UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1132 November 4, 2013

Tesla’s Groundbreaking UX: An interview with User Interface Manager Brennan Boblett

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a UX Magazine reporter) to notice that much about the Tesla Model-S’s user experience is vastly different from the normal automobile. And the differences go beyond the fact that the car’s motor is electric.

When MotorTrend named it the 2013 Car of Year, it aptly said, “…all judges were impressed with the Tesla's unique user interface, courtesy of the giant touch screen in the center of the car that controls everything from the air-conditioning to the navy stem to the sound system to the car’s steering, suspension, and brake regeneration settings.”

The user-friendliness starts before even entering the car when the door handle that is flush with the body of the car slides out to greet you, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Upon climbing in and powering-up the fully reconfigurable 12” cluster and 17” center display screens, you can't help but notice the intentional deviation from scores of hard, fixed controls.

Brennan Boblett image

“Dashboards of the past are littered with physical buttons that can never change, forever ingrained into them. The Model S, by contrast, has a fully upgradeable dash that’s software driven. We started with a blank slate—17” of glass, which is the centerpiece of the interior. That inspired an all-digital touchscreen automotive UI platform built from the ground up—one that could be updated over the air to provide new functionality as the years go on,” says Telsa’s User Interface Manager, Brennan Boblett. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Boblett, providing a window into the customer-centric enthusiasm and passion that’s at the core of Telsa’s UX philosophy.

How does Tesla define UX?

If you think of the typical definition of user experience, it’s “the feeling that one gets from using a system.” Whether that system is a kiosk in a store or a piece of software on a device or computer, that’s the traditional mindset for user experience. That definitely still applies here, but our definition goes beyond that in a more holistic way. It’s the car and the software working harmoniously together to create a unique experience that can be felt even before you sit down in the car. HMI should be empowering, not typical. We take the small, little things you do all of the time and make them a bit more of a pleasure. It’s those little nuances and attention to details that we rally behind, which add value to the user experience and strengthens the core of usability.

There has never been a full OS in the car with fluid and responsive hardware until now

For instance, we have a feature called HomeLink, where we added a small detail that a traditional garage door opener couldn’t do. When entering your home’s geofence, you are presented with a menu that enables you to open the garage. Although just one small detail, little things like that become a pleasure to use over time. It’s all about understanding the context of each user scenario and presenting them the most useful options. That’s one core aspect of the puzzle and when combined strategically along with a solid visual UI construct and the right balance of information design, anything is possible.

If you were to use five adjectives to describe Tesla's cockpit UX strategy going forward, what would they be?

The first word would be, “innovative.” Tesla has deliberately broken new ground with this design and we aspire to continually push the boundaries of in-car UI and UX.

“Intelligent” is another adjective that’s important because it’s not enough to just do something new for the sake of being new: it needs to be well-conceived—born out of an idea that is user-centric from the beginning and one that adapts to the user’s tastes and behaviors over time. Tesla embodies that. Our firmware platform is just as impressive and technologically advanced as the car’s exterior design language.

“Inspiring.” Good design should evoke a positive emotion. When you open the sunroof in our car from the touchscreen, it’s hard not to smile and relish in its simplicity and intuitiveness as you swipe your finger across the glass to drag the sunroof to the desired location, with precision down to the exact percentage.

Tesla Model S touchscreen

“Sophisticated.” This is a premium car and, therefore, it also should have a premium user experience. That starts, first and foremost, with the vehicle being smart on your behalf and offering solutions that are likely what you need at that given moment.

“Empowering.” Nothing is compromised in a Model S, not even the UI. The software adapts to each driver’s preferences and configuration. You get to choose what “apps” you want displayed on either screen that may be beneficial for your drive, while having common controls (like climate) quickly accessible at all times.

What about the Model S UX experience do you think contributed to it receiving the accolades it has?

Tesla truly turned the thinking upside down on how a car should be designed, from the way it’s driven all the way down to the software. But from the cockpit standpoint, I think the reason we are different is that Tesla truly believed in the idea that the user experience should really be the centerpiece of the interior.

