Will Ford learn that software isn’t manufactured?

Ford Motor Company has just convincingly demonstrated that being an excellent industrial manufacturer doesn’t automatically mean that you are an excellent maker of digital technology. Despite Ford’s improvements in manufacturing quality, their overall ratings fell precipitously this year due solely to the poor software interaction on their dashboards. A recent article in the New York Times discusses Ford’s plummeting fall in user rankings this year, focusing the blame on their new touch screen interface.

Ford Display
MyFord Touch on new Ford Edge—heavily criticized in J.D. Power’s research and “frustrating” according to Consumer Reports.

According to the article, J.D.Power, the auto industry arbiter, dropped Ford’s ranking from 5th to 23rd, and subsidiary Lincoln’s ranking from 8th to 17th place. J.D.Power acknowledges that both Ford and Lincoln’s fit and finish are excellent. It was the “annoying” behavior of their driver-facing interactive systems that caused their ratings to plummet. Other reviewers concur, as Consumer Reports yanked their “Recommended” rating from Ford’s new 2011 Edge model. Read More

Making sense of automotive information systems

As more information flows through automotive information systems, the UIs have become ever more complex and confusing. Drivers must sacrifice more and more valuable time and attention to find menus, enter information, and manage the integration of “after-market” devices, e.g. cell phones and MP3 players. Let’s take a fresh look at the layout of the console, and see if there are opportunities to clear up this confusion.

Today: Notice that the console (3) isn’t optimized for either the primary driver vision axis (1), or the passenger (2).

In today’s cars, critical information — status, emergency signaling, speed, fuel, temperature, and RPM gauges — is located in the driver’s primary vision axis, behind the steering wheel. This minimizes the impact on the driver’s attention while driving. Current steering wheel controls often provide physical buttons to control various on-the-fly tasks — signaling, gear changing, cruise control, volume, back/next, take/drop a call — to ensure that the driver keeps his hands on the wheel.

The BMW 7 series HUD

In higher-end cars like the BMW 7 series, head-up displays (HUDs) are becoming standard. HUDs integrate simplified driving instructions, speed limits, and emergency information into the primary vision axis, reducing the need to look down even a couple of degrees. In fact, there’s even an app for this! It’s called aSmart HUD.

In more and more cases, the center console offers a multitude of functionality, including the setup of various systems, navigation and entertainment controls. This console delivers a potpourri of content intended for both drivers and passengers, and it’s placed directly in between driver and passenger, requiring both to move toward the middle in order to use it. From the driver’s point of view, passenger operation of this console can feel like a friend grabbing the mouse from the driver’s hand and taking over. Not pleasant, and potentially the beginning of an argument.

Why not break up the center console platform and re-focus on the two different user types?

Tomorrow? Let’s optimize the content for each user.

The driver-oriented UI

Move the driver-related content into the driver’s primary vision axis behind the steering wheel, and provide access to supplementary content into the passenger area. There will be some overlap, of course: Radio and climate controls should be accessible by both. But wouldn’t it be nice to have two UIs tailored to the very different usage situations, rather than one general purpose UI?

Obviously, complex functionality and setup routines should be disabled while the car is moving, but the basics would live within the sphere of the driver. This would begin to make the driving experience more targeted, more functional, and hopefully safer. A platform with an enlarged display such as Ford’s Fusion SmartGauge 3 could supply this added functionality.

For enhanced controls while the car is stopped, the steering wheel could provide tactile “navigate & act” controls, such as multi-touch track pads or even a touchscreen. This would also avoid additional controllers such as Audi’s MMI, BMW’s iDrive or Lexus’s latest Remote Touch.

The passenger-oriented UI

As we’ve already seen with many current cars, passengers already have individual screens available, though these are mostly in the rear seats. Why not place all non-driving specific controls explicitly in the hands of a passenger? This could be a solely touch screen system because the passenger isn’t driving and therefore can focus 100% on input and navigation of the system. You could even take it one step further, and allow the passenger to modify the driver’s view with supplementary information — GPS directions, weather, and so on. This would support and enhance the driver/navigator dynamic, and get away from the current situation, which all too often leads to confusion and conflict.

What do you think? Read More

The Drawing Board: Fill ‘er up

We find that looking at the world from the perspective of users and their goals makes us notice a lot of bad interactions in our daily lives. Being solution-minded designers, we can’t help but pick up a whiteboard marker to scribble out a better idea. We put together “The Drawing Board”, a series of narrated sideshows, to showcase some of this thinking.

In this episode, we look at car information systems. Sure there’s a ton of useful data in there, but most of it is trapped behind a series of menus, idly waiting for us to enter the correct sequence of commands to unlock it. We imagine a car information system that’s more forthcoming with the data it already has, making us feel like we’ve got a great road-trip buddy in the passenger seat instead of a computer.

Credits: Emma van Niekerk and Suzy Thompson. Read More

The Ford Fusion SmartGauge: good stuff, missed opportunities

There’s been a certain amount of buzz in automotive circles about the new SmartGauge dash display in the Ford Fusion hybrid. What’s so cool? According to Ford, the car encourages fuel-efficient driving habits by giving users constant feedback. What’s not to love about encouraging cleaner driving (if we can’t get people out of their cars entirely)? Then there’s the customizable LCD, which is what really has the car geeks going (check out this video of how it works).


Unfortunately, Ford missed multiple opportunities by thinking of the LCD as basically a digital translation of an analog dashboard–right down to the secondary km/h display on an “analog” dial–plus the ability to display some pretty pictures. The real benefit of that LCD is that you can show users exactly the information they need–and only the information they need–at any time. The less visual information there is, the more likely a driver (who already has a heavy cognitive load) will be able to make use of it. Unlike a physical dashboard, a digital display doesn’t need to show engine temperature, for example, until it’s becoming a potential problem. I suspect most people would much prefer to see their dash display driving directions or even the name of the song currently playing on the radio.

The visual display itself could be rendered much more legible. For example, it would help not to have lines running behind the numbers on the mpg display. If the green leaves are supposed to make drivers feel good about their behavior, that’s a legitimate aim, but a simple gauge would make the fuel-efficiency of my driving style easier to interpret.

Since there’s an onboard computer assessing driving style, Ford could have made better use of the information the car is already gathering. For example, if the car knows the fuel tank and battery are half-full and knows how fuel-efficient I’m being, why can’t it save me some mental math and tell me how many miles I can go without refueling? Also, if it knows what makes my driving style less efficient than it could be, why not visually point out behavior (such as shifting to a different gear) that would be more fuel efficient?

Kudos to Ford for thinking green and for incorporating a long-overdue technology in the car dashboard. As is so often the case with technology products, though, I think I’ll be waiting for version 2.
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In telematics, no technology is a panacea

The buzz in the telematics industry lately is centered around why it’s not living up to expectations. Ford and Qualcomm recently ended their multi-million dollar telematics joint venture called Wingcast, which was one of the major players in the industry. Two years ago, projections for the telematics market in 2010 were in the $40 billion range; newer studies now put that amount closer to $20 billion. Telematics suppliers are cutting staff, and automotive manufacturers are scaling back telematics initiatives. So what’s the problem?

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