In a recent piece for Wired magazine’s Autopia blog, Doug Newcomb profiled the owner of a small Oregon-based interactive design agency, a young, tech-savvy woman with disposable income – the ideal customer for an automotive company. Somewhat ironically, she had no idea how to operate the infotainment features of her 2012 Porsche Cayenne S. “There’s an anxiety that I’m not using all the great features on my car because it’s too difficult,” she says in the piece. “I can’t figure out how to get to the right screen. Or I’m there but can’t access the right settings.”
That’s not surprising, as most contemporary in-dash car-tech systems range from moderately confusing to downright indecipherable. But Newcomb’s post took a strange tack. He said “everyone we spoke with agreed that the biggest failure with in-car technology has little to do with vehicle systems and more to do with owners.”
To address this problem, Newcomb wrote, luxury brands like Lexus, Cadillac and BMW are staffing their dealerships with dedicated tech support specialists. Chevrolet has been forced to hire 25 new “connected customer support staff” members to deal with drivers who, like most of us, are confused about how to operate their in-dash computers. The manufacturers aren’t willing to admit that the fault might lie in their interfaces.
“The hardware itself is really pretty bulletproof,” says a Lexus executive in the piece. “It’s very robust and reliable. Occasionally we’ll get a bad hard drive or a bad screen. We are having challenges, but it has less to do with the components of the vehicle and more with dealing with customers on how to properly pair their phones.”
But that’s the wrong way to frame this issue. It’s not about whether or not this sort of technology breaks down, because it rarely does. It’s about whether the technology is effective and easy to use. Which it’s not.
Bad technology experiences frustrate customers and damage the reputation of the brand. That’s true with phones, with DVRs, with banking software, with tablets and with personal computers. When those interfaces fail, it’s not the fault of the consumer. It’s the fault of the company. The same should hold true for the automotive industry. They can’t just jam a third-rate tablet into the dashboard, proclaim it “interconnected” and then blame customers for not being able to figure it out.
The ideal tech interface design, whether you’re talking about a smartphone or an in-car infotainment system, is one that eliminates the need for instructions. Technology is supposed to simplify the experience of using a product, not make it more complicated. When it comes to cars, that’s even more important. Convoluted information systems distract people’s attention when they should really be concerned about driving. Despite traction control, antilock brakes and all the other advances that have been made in recent years, driving is still tricky business. When you’re going 70 on the highway, or even idling in a parking lot, it’s not a good time to be recalling complicated instructions for what should be simple tasks.
A driver should be able to effortlessly sync their phone, navigate maps, and flip on their favorite XM radio station without having to tap a lot of buttons or struggle to find the main menu. A good infotainment center has its place, particularly in luxury cars, but a bad interface, in addition to being potentially unsafe, damages the brand and makes it seem much less premium.
Carmakers need to remember that infotainment centers aren’t the main reason people buy cars. They need them to get from Point A to Point B. When you drive, you deal with weather conditions, crazy drivers, traffic and tons of other stresses. Drivers just want their systems to play music they like and get them where they want to go. If a tech-savvy driver can’t figure out how to sync her phone to her car’s dashboard interface, then it’s up the car companies to give her one that suits her. Blaming your customers is a guaranteed path to losing them. The problem has everything to do with vehicle systems and nothing to do with the owners.