Cars are getting smarter, but car interfaces are delivering more complexity, not better experiences. Tailored gestures and predictive intelligence will ensure a simpler and safer driving experience.

THE CAR HAS HAD A PLACE IN OUR LIVES FOR NEARLY A CENTURY; MOBILE COMPUTING, LESS THAN A DECADE. But in those last 10 years, many Americans have come to see mobility and connectivity as intertwined. More and more people use the time that we spend in our cars and on the go as a place of multitasking, socializing and productivity. Automakers have answered the call by leveraging new technologies into cars to allow drivers to make calls, search for directions, and stream music. Touch interfaces have migrated from consumer electronics into the car as well.

Recent surveys increasingly show consumers valuing connectivity in addition to traditional auto features like engine power and fuel efficiency. This trend has meant that more people are applying the same standards for usability and performance that they bring to their computing devices to their car interface. While there has been a great improvement in recent years, the majority of car UIs still struggle to bring in the connectivity and features that consumers want in a way that allows for ease of access and safety.

Through our work with several major automakers, Punchcut has developed a set of principles for designing a best in class automotive user experience. They are based in the belief that the additional features and content that connected consumers want to see in their cars does not have to mean a more complicated UI.

As part of a recent Punchcut Labs project, we used these principles to explore how a next-generation in-car music system can utilize gestures for a more natural and less distracting music selection experience:


In our vision, a gestural interface and predictive intelligence make for a more streamlined and elegant automotive user interface. We believe that the best connected automotive experiences leverage the following five considerations in order to enable intuitive and safe navigation while driving:



Use large gestures for the most important actions.

Typically, a driver needs to take his or her attention on the road in order to interact with a touch interface in the car. Touch targets are usually small, and many systems require navigation through multiple, hierarchical menus for some interactions. In our example, a quick wave of the hand brings only the most relevant choices to our driver. Done with changing the music? A second wave dismisses it.



Surface the right choices at the right time.

With a plethora of available car interface controls, drivers can easily become distracted or overwhelmed as they interact with the vehicle. One size does not fit all, and there are opportunities to selectively customize and surface choices based on personal preference and current intention. Through the use of progressive disclosure, car interfaces can unfold in more manageable ways to map to a driver’s evolving intentions and needs.

In the concept above, our driver indicates that he wants to interact with the car systems and his most important actions are there, ready for him. Once the UI in our example is invoked, it provides a dashboard of information relating to the driver’s experience at that moment: the current song in the playlist; the current cabin temperature. A quick tap on the screen starts the song. The car shows the driver additional controls, but only when they are needed. When the driver moves his hand closer to music currently playing, additional choices to pause and advance to another track are surfaced. By keeping these choices hidden until the driver shows the intent to take some action in the UI, the overall system is able to stay minimal and easy to navigate.



Map distinct gestures to tiers of interaction

A car in motion doesn’t lend itself to precise touch targets, so car interfaces need to provide drivers multiple ways to interact with their vehicle through a combination of quick, broad actions and focused precise modes. In order to simplify and grow muscle memory, it is best to align key gestures with major modes of interaction that feel natural and signal the intended function (i.e gesture up to turn on).

Our UI recognizes when the driver wants to interact with a part of the system and adapts accordingly. A broader gesture such as the swipe works to turn the system on and off. Play and pause can be accomplished with a quick tap. But more precise decisions, such as which track to play, and what volume to select, can utilize smaller, more precise swipes.



Adapt the UI to the context at hand.

Smarter cars are not only intelligent but can also be more predictive. Too often, the in-dash human machine interface (HMI) within vehicles feels disconnected from the broader consciousness of the car and its growing intelligence. With so much data and awareness, future car interfaces have an opportunity to leverage more insight to adapt the interface options to the context at hand. More adaptive options will eliminate the need for extra interactions and menus, allow for more streamlined dashboard design and simplify the overall user experience.

When our driver’s hand moves closer to the album art, our UI correctly predicts that the driver wants to take some action, and provides him with the options to pause, change tracks or change volume. By hiding features and functions until they’re needed, our UI is able to stay streamlined.



Your whole car is the interface.

So very often automakers focus their attention on designing for a small screen in the center stack of the car, but we know as users and drivers that shifting attention from the road ahead to deep inside the car is awkward. We also know that driving is a full body experience. As technology and sensors are embedded throughout the interior of the vehicle car user, experiences will become more immersive and naturally integrated. As companies recognize that the entire vehicle is the interface, more holistic solutions will be developed that support multiple modes of control and interaction including gesture, voice, sensation, etc.

While in our example the driver is invoking content that lives in the center console, we’re advocates of treating the whole car as the UI. The ergonomics for both the driver and passenger provide opportunities to place features where they are most easily seen or reached. Our UI assumes that gesture tracking sensors exist outside of the center console, in order to enable the broader gestures that turn the system on and off. We also see a relatively new technology such as a heads-up display having the potential to provide more safety and connected features for both the driver and the passenger.



Punchcut’s Lab explorations like this one give us an opportunity to illustrate a vision of where current trends can evolve to deliver superior experiences. In the above example of an in-car music experience, we present a world where the advanced transportation of the future still retains an elegant and simple human experience without sacrificing safety. As connectivity continues to touch all aspects of our lives, making experiences more immersive, auto companies have an opportunity to improve and evolve traditional HMI to become simpler, more naturally controlled, safer and ultimately more autonomous.

Through our work with automakers, we recognize that this is no small feat and there are many implementation and manufacturing challenges to overcome to reach this goal. However, we believe that as companies apply strong user centered design methods in a more holistic way to consider the entire vehicle from a user experience perspective, the foundation for more progressive, predictive interface experiences of the future will be set.

These considerations can help guide the path forward. As we continue to partner with automakers, disruptors a, d other innovators, we are excited to be a part of this evolution and to explore further with new technologies and opportunities. Digital connectivity has clearly impacted automotive traditions profoundly. As our transport, technology, and lives continue to move faster, we continue to focus our design practice on bringing a very human element to these connected experiences and how they are made.


Punchcut is a human interface design company specializing in mobile, connected products and services. Punchcut works with the world’s top companies to envision, design and realize next generation connected experiences across devices and platforms that engage customers and transform businesses in a connected world.
A Punchcut Perspective | Contributors: Brian Stegall, Spencer Bailey, Nate Cox, Jodi Burke, Jared Benson, Ken Olewiler
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