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Designing A Sexy, Safe Touch Screen For Cars Is Harder Than It Looks

There are reasons why the latest concept dashboard UI hasn't been made a reality.

A few weeks ago, a gorgeous concept video of "a new car UI" made the rounds of the Internet, gathering praise as it went. With good reason: The video, created by product designer Matthaeus Krenn, shows a working prototype of a simple, sleek touch-screen interface that relies on glance-free gestures instead of cluttering the screen with tiny skeuomorphic buttons. The idea is simple: The less you have to look at the touchscreen in your car to effectively manipulate it, the better.

Then Apple's CarPlay system came out. What was the result of Cupertino's vaunted think-outside-the-box interface design process? A screen filled with tiny buttons. Sure, there's a lot of voice control on offer via Siri, but if you want to use that touch screen, you still have to take your eyes off the road and use them to aim your finger at haptically invisible digital controls. What's stopping designs like Krenn's from becoming a reality?

David Young, an interactive designer and former creative director at BMW Designworks USA, expressed misgivings about Krenn's concept on Twitter, so we asked him for some constructive criticism. (Krenn did not respond to interview requests.)

Young praised Krenn's design as a "beautiful, innovative, and unexpected" alternative to "the current hierarchical menu-driven interfaces, and all-buttons-at-once touch-screen interfaces we're currently seeing." However, Krenn's focus on re-creating the gestural simplicity of physical controls comes at the expense of flexibility. "Vehicles are increasingly complex systems, with lots of information to display and a wide range of customization and configuration options. Krenn's interface, however, only supports adjusting eight settings," Young says. "It's not nearly expandable enough for the complex demands of a modern vehicle." Instead of truly solving the problem of "too much information and buttons on a car's touch screen," Young suspects that Krenn's design merely avoids it.

There's also the problem that all gestural interfaces still have: They're unfamiliar and all have different rules that must be learned. Krenn's UI is admirably "logical," and "everything works fluidly," Young says, but "at a glance, it's not immediately obvious how things work." That might amount to a minor quibble on a smartphone app. "But for drivers unfamiliar with the interface—new drivers, infrequent drivers, car renters—it will be as perplexing as the icons on your clothes that give washing instructions," Young says. By re-creating an iPhone-like, icon-driven interface for CarPlay, Apple may not have wowed any futurists. But in the year 2014, pretty much anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car also knows how to operate an iPhone. That said, CarPlay is designed to augment the iPhone's display, not function independently like Krenn's. But Young's point—that in the context of safely operating a motor vehicle, usability and familiarity are nearly synonymous—is well-taken.

Finally, Krenn's UI has no haptic feedback. "So when changing a setting that doesn't give immediate feedback, such as changing a climate option, the driver is required to look at the display to see if their gesture is complete," Young says. This is less a criticism than an acknowledgement of hardware limitations—the iPad that Krenn used to mock up his concept has no vibration feature, after all. But there's nothing stopping car manufacturers from including this kind of haptic feedback into their designs. Physical knobs and dials often have catches or "detents" in their movement, which let you know that the knob has been turned sufficiently to register a change without having to look. Smartphone screens vibrate—by now, a familiar kind of haptic feedback—so why can't dashboard touch screens do the same?

This isn't to tear down Krenn's creation. Like any concept design, it exists primarily to drive constructive dialogue, and we're glad that David Young has added to the back-and-forth. Carmakers can do better—and the more voices we have telling them how to do so, the safer our dashboards will become.

[Matthaeus Krenn's touch-screen concept]

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