Tesla Model S touchscreen

There has never been a full OS in the car with fluid and responsive hardware until now, which is a monumental shift. You shouldn’t have to use clunky hardware that already feels outdated from the day you buy it. If you think of all the time and effort that you can put into designing a user interface with the best UX team, none of that is relevant or even appreciated if it’s limited by the hardware itself. For example: If the color reproduction is poor or the resolution appears too low, maybe the touch response rate isn’t what you expect, or you have to punch the screen to register a button on the haptic touchscreen, then you know the project has already failed.

The emergence of the mobile consumer electronics market has changed significantly over the past few years. How do you see Tesla fitting in with that growth?

If you think about the term “automotive grade,” what does that mean? Basically it means something needs to work for eight years after you’ve bought the car: the UI is no different. If you think about the first thing that becomes outdated in a car, it’s usually the infotainment system. We are very much driven by the mobile industry and the hardware behind consumer electronic devices. However, we have to account for longer product lifecycles when compared to mobile phones and tablets. Since we can do updates over the air, we can continue to upgrade your software even after you owned the car for years.

Sometimes you will feel like you’re getting a new car because new features will show up that you didn’t have before. We do this via a dedicated data connection that can also be used as a hotspot for your other devices, and of course hook up to the WiFi at your house, workplace, etc. This allows your excitement for the car to exceed long after the honeymoon, since the car is continually improving with time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Steve Tengler is UX Magazine's Automotive UX Master and is also User Experience Director at Altia, Inc., where he oversees a global team of engineers and designers in their application of Altia's User Interface Engineering software. Steve is a proven expert in the field of Human-Machine Interface design and deployment with over 20 years of experience on some of the country's top automotive teams.

Before joining Altia, Steve managed the global HMI development team at OnStar – GM's award-winning driver assistance system. His team pioneered innovative services like OnStar eNav and Injury Severity Predictor. In the past two decades, Steve has also put his expertise to work at Nissan, Ford, and Visteon. 

Steve is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) and participates within the Human Factors and Safety Subcommittee within the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). To date, over 90 patent applications feature his work. Steve has a Masters in Industrial Engineering focusing on Human Factors and Ergonomics from The University of Michigan.  Steve is a contributing editor at UX Magazine and is also Adjunct Professor of User Experience at Wayne State University.

 

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Comments

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Wow. "Nothing is compromised in a Model S".... Well nothing except for the driver's locus of attention, that is.

Moral of the story: If you see a Tesla Model S coming your way, it's probably best to pull off the road.

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I don't like it. Boblett standing proud against his Tesla. I don't like his display of pride. In fact I am quite disappointed with Tesla's decision to hire this UX trouble maker. Well, I guess he played his cards right and mingled with the right folk to get to that position. Back to the Tesla UX job. Those gradients and skeuomorphic grossness. Barf. Gross. The car is ruined by this shit. Those icons!!!! No!!!! I'm emotional here. I have rights to be. This car's UX is now totally tainted by the car computer UX on this nice 17 inch screen. Those gross gradient buttons. I like flat, minimal and simple. Hopefully Tesla will drop this Bloblett into a bush, wipe their nose and heal up with a proper smart UX designer. Good lord Tesla!

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Wow. Tesla needs to do more basic UX research on their designs. The cognitive load is very high and the bottom of the screen causes me to look away from the road to such a degree that the road is not even in my peripheral vision. Shockingly bad UX if safety is any concern at all.

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Have to agree with Dave Walker. I've known Tesla intimately from interviewing with their UX group, and while they are applying some creative solutions to the in-dash UI, the youth and inexperience of their staff in relation to Human Factors is obvious. Drivers need a good mix of analog and digital to make the experience safe and easily learned. The use of color, lack of dial controls and lack of research on driver attention is going to get them sued. Tesla seems intent to hire designers primarily with automotive experience, which curtails the breath of knowledge from other mission-critical disciplines. The should have a UX director from Aerospace or Medical with a deeper knowledge of the why and how of design.

