leap forward that other manufacturers should be copying. It's a shame that the interface doesn't appear to be as modern as the car and relies heavily on skeumorphism.
Apple's attempt isn't perfect at all, but I'm glad its release brought attention to the disappointing state of infotainment system. The apparent rapid adoption by car manufacturers of CarPlay shows how much makers have been clamoring for someone to show then how its done.
A recurring topic of this Thoughts & Analysis section will be how good design is a tool to improve the quality of lives. I'm glad good design started showing up in the car interior scene, we've been waiting for a while.