How Many Screens Are Too Many? – Balance in UX Design

They’re hard to miss, and more often now in recent years, in-car tablets, touch screens and graphical displays are being positioned as unique selling points. But when does a useful display screen become one too many, is there such thing as too many screens?

We need balance

It’s easy to get distracted in the rush to get ahead of the latest trends, and sometimes when aesthetic considerations become a priority, specific user requirements can be missed.

Take the first-generation Ford Sync for example. The 3rd generation system is very acceptable, but the journey to get there was fraught with challenges. Chairman, Bill Ford, and then CEO, Mark Fields had a very different experience with the 1st generation.

Getting the balance right is the main purpose of user experience (UX) design, and crafting the perfect user interface (UI) is a delicate task. It’s not just about making something look good, it’s also about designing something that meets functional needs whilst remaining intuitive to the user.

Driver distraction is a key consideration

One of the primary considerations in any automotive UX design is driver workload management. Too much information can clutter the interface, leaving a driver fighting their way through a succession of irrelevant menus and toggles.

More dangerously, it can interrupt a driver’s focus, removing their attention from the road at critical operational moments. There’s nothing more distracting than hunting your way through a touch screen menu for temperature controls whilst attempting to merge onto a three-lane highway.

So how do we combat the information clutter? There is a trend towards minimalism in UX design, removing head unit controls and cluster instrumentation, and replacing them with touch screens and voice recognition. But as this study examines, there is a greater potential for distraction inherent in these systems, so is this the right way to approach the problem?

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Is minimalism the right direction?

While some vehicles look as sleek and minimal as a Swedish kitchen, others look like someone has gathered an arm load of flat screens and thrown them at the dash board. The key is balance, and in recognising what your user’s needs really are.

Placement of screens should be strategic, the limitation is not really number of screens, but what is a useful amount? It is the user’s cognitive workload that should be addressed. How can we reduce that load, and is it possible to redistribute it? In this regard, we can look at in-cabin harmony, re-coupling rear systems and increasing passenger interaction for certain scenarios.

The trend is not truly minimalism, but the desire for less clutter. It should be considered less a style, and more an emergent feature of paying close attention to form and function. Information presented to the driver should be timely and relevant. Touch screens and HUD’s offer the opportunity to transform car safety in the same way that the glass cockpit transformed the aviation industry, allowing for concise presentation of relevant information where and when the user needs it.

The lead up to Automation will inform our design choices

Right now, we are seeing the extremes of the minimalism trend in designs such as that of the Tesla Model 3. But we can look at this as the exception rather than the rule. Tesla is catering directly to their idea of the future of the industry; automation, TaaS/MaaS, etc, and the Model 3 reflects their strategy and design ideas for their future fleet.

Automation will eventually remove the need for complex internal clusters and haptics, simply because the driver will have less and less to do in the vehicle. But the time for applying that unilaterally across a manufacturer’s fleet is still a way off. There are still emerging and unique markets that are not ready for that level of minimalism.

OEMs looking for design inspiration should be aiming to build their design concepts around their own business strategy and future vision, and in areas where they lack expertise they can look to external partners for advice and consultation.

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Different markets need different solutions

It’s important to remember that different markets need different solutions. As this timeline suggests, automation is going to come slowly to emerging markets, where often, large segments of the infrastructure necessary to support it just don’t exist. As a result, traditional UX solutions are going to remain important for some time.

There is also the need to consider local user requirements. India for instance is a very cost sensitive market, and as such economy in design is an integral requirement. In contrast China is much more screen heavy in its UI needs, as seen in the new Jaguar XJ, and with Future Mobility’s Byton brand. For the Chinese, the car is increasingly used as a mobile office, and the demand for more screens, often with touch and interaction, is much greater.

However, even with these current needs, we shouldn’t be blind to future requirements. Certain markets will likely leap-frog older technologies in the race to modernise, so we should be prepared for this too.

There is no single answer

Ultimately, we should try to foster the mindset that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing the user experience for the car. When considering display surfaces remember that the primary goal is to provide the least distracting and most efficient and intuitive method of delivering key information.

Achieving this goal requires multiple approaches, and expertise in multiple areas. UX solutions will have to cater to the ultra-modern automated vehicle cabin, as well as the more traditional interface for current vehicle standards. Leveraging expert advice is a natural first step.


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