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Keep it simple: designing cars for smartphones

April 8, 2016
As consumers become more reliant on their smartphones, car companies that do a good job integrating them into vehicles’ communication, audio and navigation systems have a huge advantage.
"If you’re buying a new car, you expect it to connect with your smartphone," said Tom Mutchler, Consumer Reports magazine manager of vehicle interface. "The phone and the car are both essential to your life. People demand they work well together."
It shouldn’t be asking too much to get into a car, turn the radio on and tune to a station without reading the owner’s manual, but frequently it is.
"Controls need to make sense, and a lot of these don’t," said Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. auto quality for J.D. Power, which conducts influential surveys of vehicle quality and dependability.
Problems using phones and other new controls in cars have been Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in recent J.D. Power studies.
"People expect to be able to make calls, access their music and get directions in a way that minimizes distraction," Mutchler said. "A lot of people don’t care about zero-to-60 times or steering feel, but they expect to be able to use their phone and listen to their music.
"A system that makes it hard to do that creates a bad, unpleasant impression of the whole vehicle."
The reliability of hardware like engines, tires and suspensions has been improving for years, but poorly designed or malfunctioning systems for phone, music and navigation — "infotainment" in industry lingo — have driven reliability scores down for the whole auto industry. Not to mention reducing countless drivers to gibbering wrecks, pounding the dashboard and cursing when a smartphone connected to a smart car can’t execute a simple command like "Call home" or "Where’s the closest coffee shop?"
Smart phone integration has become a key feature for new vehicles. Automakers that excel at it are likely to have happier owners and better reviews.
"You couldn’t sell a car without one of these systems today," said Mark Boyadjis, IHS Automotive principal analyst. "Customers expect their connected lifestyle to follow them into the car, and customer satisfaction comes down to usability."
The Fisher-Price approach
Even the worst systems often look good in a dealer’s showroom, but using spoken commands or a touch screen to make phone calls, play songs and podcasts or set a destination for navigation is entirely different at 65 mph in heavy traffic.
"We talk about the Fisher-Price approach: simple design, really big buttons and really large type," said Gary Jablonski, product development manager for Ford’s Sync system. Sync drew raves when it debuted as the auto industry’s first voice recognition system in 2007. Ford’s quality ratings plummeted when it added a slow and balky touch screen for the system called My Ford Touch. An improved version dubbed Sync 3 began rolling out into Ford and Lincoln vehicles last year.
The overriding goal was to simplify the system, Jablonski said. Ford ditched seldom-used features so it could make the buttons for popular functions easier to see and touch.
Despite My Ford Touch’s widely publicized problems, owners of vehicles were happier than people whose cars lacked it, according to Ford research. Even a bad connectivity system may be better than none at all, but not much.
Experts praise Fiat Chrysler’s Uconnnect system for its simplicity. The touch screen has big, clear icons for frequently used features like phone, audio and navigation. Pairing a phone — a leading cause of complaints for many brands — couldn’t be simpler. When you enter the vehicle with a new phone, touch the phone icon and a message on the screen asks, "Would you like to pair a phone?"
"We spend a lot of time on this," FCA global head of connected services Tricia Hecker said. "Little things matter a lot when you’re trying to create an intuitive process."