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Visual arts students vs. in-car technology

Thu, 09 May 2013 00:00:00 -0700

The automobile's natural technological evolution has gone from basics like wipers and headlights to high-tech infotainment systems that map your route, locate the nearest Starbucks, report weather and traffic, and stream personal music libraries. Yet many of these systems are difficult and distracting to use.

So we wondered: Of the infotainment systems out there, is there even one achieving its connectivity goals better than the rest?

To provide some perspective, we got together with Liz Danzico, head of the Interaction Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Three of her grad students helped evaluate several new in-car systems at the New York auto show:

--Steve Faletti grew up loving cars and became an industrial designer. He teaches at the Pratt Institute while getting his degree.

--Tony Chu was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. He has a degree in cognitive systems (psychology- and artificial intelligence-focused). He thinks in English, counts in Chinese, programs in JavaScript and designs in Photoshop.

--Min Seung was born in Korea; he worked in Samsung's Mobile User Experience Design department. More than 100 million people daily use phones with his designs. He has become especially interested in automotive interfaces and has developed a blog on the subject: Facebook, Pandora and others, but the students questioned whether apps appropriate to the car would flourish until car companies do like Apple or Android and open their technology to entrepreneurs and software developers.

Cadillac CUE—Moving Tablet Functionality

Chief creative designer Bill Thompson showed Cadillac's CUE. "We are trying to tell an elegant story," Thompson said. "This began about three years ago. We noticed there was a lot of disjointed design in cars' center stacks, especially in the graphics.

"So we put everybody under one roof. We consolidated engineering partners and interaction design and graphic design in a dedicated space, the User Experience Facility."

CUE's touchscreen offers a few exclusive features, including haptic feedback (a light tap-back when you press the screen), and capacitive response that senses your hand approaching and automatically loads your preset preferences. Some have complained about the capacitive functions' slow response, and, in fact, the students found it sluggish.

Their teacher was more positive.

"It was clear the design team started from the ground up," said Danzico. "The layers of UX they described—usability, desirability and surprise—were clearly a focus in the design."

She felt the CUE team, more than the others, seemed focused on creating a great user experience across the board: The interactions seemed appropriate for audiences at all levels.

The students liked Cadillac's ground-up approach and thus held out hope for the next generation.

"I respect their development with the software engineer and designer working closely together. That makes me hopeful about the next version," said Seung.

After seeing all three systems, patterns emerged, conclusions were drawn.

The students were skeptical about voice commands. "There is no voice system that works well in the world today," said Chu.

Danzico said many systems suffer from what designers call "the paradox of choice" in digital design: too many confusing choices making it hard to choose the function you want.

For example, Egger said MMI has been simplified for the new A3.

"We cleaned up everything and took away features," he said, acknowledging Audi will be using a "reduce to the max" design philosophy on all its in-car technology moving forward. CUE was the best-looking system, Chu and Seung agreed, both indicating the importance of a consistent aesthetic design inside a vehicle.

Overall, the group preferred the functionality of the Lexus system even though it thought the screen resolution was crude and simple.

It doesn't take the highest technology to be successful, said Chu.

The team also discussed the role smartphones and tablets play in raising expectations of how well in-car technology should work, as well as how long development times handicap automakers.

Also, a company's insistence on individual systems put the students off. "What happened to universal design in cars?" asked Seung.

"They all seem to put branding over usability," said Faletti. "The success of these systems will be a challenge so long as they operate on the assumption that they have to own the entire experience."

By Phil Patton