XXII.1 January + February 2015
Page: 32
Digital Citation

Vehicle interaction tailored to you

Carl Normark


We are all individuals, with our own specific needs, wants, desires, and capabilities. And we all view everyday technological gadgets differently. One person’s troublesome computerized hindrance might just be another’s enabling and helpful tool. The same equivocality also applies to our cars. Some people use their car for daily commuting; some people let it sit in the driveway just to show off; some people are afraid to drive and use the car as little as possible; and some people use their car in a reckless manner, unaware it might be dangerous. Also, people drive in different contexts. Some people drive in urban areas, some in rural mountain areas, and some do both.

People have different needs and they do different things in different contexts. Unfortunately, most car models offer features designed to satisfy the majority of users rather than specific individuals. The car market is also based upon embedding the latest technology into new models. Thus, it is not always focused on the needs of the user. And for the huge market of used cars, the product characteristics are always decided and chosen by someone else, the first buyer. If you so happen to buy a new car with the specifications you think are suitable, they will no longer serve you if you suddenly have to deviate from your ordinary routine and use your car for new purposes.



If at any time you could personally choose the functionality and characteristics of at least the car user interface, the fit would likely be better. This in turn could produce a safer traffic environment with more satisfied drivers and in-vehicle systems used in better ways.

The car is merging with consumer electronics. Another dimension of the diversity and versatility of cars and consumer products is that these two worlds are merging. The driver often brings some everyday gadgets into the vehicle, with or without the intention of using them in the car. For example, who leaves home without one’s smartphone? The phone will inevitably be in the car, and when it is within reach, the chances it will be used increase dramatically. This might be a good thing, as many smartphones carry GPS navigation possibilities that may enable a better-planned and safer trip, or even save the day if you get lost. On the other hand, a smartphone (or any other gadget) might divert the driver’s attention away from one specific crucial task: safely driving the car. The blending of the car and electronic-gadget universes is rapidly accelerated by the fact that cars are now more technologically capable in terms of functions and ways of interacting. One great enabler of technological possibilities is the integration of versatile computerized displays that can show virtually any information, rather than traditional mechanical dials that can show only one type of information. Computer displays acting as car-instrument clusters can be found in many newer cars—and not just the high-end ones. Finally, the car and smartphone are becoming tightly coupled with, for example, the introduction of Android- or iOS-powered in-vehicle systems for interacting with the car and its systems.

One major issue, or perhaps possibility, depending on your point of view, with technological advancements within the automobile industry is the tremendous functional growth. In order to compete and build a better product for the user, car companies include more and more functions and systems to the driver’s delight, or annoyance, because myriad functions that demand your attention can be quite distracting. Cars are packed with all these features, and there is no way they can all be fitted with separate controls and displays. There can also be a large impact on usability and traffic safety if functions are hidden away in deep menu structures.

Moving forward. How do we then proceed with the possibilities offered by technology while dealing with the downsides of the functional growth and making sure the product suits the user? Traditionally, user-centered design (UCD) implies taking user requirements into consideration. However, when the aim is improvement for the individual user, every single possible user ought to be consulted. This approach is most certainly unattainable— and unimaginably costly. A better approach would be to develop a system that can be personalized. That many electronic and non-electronic products offer some personalization or customization features to improve user experience is something of a trend. And it certainly seems that many smartphone users have an interest in adjusting their systems to fit their wants and needs.

The underlying assumption of highly personalizable systems is that a user interface that can be explicitly tailored to the user will better satisfy the user’s needs, create a better user experience, function better in terms of usability, and create a deepened relationship between the user and product. In the case of car systems, that means systems that are safer to use on the roads, because a more satisfied and less annoyed driver is a better driver. Also, someone who has consciously chosen a preferred functionality will be a better driver because he or she will be more aware of how the car acts (e.g., in cases where the car takes over control of braking) and will have a car they know how to handle.

It has been shown that a personalizable user interface can contribute to an emotional bond between user and car.

Functionality and emotion. A great advantage with personalizable products is that they can both support the usefulness of the product and its emotional connection to the user and create a more pleasurable product [1]. It is well known by now that performance and usability are not the only important factors; general satisfaction and user experience also contribute to how well the product functions, or at least how well it’s perceived to function. It has been shown that a personalizable user interface can contribute to an emotional bond between user and car—product attachment [2]. It has also been shown that personalization features are motivated by emotional reasons and that many of the user’s experiences with a personalizable system are clearly emotionally oriented.

Exploring personalizable vehicle user interfaces. We have by a research-through-design approach developed vehicle user interface prototypes specifically for investigating the design space of personalizable or customizable user interfaces [3].

This research process began with finding relevant design guidelines for automobile systems. It then proceeded by using novel ways to uncover basic user needs in the vehicle. One assumption of UCD is that people don’t know what they want or need; therefore, other ways of finding out what people really require must come into play. After the needs were mapped out (Figure 1), we studied the acceptance for this rather novel means of vehicle interaction. The results were promising, so we proceeded with prototyping; the final iteration of the prototype is highly influenced by smartphone interaction. All interaction is carried out on a large touchscreen mounted in the dashboard (Figure 2). All functions and systems are available to the driver through an “app store” approach—you choose the desired app and it appears active on the touchscreen (Figure 3). From there you can move the app to any other display location, resize, change color, and alter other aspects of both look and feel and functionality to tailor the system to the user or the use context (Figure 4).

