Simplifying the Complex to Create Customer-Centric In-Vehicle Tech Design

Simplifying design and reducing complexity while increasing computing power in the car to provide a user-centric experience is the only way the automotive industry can continue to innovate and break sales records.

Jason B. Johnson, director-User Experience Design-Connected Car

August 16, 2018

6 Min Read
Harman Mini HMI concept
With most buyers transitioning from older vehicles, new-vehicle cockpits must be simple and user-friendly.

Jason Johnson, director-User Experience Design-Connected Car, HARMAN, will be presenting at the WardsAuto User Experience Conference, Oct. 2, at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, MILearn more at the event website.

In the past decade, the average age of a car owned in the U.S. has been growing steadily, hitting a record high of 11.6 years in 2016. Many industry analysts predict that number will keep climbing past the 12-year mark.

There is a noticeable difference between your average ’06-model vehicle and a brand-new ’19 example, and it’s the magnitude and complexity of the technology inside. This leaves one thinking the unprecedented trend of consumers holding on to their vehicles longer is a result of consumers being unfamiliar with and sometimes even leery of the advanced technology features fitted inside new models – especially as we move up the SAE Level of Autonomy ladder.

I think of this evolution as “The UX paradox.”

As vehicles become more complex, connected, and technologically advanced, we must design interfaces that are simple, streamlined and user friendly. As an automotive user experience designer, my goal is to develop complex technology that’s wrapped up in simplified user experiences, so consumers trust and feel comfortable using it, just as they would the volume knob on their stereo.

We want consumers also to experience the heightened level of safety and convenience these new technologies can provide – but without a simple user experience that builds trust, more people will forego a new car for the aging model already in their driveway. It’s time to fix this growing problem. 

Using traditional automotive product-development processes, we could not have predicted the mind-boggling speed at which in-car technology is advancing. These methods, which often rely on siloed inputs from teams of excited, visionary designers and pragmatic, grounded engineers, don’t allow for the same level of streamlined communication and innovation typically found in the tech industry.

In the past, this worked fine when cars didn’t have Bluetooth or navigation and were simple, Level 0 machines, but now a car is seen by many consumers as an extension of their connected lives. Standard features today often rival a modern fighter jet, with passenger vehicles carrying approximately 100 million lines of code.

With traditional product-development processes in place, this complexity means interiors can be overwhelming to control and time-consuming to become familiar with. Prior to digitized controls, a driver likely had two knobs and a couple of buttons to control their in-car stereo, but these controls now could be buried under various sub menus that take time to learn. As the autonomous future approaches, these controls and interfaces likely will step even further away from how we operate the legacy car that has dominated the past few decades.

Register now to hear Jason Johnson's perspective on next-generation technologies at the 2018 WardsAuto UX Conference. 

This is where a major shift is needed so automakers and their technology suppliers can focus on user-centric, iterative, and collaborative design processes characterized by continuous learning (e.g. predictive analytics) and continuous deployment (e.g. over-the-air updates). The key to achieving this isn’t further innovation (not just yet), but instead, a step toward simplicity and reduction regarding both design and engineering.

When it comes to design, collaboration between various groups is key. A pre-design, visionary phase allows the OEM and its suppliers (from traditional automotive to Silicon Valley tech companies) to focus on brand goals by using personas, mood boards, journey maps and user stories. This is the method used to create HARMAN’s entry-level Digital Cockpit concept that debuted in a Mini during CES 2018.

By doing so, we realized one of the charming features that made the original Mini so globally iconic was its simple interior design: one big speedometer, a couple of gauges and some switches – that’s it.

Attempting to replicate that same level of user-friendliness was going to be difficult if we wanted to accomplish our more modern goals of providing the premium customer experience Mini drivers have come to know while keeping the car constantly updated.

We knew we wanted a mobile-centric design that would seamlessly integrate a driver’s most-used device – the smartphone – but we didn’t want to overload the interior with multiple screens, switches, buttons and nonlinear interfaces.

The interior needed to be iconic and simple, yet future-proof and highly connected. This is where a compute platform that’s capable of driving multiple functional domains within the car – from a tachometer to navigation and infotainment – on a single display came into play. Various contextual knobs and voice controls allow drivers ergonomic choices to control and personalize their experience, so each drive is unique, even if the car is the same. As ride sharing becomes more prevalent in our society, providing this level of accessible customization is going to be invaluable to the automotive industry.

Simple design is just one aspect of instilling newfound trust among consumers when it comes to future mobility. A winning design can work one year, and then be completely irrelevant the next (remember car phones?) and traditional methods of updating a product, such as consumer surveys and focus groups, won’t be able to pass muster. Deep insights will be required, and now that there’s a growing cache of in-car data, the auto industry can begin to understand how consumers are interacting with new technologies to create future usage patterns, segmentation, and personalized experiences.

This data can also help run failure mode analyses and predictive and preventative maintenance – especially when paired with over-the-air updates.

Just as you would with your phone or computer, software in a modern car should be able to be updated on the fly, without a trip to the dealership for service. This, coupled with simple, intuitive design can help consumers trust they’ve made a sound investment by purchasing a new car that won’t fall out of relevancy after a year or two. For this, an open ecosystem and collaboration with the telecom industry for improved wireless, cloud and 5G connectivity will also be key.


There is no reason why people should mistrust vehicles being produced today or tomorrow, but if product design continues down its traditional path, this fate is almost inevitable. Simplifying design and reducing complexity while increasing computing power in the car to provide a user-centric experience is the only way the automotive industry can continue to innovate and break sales records at the same time.

Jason B. Johnson is Director of User Experience Design – Connected Car for HARMAN, a Samsung Electronics company. He and his team are responsible for delivering digital display interfaces optimized for efficiency and simplicity for multiple automotive manufacturers. Twitter: @jbj35, LinkedIn:

About the Author(s)

Jason B. Johnson

director-User Experience Design-Connected Car, Harman

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