Decoding Design

Design drivers for safe mobile applications

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Can platform developers design a safe way to live (as in, not die) with cars and smartphones?

In my house, there was a standing rule for me and my siblings: for the first six months after we earned our driver's licenses, we were not allowed to listen to the radio while we were behind the wheel. I can't speak for my brothers and sisters, but I actually obeyed that rule...at least for the first many weeks.

I tend to be a rule-follower, but I also saw the logic in the rule. Driving seemed like a big deal and a big responsibility, after all, so why add distractions? I wonder what rules my parents would enact today, if their kids were learning to drive with a digital distraction essentially tied to their wrists. I see drivers young and old, here in California, thumb their noses at safety laws all the time, talking and texting behind the wheel. As a pedestrian, I like to give them the stink eye. As a driver, I'm guilty of both texting and talking on my phone -- sans earpiece.

Designers of mobile applications need to accept that drivers will break the rules, says Robert Acker, in an essay on Gigaom.com. Acker works at Harmon, where he is general manager of Aha, a mobile infotainment platform.

That means that it's up to app designers to design interfaces that are so intuitive and easy, users won't even consider not using them. Car radios have pre-sets. Once those are set up, why would you search for your favorite stations by scrolling across the F.M. dial? You wouldn't. The same applies for using your cell phone inside your car. If your phone is synched into your car's control systems and recognizes your voice, without exception, then why would you revert to actually handling your phone while driving? You wouldn't. Or at least, that's what Acker is banking on.

Acker worries that carmakers are simply imitating mobile device makers by making the communication and radio features in new cars such that they resemble "resemble smartphones and tablets on wheels." So he advocates for tactile (a.k.a. old school) interfaces for car dashboards. "Current physical dashboard commands — up arrow, down arrow, right arrow forward, left arrow back and so on — are familiar and easy to operate, and certainly less distracting than a touch-screen display whose user interface requires the driver to slide a finger precisely along a path," he writes.

Voice recognition technology is really improving quickly. Acker points to the Dragon software from Nuance as one hopeful technology, and I've seen some impressive demonstrations of the Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch interface, which uses the Dragon software for voice recognition. In the case of Ford, the option to skip the voice and key your destination into the navigation screen doesn't exist. The screen locks out while the car is in motion.

Another consideration is to design the interactions such that the driver is not forced to input a response or information into the communication system quickly. If an interface only gives a driver a few seconds to respond, but the driver is distracted by, you know, driving, and then misses her chance to respond, she will likely opt to use her handset instead.

Plus, the interface can't force the user to move through a long, laborious option and command conversation to get to a specific action or query. There have to be shortcuts, and ones that are easy for the user to remember.

Acker places mobile application designers' job in some pretty scary perspective, too: "A decade ago, researchers at Harvard estimated that drivers talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 other injury accidents the previous year. That was before the iPhone and iPad, before Facebook, before just about all the mobile apps we now can’t imagine living without. The question now is, can we live with them in the car?"

Image: johnmmenchaca

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure