In-vehicle UX research: Here’s one recommendation that hasn’t changed in 10 years

February 26, 2018

After recently conducting research on drivers’ experience with technology in their vehicles, I reflected on what has changed about that experience in the last 10 years…. and what hasn’t changed. The availability of customized, on-demand, and context-appropriate information in in-vehicle displays seems to be one of the biggest differences that drivers now benefit from, compared to their experiences 10 years ago. However, in-vehicle voice recognition was a particularly interesting topic during the research. In some cases, these systems have progressed considerably in the past decade such that they are useful now. But in many cases, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between current voice interfaces and those of the late 2000’s.

What’s impacting drivers now

There are a lot of cool things on the horizon for the auto industry with autonomous vehicles gaining momentum, but I’m talking specifically about features equipped in late model mass market vehicles that are having a pretty big impact on a large portion of the population’s driving experience right now. The integration of customizable and context-sensitive safety, diagnostic and convenience information into instrument clusters, and even the heads-up display (HUD) has changed the typical driver experience.

In an affordable $20,000-$30,000 vehicle, drivers can get a technology and communications package that allows them to have a wealth of information at their fingertips. Diagnostic and safety sensors providing alerts whenever vehicle status is sub-optimal, lane departure warning alerts and driver attention (or rather, lack thereof) alerts, numerous cameras and sensors on the exterior of the vehicle to assist maneuvering in tight quarters, or just park the car for you, haptic indicators to orient attention to directional alerts, and of course, the ability to control connected media devices without ever taking your hands off the wheel. These are just a few of the things that might not be exactly revolutionary anymore, but are currently changing how mainstream drivers experience their vehicles.

HUDs seem to be on the border – they are not new in automotive application but have not yet achieved the mainstream deployment that you see for other technologies. HUDs can be valuable even if they are only capable of showing a driver their speed and the current speed limit for the road. When turn-by-turn navigational cues, safety alerts, and customizability are added in, the HUD feature starts to be more than just a ‘nice to have’.

A “real” voice system

With respect to voice recognition – these systems still leave much to be desired. I was a bit surprised to recently find myself having similar conversations with research participants about their experience using voice recognition systems as I had with research participants 10 years ago. There are some that HAVE gotten significantly better and allow for fairly natural speech patterns to be used when interacting with the system. But mostly, the systems still require clunky one- or two-word commands to precede any sort of action other than making a phone call.

Interestingly, now drivers have Amazon Echo, Google Home, and even Siri to use as a benchmark. They are even less willing to accept a system that doesn’t allow for them to converse at least as naturally they do when they use those systems. Ask drivers to compare their in-vehicle voice recognition systems to their experience with voice assistants and prepare for them to go on a diatribe about how cool it would be to have a “real” voice system in their vehicle to make commanding that system while driving easier.

Eventually, it will all come together. Personally, I am waiting for the day when I can say “Alexa, take me home.”