UX Brighton goes for a Spin

Last night’s UX Brighton looked at the challenges for engineers, researchers, and UX specialists in designing interfaces for the automobile industry. Two expert speakers shared their experiences designing interfaces between human and machine. The event, organised by Tom Prior, gave a fascinating insight into the latest trends in car design and UX.

First up was Phil Higgs, the Design Manager at Jaguar Land Rover. Phil joined Jaguar Land Rover as a User Interface & Experience Designer in 2008, and has been overseeing in-car cross brand UI & UX design activity since 2011. His current work focuses on advancing in-car cluster, touchscreen and user experience designs. This covers a range of aspects of car usage from touchscreen displays on the dashboard to the ambience of the lighting.

jaguar landrover

The simple design touches that we experience in cars every day are a lot more complicated than we often assume. The response speed of these designs is crucial, one example Phil gave was a car that has a camera on the back to give you a better view when reversing. This can be a useful feature but if it takes time to respond it may be the case that the screen doesn’t start showing the view from that camera until the driver has already reversed out of his drive and driven off down the road. Another example was a getaway driver after a bank robbery, though I imagine this would be a bit of an edge case. It seems that hardware limitations can be a major factor in this type of design.

He touched on user testing and how they run ‘customer drives’ across the world to get feedback from people using the new designs on a daily basis. The major car companies also use motor shows as a way to get reaction to their ideas. They will show of concept cars and designs and the feedback they receive on these may help determine whether the designs actually make it into cars out on the road. It seemed from what Nick was saying that there were quite a lot of designs that didn’t get as far as making it to final production and that a lot of time and effort was spent on designs that got no further than the motor shows.

It seemed like a lot of the designs were led by imagination and trends more than UX, with car companies trying to come up with innovating and exciting designs rather than focusing on improving the current driving experience. A lot of the designs took inspiration from jet fighters or high-end watches and seemed to be designed to appeal on an aesthetic level rather than for better user experience.

There has been an increase in phone apps that control features in the car. These allow users to do things like set the temperature or set a destination for the in-car satnav remotely.

Phil concluded by talking about, and demonstrating, some of the more futuristic designs that we might start seeing in cars soon. One feature that looked particularly interesting was the 3D augmented reality display. This used augmented reality to display a satnav in front of the bonnet of the car and could also be used to show other information to minimise the need for drivers to keep looking down at the dashboard. We can also look forward to more voice and gesture control in cars in the near future.

Dr Nick Reed

After a short break Dr Nick Reed the Principal Human Factors Researcher at TRL spoke about his research related to the introduction of automated vehicles. Nick’s background is in cognitive psychology and perception and he has published many papers and reports in the area of driver behaviour and training.

TLR are world renowned experts in car research, consultancy and testing and have been for many years. Nicks talk started off showing a brief history of car testing, from early ‘simulators’ to today’s tests where users are surrounded by large screens and eye tracking cameras. These kinds of tests are used to analyse the effects that drugs and alcohol have on drivers.

Nick went on to question whether there really is ‘freedom’ in car driving. Driving is often not a pleasurable experience, increased traffic volume causes problems, the costs associated with driving are high and, most shockingly, driving is the number one cause of death for young people. It’s estimated that up to 95% of accidents have human error as a factor and if cars were more automated then this could go a long way to making driving safer.

There are currently five levels of vehicle automation, shown on the table below, and it’s the line between the Partially Automated cars that are currently on the road and the Highly Automated cars that is set to be a key transition over the coming years.

vehicle automation table

A recent project in called SARTRE looked at creating a sort of ‘road train’ where there is one lead vehicle with a driver and all the cars behind follow it automatically with no need for any input from their drivers. Cars could join and leave the ‘train’ at any time.

While the technology is already available for fully automated cars there are bigger issues that still need to be considered. One of these is the legislation around how they would be used. When does is the driver liable and when is the car liable? There is also the impact that these vehicles would have on human behaviour to consider. Would people be happy to join a car train and let another driver take control?

Some questions from the audience followed, including one about how car UX compared to website UX.  Nick summed it up nicely answering with: “People don’t tend to die if you get websites wrong”. This summed the issues faced be people like Nick and Phil. Designers designers consider response times for website and apps to be pretty important but the response times in car UIs could literally be a matter of life and death.

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