The serious context of driving. One of the major questions with highly personalizable user interfaces in vehicles is how they work in traffic. Will they do the job of creating a more pleasant and useful environment for the driver, or will they be yet another disturbance that demands fiddling and endless setting up before you can actually put the car in gear and drive away? These questions can be answered with the help of a driving simulator. The prototypes were implemented in a high-fidelity driving simulator with a fully preserved vehicle cab to make the drivers feel at home and create the most natural environment possible. One great advantage with prototyping in a simulated driving environment is that opportunities like this can be explored safely, in a controlled manner. You will also see clearly how your proposed design actually works. We tested interface prototypes with a wide variety of methods to capture all relevant aspects of the personalizable system, such as the driver’s attitude and experience, the actual use of the system, how it is adopted, and finally, how the output of the system affects the driver [4].

Test results. First of all, it must be noted that the purpose is not to encourage people to take their eyes off the road. It’s not desirable to fiddle around too much in any system while driving. However, small changes that could be beneficial, when, for example, changing driving contexts, should be achievable without compromising the task of driving. The drivers in these tests accomplished these tasks quickly and efficiently, so the use of the system and the system output seemed appropriate. The drivers also reported that driving with a personalized layout and set of desired active functions would likely improve the safety and overall quality of the driving experience.

Most participants readily adopted the system. A vast majority thought they would use these features to personalize their cars if the features were available in their own vehicles. Most participants’ experiences with the final interface prototype were positive; they reported qualities such as “intuitive,” “usable,” and “useful.” All participants were motivated to use the core aspects of personalization, such as changing system functions. Hedonic look-and-feel aspects also motivated many, and some were even motivated to use personalization for relational aspects. Marc Hassenzahl argues that interactive products must handle pragmatic and hedonic aspects as well as needs for self-expression and relation [1]. A personalizable user interface seems able to address all of these needs.

Is there really a need for personalization within the car? Our research shows that personalization is a sought-after feature that can satisfy a wide range of user needs in the car [5]. Personalization abilities can lead to solutions that include many desirable features, either for people’s vehicles or for more general goals in life, such as being more productive.

One of the greatest advantages of a personalizable product is that it can be “adapted to suit me particularly.” This idea can relate to an instrumental view (convey the right functionality), to a hedonic view (make the user feel good), or to a relational view (reflect the user’s personality). However, it is probably a composite of all three aspects that contribute to tailoring the product to just that particular user.

Other benefits of a personalizable system include:

  • increased control over the system
  • more freedom of choice, which increases the product’s flexibility
  • increased versatility, which makes the vehicle better suited for different trip contexts
  • choosing the level and type of driving support to match the driver’s cognitive abilities
  • the ability to tailor the system to reflect self-image
  • allowing technology to be visible or hidden.

Implications for design. Is personalization the Holy Grail? The approach described here tries to make the situation better for the user by making things more complex. Complexity, of course, is not always an issue. As Don Norman argues, complexity is a state of products, whereas confusion is a state of mind [6]. We should therefore aim to reduce the user’s confusion, something that is possible when the user is partly responsible for the final appearance and behavior of the system. However, the potential positive effects are apparent only if the user can handle the system and is certain of what is best for her or him. As long as users are able to make the best of a situation, personalizable systems are great and safe. However, not all people know exactly what they want, or what they really need.

In order to limit the negative effects stemming from lack of knowledge, the boundaries for how far the design can be stretched in a personalizable interface must be kept within safe limits. There must also be a good default setting for users who do not know what they want—or don’t care—and a way to proceed from there. Some guidelines on how to prepare designers for designing such systems can be found in [3].

We must not forget that the task of driving is becoming less important as more research and industry is geared toward autonomously driving cars. If and when we get there on a large scale, none of this will matter, except to the car driver/passenger, who will want to make the best out of his or her time in the vehicle.

To conclude, no matter who you are or in what context you are situated, you will get a better product and a better user experience if that product is tailored to you. Highly personalizable vehicle user interfaces thus have the ability to create a better user experience and a potentially safer traffic environment.


1. Hassenzahl, M. The thing and I: Understanding the relationship between user and product. In Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment. M.A. Blythe, A. Monk, K. Overbeeke, and P.C. Wright, eds. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2003, 31–42.

2. Normark, C.J. and Mankila, J.P. Personalizable in-vehicle systems, technology acceptance and product attachment. International Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics 2, 4 (2013), 262–280.

3. Normark, C.J. The User as Interface Designer – Personalizable Vehicle User Interfaces. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. Luleå University of Technology, 2014.

4. Van Velsen, L., Van der Geest, T., Klaassen, R., and Steehouder, M. User-centered evaluation of adaptive and adaptable systems: A literature review. The Knowledge Engineering Review 23, 3 (2008), 261–281.

5. Gkouskos, D., Normark, C.J., and Lundgren, S. What drivers really want: Investigating dimensions in automobile user needs. International Journal of Design 8, 1 (2014), 59–71.

6. Norman, D.A. Living with Complexity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011.


Carl Jörgen Normark has a Ph.D. in industrial design and focuses on interaction design research with a strong user-centered view. He is also a lecturer on a wide variety of design subjects at Luleå University of Technology.


F1Figure 1. Need dimensions within automobiles.

F2Figure 2. The driving simulator environment.

F3Figure 3. Touchscreen interaction.

F4Figure 4. Personalization of app-specific options.

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