FD Group is on Car Design News
We forecasts the future challenges of human-machine interfaces within automotive HMI design services.
Digital technology has enabled many new kinds of HMI interface. How should the automotive sector strike the right balance between interaction and distraction?
The best interface is no interface: where the technology is very transparent and you don’t even feel as if you’re interacting with a machine. In general, it’s important to reduce clutter. For example, a digital cockpit can display a whole section of the colourful and detailed maps, as seen in the Audi TT for example. You need to look frequently at the cluster and need the information to be easy to get in a less than one-second glance, to avoid any danger of collision or missing a route.
A detailed map is pretty distracting. This is why we advise clients to keep data shown in the cluster to a minimum and transfer the rest to the centre stack.
Which brands do you think are leaders in HMI?
BMW is very good at removing load from the cluster and the iDrive system is visually appealing. But I have friends who own modern luxury BMW cars who struggle to play music through Bluetooth from their phones, or set proper pointer orientation on the navigation map. My experience shows performing quite a few tasks in iDrive takes too long and it feels like the system is overloaded with features which are not arranged in an intuitive way. Similarly, I am not sure Tesla is going in the right direction with massive displays, though it is very trendy. Mercedes made a slow but smooth transition away from the pure visual language of the infographic and cluster elements, possibly because of its heritage and respect for customers who are not always comfortable with revolutionary ways to show data. Through the reduction of glossy and chrome elements, more transparency and visual clarity, it has become simpler.
What are the most common mistakes in HMI design?
Unfortunately, there are significant problems. A lack of important user tests performed early in development causes ergonomic issues, leading to driver distraction. For instance, miscalculated distances to touchscreens, which are positioned too low on the central stack panel. Even the best carmakers tend to make the same mistake: they overload the structure with too many features. Then the user has to deal with a monstrous information architecture, which is hard to remember, making it impossible to find something important while driving.
Problems often stem from starting HMI development late during the whole car development cycle. A lack of attention to the holistic user experience area, extremely strict safety requirements, miscalculations in hardware supplements, the absence of important software updates and the timeframe it takes to make a vehicle production-ready all result in visually outdated, slow, dissatisfying and even dangerously distracting systems.
Digital clusters with skeuomorphic dials are fading away. What kind of graphics should take their place?
I think replicating physical objects was a necessary step. A smooth transition from one world to another avoids confusion. But people are now more comfortable with different ways of representing information. The BMW Concept 8 Series uses angular brackets instead of circles. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a welcome step, which others are bound to follow. Innovation is also likely to come from US and from Asian markets. The amount of emerging, ambitious automotive startups shows they are bold, brave and quick to bring new ideas to market. FD Group is expanding from Europe into California and Asia, and I expect many of our future clients will be from these regions.
You studied biochemistry and worked in game design before joining the automotive sector four years ago. How has your background influenced your thinking?
Biochemistry gave me a sense of the beautiful logic of nature, plus a structured approach to deriving results and drawing conclusions.
Game design taught me how to track the user and engage attention. My role has both rational and emotional parts – I consider myself a visual designer but I like that a scientific approach can lead to beautiful solutions. FD Group tackles exterior and interior design, packaging, lighting, modelling, sketching, and we recently started headhunting for our clients – so we have people from many different backgrounds.
Notions of reward and recognition have migrated from games into other software, with ‘gamification’ boosting engagement. Is this relevant in automotive design?
Definitely. Gamification can become a catalyst for driving human behaviour towards positive outcomes, particularly in the EV and hybrid market. GM, Honda, Nissan, BMW, Ford and Toyota have all experimented with integrating game patterns to promote fuel efficiency. For example, Ford’s Efficiency Leaves concept lives in the vehicle’s dashboard to provide visual feedback in the form of a plant’s leaves. Toyota took this to the next level with a subtle gamification of efficiency that rates the drive on a scale of 0 to 100, with higher scores being more efficient. Just adding metrics with a relative scale inspires people to drive more efficiently while the graphics provide feedback about things like the best accelerator position.
Reducing the number of physical knobs and switches, often for cost reasons, is another trend. How do you advise your clients on this topic?
It’s not simply about cost efficiency but also about brand perceptions. For example, there’s a row of controls in a Lamborghini that’s a heritage thing – if you got rid of it you’d lose a highlight of the interior that connects to the brand’s history. Plus, in any sports car, I’d suggest keeping the main controls physical because higher speeds bring greater dangers from distraction.
In a vehicle with a lot of safety and assistance features the risks are different. But I don’t tend to push for fewer controls. An alternative solution could be a screen with haptic feedback, though I don’t think that will replace the muscle memory of knowing a control is there and being able to use it automatically.
What other trends do you think will influence automotive HMI design?
I see a clear tendency to open up to new solutions on all levels, from shared mobility, connectivity, autonomy, up to alternative ways to provide driver feedback on the road and vehicle status. Mixed and augmented reality are a big step towards a simple intuitive interface.
The application of augmented and mixed realities is challenging, but we are working with the most reliable and developed solution so far – Microsoft Hololens glasses. One can see and fully interact with holograms of the in-car interface (including navigation and entertainment) using a pair of glasses. Virtual and mixed realities have a place in design development too, for visualising new interiors and exteriors. The pioneers are Volvo and Ford.
Do you think voice interaction will become more important?
Voice control, gesture control and gaze-tracking are natural interfaces – you avoid the mental step of understanding a metaphor and operate instead through intuitive actions related directly to natural, everyday human behaviour. They are potentially very promising but depend on the type of the car. For example, it’s hard to
use voice control in a noisy sports car.
The best solutions are likely to come through collaborations, such as Ford’s with Amazon Alexa, BMW and Nissan with Microsoft’s Cortana. Of course it’s a two-way street, and while the car manufacter recieves a good product that’s been tested in many different areas, its partner gets a lot of precious data about all drivers using this technology. It’s risky but will guarantee survival in the exponential growth of technological progress.
Making progress means understanding how the human mind works, the cognitive patterns. It’s not really about HMI but about making the car independent and smarter in itself.