One of the last predictions from Steve Jobs, the omniscient founder of Apple, was that TV would be the next frontier ripe for a design overhaul. He stated correctly that the interfaces for television were stuck in the past, and that in order to really enhance the way we experience programming is to vastly rethink the User Experience of this medium.
With the current market share battles of Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast, one would assume that Steve was correct and Apple was actively working on a revolutionary product. But, in the 2014 and 2015 International Consumer Electronic Shows, TVs were not the items that most reflected “the wave of the future.” They had nice design curves and wireless connectivity, but nothing groundbreaking as far as their interfaces. Instead, automobiles were the draw … so much so that the shows looked like auto auctions.
The conclusion: the next revolution will not be televised … it will be in your car.
I’m not surprised on the focus on cars, since auto interfaces are ripe for redesign. Think about the versatility and almost limitless capabilities of your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Now look at your car’s dashboard. Notice a difference? Comparatively speaking, most cars are stuck in the Stone Age compared to the devices people are toting around in their pockets and purses.
Here are the biggest problems auto interface designers have to overcome:
- Car dashboards have been very slow in evolving from their traditional roots. Automakers continue to try and replicate physical buttons and knobs. (Think about the first ebook readers, where you would see “pages” turn on the screen.) Interfaces are starting to trend away from these skeuomorphic designs because, in reality, that isn’t how you use your smartphone or tablet. It’s time to forget physical car design and get down to the business of making interfaces for cars that work the same way as the rest of the devices we rely on every day.
- Too many car dashboard variations create endless problems. Imagine for a moment that the standard QWERTY keyboard doesn’t exist. Every time you go to use a keypad, there’s a different keyboard with different controls. Users would be endlessly frustrated by the myriad changes, yet that’s the state of car dashboards today. Every company has different standards, but we desperately need to think about the users first.
- Technology obsolescence is speeding up. To date, most car dashboards have had built-in software for navigation, music, etc. That means that what you have is what you get – for the life of the car. No software updates; no interface design changes. Can you imagine having a smartphone for 5 or 10 years but never getting a software update? You would be left in the dust, technologically speaking! Car dashboards have to mimic their smaller mobile counterparts, with the capacity for regular updates and improvements.
The good news is, cars are about to go from zero to sixty when it comes to their interfaces (and it can’t happen fast enough for me). Later this year, Apple’s CarPlay will allow you to connect your iPhone to your car so you can easily access everything on your phone – from directions to meetings to music. Android Auto is right around the corner. Tesla leads the pack with a completely touchscreen interface (though it does not interface with mobile devices).
The key, in my view, is to have auto-agnostic interfaces: interfaces that rely on your mobile device, rather than on software built into the car. An auto-agnostic interface would basically be an empty container. You plug in your phone (any phone – that’s an important consideration for design, too), and your phone’s interface shows up. The car’s software itself would be constantly updated so that it could connect seamlessly with any user phone throughout the life of the car.
Take a moment to imagine the on-the-road revolution that would follow the installation of auto-agnostic interfaces. For instance,
- You are passing a florist and your car reminds you that it’s Valentine’s Day – do you want to pick up a bouquet for your wife?
- You are on the highway, and an alert sounds that your home alarm system is going off. You can get off at the next exit to make a speedy return.
- You are out shopping, and the nearby Target sends you a dozen coupons – all for things you purchase regularly.
- You are stuck in traffic. Your car notes that you have a meeting in 10 minutes. You don’t have time to get back to the office, but there is a coffee shop around the corner with wi-fi.
People spend a lot of time in their cars – commuting, taking the kids to soccer practice, getting away for the weekend, and running errands. Isn’t it time we made our cars “smarter” by leveraging their potential for personalization, safety, scheduling, convenience, and savings?
After all, at one time, cell phones just made phone calls (a horrific idea for any teenager). Perhaps a decade from now, we’ll look at our cars and say, “Remember when cars were just a tool to take us from Point A to Point B? I don’t know how I ever managed!”