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I really don't want the Model S big honking LCD touchscreen in my car.
• As other have mentioned identifying the touch targets while driving as a primary task has a high cognitive load. Given that American roads are full of potholes, it makes targeting even harder without something physical to hold onto. Don't even get me started about mode switching.
• LCD screens glow and bleed light even when set to dark colors. I find this a huge visual distraction when driving at night
• The design of the controls being so skeuomorphic makes it almost seem like we combined the worst of both worlds, appearing like physical controls while stuck inside a screen. In my opinion the look like a (nicely rendered for sure) version of a 90's multimedia CD ROM.
• Having 17" of your disposal it almost seems like the engineers trumped the designers in packing in information density when it constraint and selective display of what is important would have been much better. Maps and navigation in Tesla's model S is a striking example of this: Basically using Google in its full glory - vs editing out information that you actually need. The result is high visual load with little informational value when driving and looking at a glance.
Can I order model S without that screen?

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A touch screen + physical control has been made. Credit to Native Design (especially Ian Bach).
http://idsa.org/dlp-automotive-dashboard

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I hope all cars don't go over to touch screen, call me old fashioned but I prefer simple controls that mean I don't have to send the car to the garage every week

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I was at first struck with the innovation of the dashboard, until using it for a while. It then occurred to me that there were a number of issues where 'coolness' trumped usability.
Three (of many) examples:

From a purely ergonomic standpoint, some regular features place icons across the top of the screen. The phone is on the top right corner. This is actually requires reach for me (I'm 5'11" average build) and I suspect that someone who was shorter or had limited reach due to other limitations of physiognomy would have a problem with this, particularly while driving.

The layouts change too much from screen to screen. This makes common multi-press actions require focusing on the screen since the information is presented differently (by location and type of data) on different screens. The task flow appears more intuitive than it actually is in use. I suspect that any UX/UI testing that was done was not done in actual driving conditions and the current flow/hierarchy reflects that.

It's seems apparent that you really need to learn the navigation through all of the screens you will or may use before you start driving, since when you are on the road and driving literally, the cognitive load could be dangerous to the driver who shouldn't be focusing more on the screen than the other drivers on the road.

Check to see how easy (while driving and wearing their seat-belt) it is for someone who's 5'1" to reach the phone icon (or in some cases the 'apps' icon which is oddly a 'down arrow').

Each of the information screens are beautifully designed and yet they appear to have been all designed by different designers without much unification of the manner in with the information is being presented. While I really like the car and would probably buy one in an instant if I had the cash, I am concerned by these 'rookie' mistakes in usability and UX for the sake of coolness. There are other issues as well, but these are ones that ought to be addressed first.

I didn't get to address some of the 'section 508' issues which some of the other comments have touched on.

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Bob - reconfigurable positions of icons is undoubtably a feature we agree could be a nice improvement. It's on the list already.

However, keep in mind that reaching out and touching the phone icon in the app tray is definitely not the only way to bring up the phone functionality. Since launch in 2012 we've supported the ability to do everything phone related via the instrument cluster screen using the steering wheel controls. You never have to lift your hand off the wheel to do this. If your phone is paired with the Model S, simply pressing the phone/voice button (top right button on the steering wheel) brings up a menu that lets you view your recent call list, as well as your full contacts. You can scroll through and select which number to dial. During your call, you tap the same button to bring up a menu to manage aspects of the call, such as muting the mic, hold, and ending the call. Lastly, you can also hold down the same button on the wheel to activate voice control and simply say "Call Dad" to pickup whatever names you have programmed on your mobile phone contact list.

FYI - the "down arrow" icon for "apps" was a placeholder that was in pre-launch software that was only shown in working development UI during CES and driving events that we held at the Tesla factory in Fremont. Apparently you haven't been in the car since or are referring to some old screen that never has been consumer facing.

