Observing the behaviour of 21 drivers has made me realize what’s wrong with automotive UX
I recently had the opportunity to Uber home in a Tesla. Being a Tesla fanboy, I was ecstatic when the Model X pulled over and chauffeured me in with its falcon doors. The driver started giving me the rundown of the car’s features while tapping on its 17-inch infotainment system. This was especially exciting for me as I was in the midst of an auto-related project at work.
While I was excited to learn more about the car, it slowly became apparent to me that the driver’s eyes were more glued to the screen than the road. Something about interacting with a touchscreen when driving made me curious to know: just how distracting are they?
In order to learn more about driver behaviour around these interfaces, my team and I invited 21 participants to try out a driving simulator that we assembled on-site to analyze the cognitive stress that touchscreens put on our participants while performing their driving routines.
It’s Not The Touch… It’s The Screen
It should come as no surprise that interacting with a touchscreen requires more hand-eye coordination than traditional buttons and dials. The lack of tactility of a touchscreen means we are more likely to need our eyes to see where we are pressing than with traditional buttons and dials.
What came as a shock to us, however, was that even when our participants weren’t performing tasks associated with the touchscreen, their eyes were still drawn away from the road and towards the screen. They would routinely glance over to see if there was anything new to look at. This revelation was all the more surprising because screens have been in cars for as far back as 1986! (Ever heard of the Buick Riviera?)
When you think about it, though, this behaviour sort of makes sense. Rapidly glancing is something we do everyday with our phones, whether to check for new notifications or even just to kill time. Screens in general, whether or not they yield to touch, are a powerful draw for humans, distracting us from whatever it is we might be doing. Thinking, talking… even driving.
To really make sure that this was the case, we explored how our participants felt when the screen was turned off. You can guess how they responded…
“Now that there’s nothing to look at … my eyes can stay on the road… It allows me to be more focused.”
“Seeing the interface isn’t as important as being able to control it.”