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Iza Mrozowska
Head of Design
Product Design
11.08.2023 | 5 min

What are the UX and UI challenges in the Automotive industry?

Gone are the days when a car was simply a tool, getting us from point A to point B. In 2023, vehicles have evolved into powerful computers on wheels, capable of offering information, entertainment, and seamless connectivity. They inform us about the car's internal status, the external environment, and even activities occurring hundreds of kilometers away. This transformation means drivers engage with their vehicles on multiple levels, posing a remarkable opportunity and challenge for UX and UI designers. We're tasked with shaping these interactions through a graphical user interface, influencing safety, and impacting hundreds of millions of lives globally. So let's delve into some unique challenges in the design process and discuss actual UX and UI design examples implemented by industry leaders.

What are the UX and UI challenges in the Automotive industry? - 2024 17
Table of Contents
  • The ultimate challenge of user interface design: Engagement vs. Safety
  • User Experience vs. Driving Autonomy. Smooth control handover
  • Educational Role of UX/UI. Responsible Driving
  • UX in Sales and Brand Awareness: Driving Emotion and Desire
  • The Role of UX in Integration with Other Devices
  • Managing Information and Data through proper UX and UI design
  • Designing user interfaces in the future

The ultimate challenge of user interface design: Engagement vs. Safety

While traditional UX design principles, perfectly known from mobile apps and web design, aim to keep users engaged, the automotive interface must achieve the opposite—keeping drivers focused on the road. 

This calls for understanding user behavior, ergonomics, and how drivers process information while driving.

Car UI components and interface elements need to be transparent and minimalist, with large text, switches, and buttons, enabling users to interact without diverting their gaze from the road. 

As designers, we must also consider the driver's reach, sight lines, or nuances like differences between left and right-handed drivers. 

All these factors can affect the safety of driving. 

Take Volvo's XC90 interface as an excellent example of safety-focused design. The user interface minimizes distractions and facilitates driver concentration on the road, thanks to large, clear icons, intuitive menus, and controls that you can operate without taking your hands off the wheel.

On the other hand, despite many appreciating Tesla's modern and minimalist design in some models, numerous functions, even as critical as adjusting side mirrors, are controlled through a large touchscreen, demanding more attention and time from the driver than traditional physical switches.

User Experience vs. Driving Autonomy. Smooth control handover

Many of today's cars can control steering, acceleration, deceleration, and even change lanes on highways. Using sensors, cameras, and machine learning, cars can make increasingly advanced and intelligent decisions, removing decision-making power from drivers.

This creates a significant UX and UI design challenge: how should a car signal it's taking control?

Tesla's Autopilot system, which allows for some driving autonomy, has faced criticism due to its name suggesting fully autonomous driving. There have been instances where Tesla drivers, mistakenly assuming their cars were fully autonomous, crashed while driving on Autopilot and not paying attention to the road. 

It is a seemingly minor issue, but the term “Autopilot” itself has led to dangerous misunderstandings about the system's capabilities.

On the other hand, Audi's A8 model features a system called Traffic Jam Pilot, allowing for fully autonomous driving in specific conditions, like traffic jams up to 60 km/h. The system has clear rules about when it can be activated and when it needs to give control back to the driver. When the system needs to relinquish control, the driver receives a series of visual, acoustic, and even physical alerts, including seat vibrations. 

Educational Role of UX/UI. Responsible Driving

An interesting aspect of UI design in electric cars is educating users about sustainable driving, promoting battery longevity, road safety, and reducing environmental impact. The user interface can serve an educational function as a tool and guide, demonstrating responsible driving and how driving habits affect the external world. 

The challenge for designers is to educate drivers painlessly. They should feel encouraged to improve rather than feeling they're doing something wrong.

For example, the Prius “Eco Score” UI element rates the drivers' style based on energy efficiency, helping them understand how their behaviors impact fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. 

Ford deserves praise for the SmartGauge technology with the "EcoGuide" function in its Fusion hybrid model, introduced as early as 2010. The interface uses the plant growth analogy to show drivers their eco-driving level. The more energy-efficiently the car is driven, the more leaves appear on a virtual tree displayed on the dashboard. 

UX in Sales and Brand Awareness: Driving Emotion and Desire

Safety, intuitiveness, and education are all crucial in a car. However, it must also be marketable – and that's where UX and UI design come into play. Because, at the end of the day, we're the architects of user experiences and interfaces that create emotional connections between the customer and the product.

And these things sell.

Through interactions with a well-designed interface, drivers can experience the pleasure of driving, identify with the brand, and ultimately aspire to be part of it—by purchasing a vehicle and promoting the brand further. Interfaces can also focus on different driver experiences, thus appealing to distinct customer segments.

For instance, Tesla's sleek, modern interface and advanced autopilot features spark a sense of innovation, excitement, and anticipation. Because of its design, owning a Tesla is viewed as joining the vanguard of automotive technology—a powerful business selling point. 

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The stark design differences between Tesla and the previously mentioned Volvo are no accident. These two companies target different driver segments, and UX/UI is a medium to communicate brand values and attract the right customers. 

The Role of UX in Integration with Other Devices

In the era of smartphones and smartwatches, the integration between a car and other devices has never been so crucial. Drivers expect a seamless connection between their smartphones and vehicles.

This raises another UX/UI question of how deeply a car should integrate with other devices. Should the interface merely display apps from the phone or offer dedicated apps and features unavailable elsewhere?

I believe that Apple CarPlay has done it the right way. It allows drivers to utilize numerous iPhone functions directly through the car's infotainment screen, and the whole logic behind its usage is the same as on iPhones or Macbooks. 

Managing Information and Data through proper UX and UI design

Cars also generate vast amounts of information about the vehicle's technical condition, road conditions, weather forecasts, or even the location of the nearest charging station. But how to present all this information on the interface to the driver without overwhelming them with data and, again, not diverting their attention from the road? 

How to choose which information is most important? How to organize and present it understandably and helpfully?

This is yet another challenge for UX/UI designers. We need to understand what information is most important for drivers, what their priorities are, and how to present this information in a way that is intuitive and understandable.  

And hey, how about cultural and language differences that can influence how information is received and understood?

Designing user interfaces in the future

The list of UX and user interface challenges, along with design tools, is long and virtually endless. Understanding that design is the process, as we continue to develop technologies and introduce new solutions to cars and beyond, we, designers equipped with these tools and insights from user research, will undoubtedly have abundant material to work with.

And there's no sign of that changing anytime soon, so dear UX designer—brace yourself!

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