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Infotainment systems plagued by “bugs” or confusing HMIs? A response to “Auto Reliability Survey”

by Carl Beien , 19.11.2014

Consumer Reports recently published its annual report on automotive reliability for 2014. Among the major findings, the single most unreliable component of new cars and trucks is the in-vehicle electronics, aka the “infotainment” systems that control navigation, audio, phone calls, and other features. The magazine went so far as to describe the customers’ problems with these electronics as a “growing first year reliability plague.”

The magazine mentions unresponsive interfaces and failed Bluetooth phone pairing as major concerns. While the report described these issues as “technology errors” and “bugs,” at GfK we frequently see predictable usability issues misclassified as system malfunctions.

For example, in one review, we asked participants to place a call using a new vehicle’s infotainment system. Some of our study participants misunderstood the path to making a phone call, and inadvertently entered the vehicle’s phonebook. Naturally, there were no contacts in the list because it was a new vehicle. However, there was also no title on the screen indicating that they were in a phonebook at all. So, not only were they unaware of how they arrived at that screen, they were also unsure of the purpose of the screen since it was essentially blank. This empty screen could easily be described as a malfunction, rather than the intentional, albeit confusing, design.

This is the type of insight that came out of a 2013 GfK study of built-in navigation and entertainment systems in high-end car models. The study revealed that many basic “human factors” principles—grounded in how people work—are often ignored. In the example above, the design failed to deliver an intuitive way to complete a common task, and failed to let users understand where they were each step of the way.

Similarly, our research on these systems frequently uncovers that connectivity tasks—such as pairing a phone via Bluetooth—often fail because users can’t follow the process. The steps take too long and then the system times out with a message that says something like, “the devices failed to pair.” With no indication of why the failure occurred, we know users are more likely to blame the underlying technology rather than the design.

While the laws of good user-centered design are simple, they are also so easy to miss. Delivering a safe and engaging user experience is essential to driver and passenger satisfaction, and can affect larger issues of brand loyalty. At GfK, we use our user-centered design process to address both these misidentified bugs, as well as needs users experience but do not report.

For more information, please contact Carl Beien, UX Lead Specialist, at carl.beien@gfk.com or Melinda Jamil, Senior Research Director, UX, at melinda.jamil@gfk.com.