Car Tech Isn’t Failing, the Design is Failing

By Lisa Helminiak

January 9, 2014

A driver can’t figure out the complicated dashboard in her new car. What’s the problem – the driver or the car?

Wired published an article this week by Doug Newcomb, touting “Car Tech Isn’t Failing. Owners and Infotainment Interfaces Are.” Mr. Newcomb writes, “while investigating whether the current explosion of automotive technology will cause owners of late-model cars to visit a shop more often, everyone we spoke with agreed that [the] biggest failure with in-car technology has little to do with vehicle systems and more to do with owners.” He goes on to outline how dealers are beginning to hire technical support staff to help people manage the ever-increasing complexity of technology in their cars.

But is more support staff really the answer? I can believe the infotainment interface is unusable, but as a designer, I’d never, ever say owners, the technology users, failed. Bottom line: the technology, which should include hardware, software and design, is broken if people can’t use it.

Granted, it takes some study to figure out how new technology works. I needed to glance through my manual to figure out how to manage my first smart phone. I’m certain I don’t use all its features. But that’s okay; I use it in the way that suits me. Cars offer a unique challenge because drivers need to stay focused on the road. They need to drive safely in ever-changing conditions with minimal distractions.

With many emerging technologies, hardware engineers and software coders are in charge of the initial user experience (UX), design work, architecture and development. Technologists don’t think to incorporate design, since they see their goals as technical challenges, not usability problems. Even the author is focused on the failure or success of the systems in terms of hardware and electronic components, rather than design or UX. Since the technology is still emerging and there are no standards yet, consumers don’t know or care to compare features or user experiences. They are either delighted or frustrated by it. Early adopters, especially, are patient people who just want the newest and coolest and are willing to put up with the pain of bad design. The rest of us, however, don’t need to take the blame for technology that’s difficult to use.

What is most disappointing about the article is the fact that the writer applauds car manufacturers for not creating technology that breaks. Great, my car works as sold. I think consumers expect that now, thanks to Ralph Nader.

As with any technology, as it matures, companies figure out they need to make it work for human beings. Especially once they realize that the cost of bad design is going to be hours upon hours of staff time to help customers troubleshoot. People are distracted, tired and have better things to do than sit in their car for two hours to figure out how to turn on their radio. The smart auto companies will hire real user experience experts, human factors specialists and designers to make their technology work for people. Then their customers won’t have to go to the dealer to configure their Bluetooth phone, call support to turn on their defrost or look away from the road to do anything other than break up a fight between kids in the back seat. Maybe then Mr. Newcomb will turn the blame away from drivers and reassess his conclusion that if hardware isn’t malfunctioning, the failure can only be coming from the user. Maybe he and the automakers will see there is a giant gap in between where user experience and design need to be.

Image Credit: Knight Rider KITT

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