Principles for establishing digital tone of voice in automotive UX

Principles for establishing digital tone of voice in automotive UX

If you imagine every button and touchscreen gesture contributes to an ongoing digital conversation between user and product, what is your brand’s tone of voice? Moreover, who is responsible for crafting this nuanced sound in your organisation and how wide is their remit?

A recent working session with Joe Simpson and Sam Livingstone of Car Design Research (both alumni speakers of our MEX event) highlighted the importance of addressing this question in the automotive industry. There are several reasons for this:

  • The frequency of conversational exchanges between vehicles and users is increasing. Sensors and the resulting data points available from cars are multiplying, giving rise to a greater number of instances when a user might have reason for a digital exchange with their vehicle.
  • There’s growing depth to these exchanges, as the interaction channels become more capable:
    • Bigger, better screens, which have evolved from simple, one-line digital odometers a decade ago to huge, pixel-dense touchscreens dominating the central console.
    • The addition of alternative channels, such as voice or gestural input.
    • Expansion of the conversation to multiple remotely connected touchpoints, making it possible to conduct conversations between users and vehicles outside of the cabin, from phones, watches and other personal mobile devices.

We might illustrate it roughly like this:

Automotive UI evolution

The notion of brand ‘conversations’, of course, is already a well trodden path in the domain of advertising. There are any number of agencies which will happily sell you carefully constructed campaigns designed to build a conversation between you and your customers – after the product has been designed. However, it is frequently neglected and muddled in the context of interaction design.

It remains all too common for decisions about the numerous elements which form this overall digital tone of voice to be distributed among disparate silos within organisations: the speedometer espousing one design language, while the media controls speak another.

It’s hard to over-estimate how fundamental the use of tone is to human dialogue. Consider just how many different tones of voice could alter the meaning of a phrase as simple as ‘I really like this place’.

The automotive industry is well versed and, indeed, one of the frequently cited examples of establishing consistent design language – at least in the context of industrial design. Car companies invest their most significant resources in crafting exterior and interior cabin identities which communicate the meaning of each individual brand. However, the very structure of how digital technology is being brought into the automotive world – largely through third party suppliers and, in future, through extensions of smartphone OS like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – is creating confusion. There’s little sense of functional harmony between the industrial design elements and the digital experience, yet both are now key to the customers’ perception of the vehicle.

The generation of customers just now reaching driving age will place ever greater importance on the tone of the digital experience. This may occur to the extent it is more instructive to correlate future success in the products hitherto called ‘cars’ as something which will instead result from brands’ abilities to solve personal mobility through a much wider digital conversation across multiple touchpoints: from companion drones to on-demand ride sharing apps.

At its most mundane and immediate, this change in customer expectations may mean the interaction language a car brand’s social vehicle sharing app is just as important to the user as the styling of the alloy wheels or whether it has a 1.6 or 2 litre engine. Less tangibly, but even more important as one looks further into the future, the elegance with which a vehicle integrates with the most important digital streams in a user’s life – from where they shop to the music they listen to – may become a key selling point.

If we look deeper into the metaphor of personal mobility as an ongoing digital conversation, it is important to recognise the need for flexibility and nuanced, personalised response in interaction design. Just as our own conversational tone varies from day to day, by conversational partner and by location, so too will vehicles need to dynamically adapt the tone of their digital conversation with users according to a range of factors, such as:

  • Urgency
  • Distraction
  • Weather
  • Social context
  • Time of day
  • Geographical familiarity

In the same way some cars already offer users various driving modes, from ‘racing’ to ‘comfort’, should they also be preparing to support multiple styles of digital conversation across not just the in-car interfaces, but all of the connected touchpoints in a user’s life, from phone to smartwatch.

It’s hardly news that data and artificial intelligence have the potential to disrupt the car industry by enabling a new generation of autonomous vehicles. A disruption of sorts will occur, it is just a question of when and to what extent. However, regardless of whether cars evolve from aspirational, individually owned vehicles to an more nebulous web of autonomous, on-demand mobility services, the importance of tone in how a brand communicates its digital conversations will be no less pressing.

Following the illuminating working session with Car Design Research, which reminded me how important contextual awareness could be to the tone of these conversations in vehicles, I found it instructive to return to a set of 8 principles arising from a 2013 exploration of this subject we undertook at the MEX event in partnership with Qualcomm:

  1. If there is any doubt over user intent, do nothing without explicitly confirming. The experience design of these confirmations is crucial to overall success.
  2. Contextual experiences should evolve the frequency and significance of their interventions gradually and not seek a single transformational moment. This builds user trust and reduces the risk of permanent failure and rejection.
  3. Context awareness should follow the user and not become constrained to a specific device. Preferences and identity should be understood across all touchpoints in a user’s life, within the constraints of how they wish to manifest their behaviour and identity in different situations.
  4. Users maintain an ongoing narrative around their lives. This is done at both the conscious and sub-conscious level, and elements of it are both projected to others and kept personal. Context aware services should sit within and support the shaping of this narrative. Understanding its intricacies should guide design.
  5. Contextual response does not always require cloud connectivity. Much can be achieved within the confines of individual devices and sensors. Users may be reassured if their contextual experience occurs primarily at a local level.
  6. Humans have innate pattern recognition ability. Designing to tap this trait helps users quickly confirm intentions when there is ambiguity over their context, with little additional cognitive load.
  7. Context aware experiences should reflect the lies users tell themselves, not hard facts as understood by computers.
  8. Users take the first use of contextual data as their benchmark. The way in which those contextual data are used should never be altered from that benchmark, at the risk of losing user trust permanently.

Applied to automotive, and given a sufficiently broad mandate for centralised control of all the touchpoints in a user’s relationship with their cars, perhaps these provide a starting point for establishing the right tone of voice for your brand’s digital conversation?

As ever, the MEX video archives provide an illuminating resource of follow-ups for the inquisitive: try Peter Skillman’s 2014 MEX session on mapping, cars and users’ relationship with place or Simon East’s 2011 talk on designing an in-car app for sustainable driving.

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