Making Sense of Vehicle Feature Design

New vehicles have hundreds of features and like most technologically complex products in our lives, we only utilize a little bit of its capabilities. It is safe to say that over the lifetime of the vehicle (approximately 11-years today), we only interact with or utilize +/- 25% of those available features. We are somewhat aware of more things that the vehicle can do (say via advertising, the dealers, websites and friends and family), but we don’t actually ever utilize those features. Why, because we never have the need or we just forget. And in some cases, we use a feature once or twice and then never use it again.

In the following paragraphs, I will examine some of the rhyme and reason of what our cars can do. These are just a few examples and hypothesis of many but the take-away is that some One person needs to view these feature decisions and implementations through the eyes and context of consumers. As Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.”

In the course of our lives, we do not ever require or demand the nuance of detailed functions that modern vehicles deliver. It started with the Engineering mentality that “we created it because we could.” We are very clever. We’re not sure, but someday the customer may want to do this. And unfortunately, consumers do not always understand what has been designed. Buttons, icons, instructions, actions, effects – are not always so clear. And of course, if I am an OEM and my competitors have it, then we must offer it as well. Some newer car companies have broken these traditions, but for the most part, these are the drivers of which features exist in our vehicles.

A common planning question across all car companies is “What features should a vehicle company be developing in the coming year(s)?”. One common answer is internally driven. We have a navigation team, a seat team and a climate team, so we should be evolving and designing more of those features. Should each team always be progressing the features of their domain (or) are they “good enough” and should our attention and funds be spent elsewhere? I would suggest that 50-75% of available vehicle functions are good enough.


Continuous Change Delivered Over-the-Air

How many times has something worked perfectly well and then when it is “redesigned” in the next model, it is much more difficult to use? Many of us have experienced this in our phone operating systems when an over-the-air update delivers something “fresh” but tricky to use and learn. More modern domains like Driver Assistance and Connectivity require a lot more attention as they are bringing whole new paradigms of interaction and function to vehicles and they are barely understood by consumers.

It is also difficult to not want to stay on par with the competition, or explore a maturing technology that could lead to an innovation. Or earn the street credibility of being “1st to market”. Or agree that this feature is perfect as it is (or good enough) and we are going to leave it alone. Consumers are romanced by “the new” and although they might never use it and maybe even someday regret the purchase, they often have to have it.


The Single Best Way

We naturally inclined to choose one-way to complete a task despite having many other ways that we could accomplish that task. Do I need (4) ways to advance through my music playlist? In many vehicles, I can jog a physical knob, or do a swipe gesture, or touch a button on a screen, or use a voice command. “Sirius 33 (or) Play Aimee Mann.” Do I need (4) ways defrost my front windshield? I can press the Front Defrost button, or the Front Defrost Max button, or the Electric Window Heater button of the Auto button. The choices unnecessarily paralyze and frustrate consumers.

If you have ever worked with me, then you know that I will go to great lengths to “find the single best way” and integrate that into a product, service or system design. We are creatures of habit and routine and these redundancies are expensive, not too mention time consumer and complex to build well.


Towards Awareness & Interaction with My Passengers

Sensors, cameras and quickly evolving math are letting us shift much of our attention to what is happening inside the vehicle. To-date, we have only been able to tell if our passengers had their seat belts on. However, the recent generations of the Honda Odyssey have moved beyond what the vehicle can do to create features that let the driver maintain awareness of what the passengers is doing. And interact with them without taking their eyes off of the road.

CabinWatch is a camera with night vision that lets the driver see the backseat, even in the dark. It is viewable through the Display Audio Touch-Screen (aka the Center screen).    

CabinTalk allows the driver to talk directly to passengers in the back. You can override connected headphones and on Elite vehicle trims, you can also be heard through the rear speakers.  

And lastly, the CabinControl app allows passengers to create a Social Playlist in which everyone can have a say in the music played by simply adding a song to a playlist using the app.

These exact features are a few of the collection of stories that I used many years ago to explain the first stages of Experience Design to various departments within an OEM. Two years ago Honda brought them to market first. And no doubt many other OEMs are racing to provide similar features – most likely with a subtle arbitrary difference because of IP issues.


How Do We Explain These Other Features?

I am using Honda as an example, but similar occurrences exist in many OEM vehicles. The new 2019 Honda Passport is providing the ability to set the outside temperature read-out just a little higher (warmer) or lower (colder) than it actually is. If the outside temperature is 32 and you set the value to -3, then the temperature reading on the vehicle is 29 degrees. The rationale of such a feature or setting escapes me, so I will venture a guess as to the internal discussions that did or didn’t take place.

The specifications were misunderstood in translation by design and implementation teams from two different cultures, languages and continents?

Let’s do it because we can – and we love consumer customization; let’s offer as much customization as we possibly can. We should give them (consumers) unlimited options.

We will experiment – offer the feature now, track its usage, understand it’s usage, get direct customer feedback and continuously improve the feature over time via over-the-air data capture and updates


Diverse wallpapers are also available for customers to choose to display on the center screen. They are thematic images with a minimal clock face overlay. Each clock has one number where there would ordinarily be a “3” (via 3, 6, 9, 12 clock orientation). However, that number is actually the day of the month (1-31). Telling the time at a glance used to be easy, but the simple addition of this elements causes a pause. Something is familiar but just a little bit Off. Does this happen because it too easy to execute digital solutions, so we make poor decisions? This reminded me of the first time that I saw the internal or external temperature communicated in an Audi with an extra decimal place - like 71.5 degrees (or) 46.5 degrees. Why is this necessary?


Please Do Not Use Acronyms to Identify Functions to Consumers - On the Web, Inside the Vehicle or In the Dealership

And lastly (for this article at least), let’s examine how Driver Assistance is explained by Honda. Driver Assistance BTW is probably the most in-demand feature and a significant buy factor of modern vehicles. The 2019 Odyssey web site refers to the suite of Driver Assistance features as Honda Sensing® and groups them into (4) categories called CMBS  |  RDM  |  ACC  |  LKAS. Really? The corporation can have an internal love affair with acronyms as many do, but do not project or extend those puzzles onto consumer communication channels or even worse, to in-vehicle features and controls.

Still today, we find abstract abbreviations and acronyms printed and molded onto our vehicle controls as well as digitally represented within screens.

Still today, we find abstract abbreviations and acronyms printed and molded onto our vehicle controls as well as digitally represented within screens.


Product, Service & Emotional Systems Design Consulting & Collaboration - for the Automotive & Mobility industries