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Human Factors Research and Vehicle Interface Design: A Best Practice

 

Last year a U.S. auto manufacturer announced a startling leap forward in in-vehicle experience:

Ordering Donuts via dashboard while driving

As a user experience, it was not an immediate success. Probably the warmest review came from Daniel Howley, the technology editor at Yahoo! Finance: “[this] is a nice option, but it feels like a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.” Berkshire Hathaway strategy analysts were less forgiving: “As evaluated, this feature adds no value to the in-vehicle experience and is arguably unsafe for a driving use case because it encourages new and unnecessary visual/manual behavior while driving.”

Even otherwise favorable news coverage echoed these concerns. As Dr. Bryan Reimer, a human factors research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told The New York Times:

“One has to ask, is it really appropriate to shop in a car? As vehicles automate more, it is plausible that what is acceptable should change, but we haven’t really come to grips with what is appropriate to do on either a smartphone or using an in-car application while driving.”

Industry Treats Human Factors Research as an Afterthought

As Heather Stoner, General Manager for Realtime Technologies, points out, this example highlights a fundamental flaw in how we approach vehicle design.

“When they announced that you were going to be ordering your Tim Horton’s from your car,” Stoner notes, “I don’t think they even thought of what the decrement in driving behavior was going to be when you’re trying to order your latte from your nav screen. … Production or marketing or product development get a cool idea, and they don’t consider the human element—because it’s cool and we can do it. They don’t think about how this technology has to interact with the human and, guess what: The human is flawed”

The results are features that are, at best, bewildering to consumers—and enormously frustrating to human factors researchers, designers, and safety experts:

“Often what we see in industry,” Stoner notes, “is the idea goes into production, and then they go back and question if this was a good idea, or even safe.  And then they study it and discover oh, wow, this is really bad.”

What’s truly frustrating, though, is how easy it is to get this right—as opposed to taking the time to develop and release a feature that, at best, “solves a problem that didn’t exist.” Simulation technology—Stoner’s specialty—can be used to very quickly test, prototype, and iterate through ideas.

“What should happen is you come up with a concept, you prototype it in simulation, you study the human with it, you refine the prototype, and then you iterate to where there is no decrement in driver behavior, or very little. And then, only then, would it go into production.” It’s a clean—and rapid—process that makes it much more likely that you’ll roll out features that are functional and actually something the buyer wants—and can use safely.