The UX Characteristics of Cars

I was chatting with a couple of colleagues at work a few days ago about the “user experience” of cars, so I decided to run it through all ten of the characteristics.

  • Informational: The amount of information a car gives its driver is intentionally brief (compared to the amount of information it gives a technician who plugs in a diagnostic tool).
  • Actionable: Cars are meant to be driven – not just sat in. They actively support lots of actions.
  • Social: Driving a car is an individual experience. Some cars support social interaction by integrating features like curved mirrors so the driver can see backseat passengers and hands free phones, but that’s about all.
  • Personal: While cars are almost completely generic, some do have a few interesting personal features. My old BMW recognized my key fob from my wife’s and adjusted the seats, mirrors, AC and radio settings when unlocked (I loved this feature!)
  • Scoped: Cars have a fairly narrow scope, they get you from A to B, they move up the scale a little when they start to introduce things like DVD players, integrated phones, etc.
  • Learnable: Car controls are optimized for frequent, repeated use by self-directed, expert users.  That’s why people take lessons (with experts) to learn.
  • Configurable: Cars are not highly configurable (once you’ve bought one – the experience of buying one is more configurable).  You can move the seats forward/back/up/down, fold some seats and preset the radio but everything else is fixed.
  • Adaptive: Cars mostly exhibit static behavior, however there are a couple of interesting adaptive examples here.  Some cars are equipped with “adaptive steering” which turns the car more sharply at lower speeds and less at higher speeds when the steering wheel is turned the same amount.  My BMW had an adaptive automatic gearbox – it learned the driving style of the driver and adjusted its gear changes accordingly.
  • Playful: Driving a car can be a fun experience because of the thrill, excitement and danger they offer. A colleague of mine also mentioned a hybrid (I forget which) that praises the driver for an economical trip.
  • Impartial: The driving experience is fairly unbiased, cars don’t try to influence the choice of destination, for example. However, I suppose the nature of the car (Ferrari vs Mini-van) does influence the driving style!

4 Responses to “The UX Characteristics of Cars”

  1. 1 Dave Malouf July 28, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    Wow! I have to say i can’t get past the fact that you are generalizing the “car experience”. I mean the whole point of design is to differentiate.

    I think what might be better is a case study that looks at a specific car, or a few cars so we can understand the subtleties being explored here.

    I can say from experience that driving a mini-van is nothing like driving a great sports car, nor should it ever!

    That experience starts from the moment you pick up the keys, or even think of walking at the door.

  2. 2 Dave Malouf July 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    On another note, I would like to encourage you to go deeper. On 2nd and 3rd readings I see room for so much more depth in the study/critique.

    I.e. actionable … I mean, where is sex & camping and drive-ins and sitting on the hood & tailgating, etc. etc. And look at how the Element is designed for one set of use, and Xtera another, and a Mini quite a different tale.

    This is the important meat of the story.

    — dave

  3. 3 Richard July 28, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    You’re probably right Dave. I was originally thinking about this from the perspective of a 3-series BMW I had a while ago but during a discussion with some colleagues some other examples crept in.

  4. 4 Pimpformation Architect July 29, 2009 at 1:21 am

    I also think a specific example would be more interesting.

    The first thing I thought of when I saw your 10 characteristics was a sort of Likert scale for each one (from brief to thorough, etc.) Maybe it would be worthwhile to set up a detailed example on this blog and then create a survey that UX practitioners can take. After several folks have gone through the mental exercise you could discuss the results. I’m not sure, but it might help you spot ambiguous or troublesome characteristics. It would also let people apply the model and take it for a test drive. 🙂

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