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Thanks for the feedback, Brennan. I had done a review of a number of screens though not exhaustive on a regular model. When I looked online for some screenshots in addition to the ones that I took myself, I noticed the down arrow which I didn't remember seeing in my images.
Reinforcement and alternate methods of using a phone are good, but my eye was drawn to the screen button before the steering wheel buttons.
My concern regarding the other issues remain as far as any touchable area in the upper right portion of the screen and since my review was ad hoc, I wasn't able to address specific metrics in ergonomic issues of varying user reach for such areas of the screen.
The other issue that remains is the inconsistency of the layout from screen to screen. It is beautiful looking, but often less than intuitive. The fact that updating the software may (or may not) be easy brings up the issue then of those drivers who become accustomed to the existing layout with it's flaws and having to relearn the UI as it is corrected. This is particularly important when you consider that the user is likely to be driving when using a newly relocated/reformatted task flow.

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I generally agree. The designs, while forward thinking, can use a lot of real world testing, visual simplification, and stylistic updates. It's a shame that they weren't more aggressive with this as there will be some amount of precedent established with existing clients. However, the good thing is they can roll out updates.

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Looks great. But does it make sense to have touchscreen interfaces in cars? Since there is no haptic feedback, the user *has* to look at the screen to know which button she is pressing. But with regular buttons and knobs, once you are familiar with the layout, you need not divert your attention from the road to adjust the A/C or media player. You can feel your way around the center console.

Would love to hear Brennan's take on that.

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I really like the design, my only concern is the lack of tactility. I regularly change the air con or radio using touch and getting feedback from the consoles knobs, dials and switches.

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Karthik - while there is most definitely times where one can blindly reach out and change the volume, etc in traditional cars with knobs, etc - it's by no means applicable to every car. Beyond volume control, even a simplistic media UI (like the one found in a Mini Cooper for example) require some cognitive load and eye/hand coordination to make the correct choice when switching sources for example. The blanket statement that one *has to look at the screen" for touch screens still applies to dashboards like the Porsche Panamera which has something like 44 buttons littered all over the dash. Being that the majority of those buttons are tactically the same from a sense standpoint, I can assure you that you still have to "look" to see what you are pressing. Beyond that, haptic by no means means eyes free. The majority of haptic implementations in both vehicles and consumer electronic devices such as phones and tablets use small motors to give touch feedback via vibration. Sure that confirms you "pressed" something, but doesn't mean you don't have to look at what your doing. A generic vibration helps indicate the system got your command, but not much else. Even electrostatic haptics has a long way to go. The amount of cognitive load to perceive the smallest differences in electrical frequencies to emulate different textures is no where ready for the mainstream. Haptics on larger screens is a challenge too, because the surface area is much larger. This requires far more motors and to get a more "localized" feel at best. As I mention in the reply to Andy, the touchscreen is not the only way to use the media player or adjust the A/C. Simple tactile controls on the wheel are your best best for doing these tasks while driving if one is not comfortable using the touchscreen while in motion.

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Although the Model S does away with many traditional tactile controls on the dash, the few that remain are located on the steering wheel. You can easily make changes to the climate controls (temps + fan), media (radio, local, and streaming), sunroof, display brightness, and more without having to use the touchscreen. So in your case the tactile feedback would still apply to the wheel controls.

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You can configure the controls on the steering wheel (as well as voice commands) to control stuff like radio and climate, so you don't need to take your eyes off the road for a simple task.

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Very interesting. They are not the first company to revolutionize the features inside of the car. Peugeot and BMW have focused on improving the user experience over the last couple of years too. Check out the gamification feature in the latest BMW (eco feature that show how may miles you have saved based on your driving style) or the auto lights in the latest Peugeot (which turn on when it get dark, turn on to full beam when it is really dark, but switch back to dipped when a car approaches from the opposite direction so you don't blind them).

Very interesting times for automobile car dashboards.

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Great job on this Brennan. Roads are bumpy so you need big fat target areas. And you've done it! Also, the dismiss (X) is closer to the driver so they don't have to reach across the glass. And you've done it! Fits my mental model perfectly. Congrats on a great UX.