Designing Apps For In-Car Technologies

In the past few years, a selection of high-end automakers such as BMW and Jaguar have changed their perception of in-car applications and have begun to listen to why consumer would like new ways to use their smart devices while driving. These in-vehicle infotainment systems have been primarily designed and developed in-house and haven’t offered many opportunities for 3rd party developers to get in on the action. A couple months back, we wrote a great blog post on the  different type of systems that are currently being developed, in this post however we’ll be concentrating on the design and user experience considerations when developing these new types of mobile applications.

Designers of these apps will have to consider the multitude of environments these drivers will find themselves in, whether it’s in a crowded downtown area or in the peaceful countryside, context is everything. The way these apps are designed and the inclusion of specific user flows are very important and should have extra attention paid to during the strategy phase of the project.

When designing the interface for in-car systems, attention should be brought to several aspects including:

  • The size of all UI buttons should generally be larger and include more padding for the hit state (Android’s nine patches are your best friends)
  • Keep the overall UI to a clean and simple navigation, no small “back” arrows that are excluded from the core homescreen, instead opt for a large back button that stays consistently in the lower left corner
  • Avoid smaller font sizes and keep the on-screen copy to a bare minimum you don’t want drivers staring for an extended time trying to read your copy
  • If you decide to design your own UI patterns, keep in mind that a consistent UX is critical, large content areas are essential in providing a more visual experience (especially with features such as Maps or Music type apps)
  • Avoid any type of blinking or animated assets as the key here is to design without distracting the drivers as much as possible, a middle ground of aesthetically pleasing and usability is the goal

I recently attended a technical session at SIGGRAPH 2012, where Raja Bose of the Ubiquitous Mobile Interoperability Team at Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto lead a talk about their experience developing MirrorLink, a technology adopted by automotive and mobile device industries worldwide as a standard for interoperability of smartphones with in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems. One of the many takeaways that I noted was how the app dynamically changed its view depending on user defined variables.

There’s 2 core features in the Maps app that were the most intriguing: 1) When driving at slower speeds, the Map would display more street details and generic points of interest, however, when driving faster the Map would transition to a less detailed view, only displaying major highways for navigation. 2) The app allowed the user to select which mode was more important to him/her. You could select “Fastest Possible Route” or “Known/Previous Route” which would alter the Map and customize it to your mood. These contextual features are, in my opinion, what drives innovation in these types of in-vehicle apps.

As part of the strategy when designing these apps, a leading feature and best practice for a good user experience would be to incorporate voice controls to enable hands free navigation. In Android you can develop niche apps that will make use of “Car Mode” with entirely different configurations available. Essentially, with a constant Background Service running, developer could “listen” for voice commands that would navigate and select UI elements throughout the entire app allowing the user to concentrate on driving and not their entertainment.

Just as Ford Sync pioneered these type of voice-controlled interactions, developers are now in the position to brainstorm new ways drivers can use their app while keeping them safe within their automobiles. I believe we’ll see more developers use “voice” as the cornerstone of their in-car applications. I should note that Mercedes-Benz recently announced that it will be the first to incorporate iPhone’s Siri voice command technology in their in-dash system, available in the new A-Class car sold in Europe, through a Mercedes-Benz-developed app named Digital DriveStyle.

The problem that were facing is the notion that developers will simply port their tablet apps to this new car platform and not take into consideration any of the accessibility issues their apps will produce. There is a current movement to educate the public and more specifically, app designers and communicate the importance of focusing on new types of user interfaces that support features that won’t distract drivers and put their safety as risk. I know that, at least in Ontario there are “distractive driver” laws in place to prevent people from unnecessarily using their smartphones while in motion. If developers want their apps to gain traction with drivers, they will surely have to keep these new UI design patterns in mind.

Greg Carron | Chief Evangelist | @pixeladdikt

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