Why In-Car Touchscreen Interfaces Shouldn’t Be Designed Like Smartphones

Peter Burjanec 2 years ago 17

Let’s just get one fact out of the way: most, if not all, in-car touchscreen interfaces are horribly-designed attempts at copying our smartphones. Some even go beyond core media functionality and try implementing various onboard controls into a touch interface.

Even Tesla’s highly lauded monolith of a display has a bunch of usability issues that just shouldn’t be present in 2015. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out which sub-menu has air conditioning hidden in the layers upon layers of bad UI decisions most likely made by a third party that the manufacturer had decided to subcontract in order to cut costs.

Lowest bidder hardware

Most issues start with the hardware, a fair number of modern cars don’t come equipped with capacitive touch screens – the type that you normally find on smartphones. That’s where the horrible marriage of cheap hardware and badly thought out UI decisions come together in an explosive marriage of dread when an unfortunate user has to quickly find an important control while driving a 3 tonne chunk of metal at 60 miles per hour.

Dashboard fury

The lack of decent hardware is what causes the display to not register your finger presses, and with the inclusion of maps and pinch to zoom, some manufacturers automatically thought it was a great idea to add this gesture to their nav capabilities. It sounds great in theory, but if your displays fail to precisely register one-finger taps, then what do you expect will happen when you tell your user to engage in multi-touch?

Needless to say, my recent experience with a 2015 Toyota Corolla’s nav unit was less than stellar and just made me use my iPhone for directions. I had to resort to my phone again while taking a 2014 Ford Explorer and a 2014 Grand Cherokee for a spin.

Less digging more driving

The number one mistake I see when driving any media-enabled car is the dependency on prolonged visual contact with the screen. Some may argue that screens were made to be looked at. But a car is a fairly unique environment where all displayed information needs to be extremely glanceable and interactable without spending more than a couple of seconds with your eyes off the road.

Because you know, not looking where you’re going is considered good advice only if you’re seeking to win a Darwin award. So what do manufacturers need to do to make using their tech solutions decent?

Touch but don’t look

Either stick to physical controls, or create a display that you can interact with without having to look at it. The former is a simple and elegant solution, but we’re currently experiencing a trend where everything needs to have a touchscreen shoehorned onto it. So let’s look at the latter, how can we make interactive dashboard displays operable without looking at them?

The Grid


All good design is based off a grid. So should vehicular interfaces. We need an interface with large, chunky hotspots which make the UI intractable without having to look at it, and it’s easy enough for the user to remember which section does what when they blindly mash their finger into a general area of the screen. Even if the manufacturer decides to use a non-capacitive touch screen, this method still works.


Here’s a basic layout that can contain all core interactions. The global options should include high level functions such as heating, music, GPS, backup cameras and so on. The detail options are granular elements of their global elements. So for Heating this would mean Fan Control and Interior Temperature would be considered child elements.


Here’s our grid superimposed on top of our basic UI layout. Notice how this interaction pattern only requires the user to remember 2 things; how to move up/down or move left/right. Each section of the screen has a fairly large dedicated hotspot, and we end up with something that can be used without being looked at.

Audio feedback


Here’s a quick prototype for high level navigation. We can go further and include aural feedback to let the user know which section of the global menu they are in without forcing them to look at the screen.

Most new vehicles come with great audio equipment, so there’s a perfect opportunity to introduce some fun elements and utilise aural feedback. For instance, in the case of heating, we could use a half-second chime of wind blowing, for GPS – a half-second submarine radar sound. There’s a lot of room to experiment and deliver great results while delighting the user.


And here’s granular interaction. Swipe up/down to explore granular elements. Swipe left/right to change their value. With audio feedback, we can use a global element’s chime and change the pitch when exploring the granular menu. This way the user automatically knows which global setting they’re manipulating, while also understanding that each child element has its own unique pitch based off of the parent’s core element sound.

The finishing line

If there’s one thing I could tell manufacturers to do to fix their car interfaces, that would be to stop looking at phones for inspiration. Then I’d tell them to invest into capacitive screens. A lot of our infotainment woes come down to bad hardware and it definitely needs to be better in most cars on the road today. A usability-centerer approach, however, can greatly alleviate most of our vehicular media needs.

Peter Burjanec

Peter is a London-based, senior mobile UI/UX designer who has helped design some of the UK’s leading banking solutions for iOS and Android. He also frequently hosts UX workshops in San Francisco, helps various Silicon Valley startups, and loves all things automotive. Check out some of his work at www.burjanec.com

  • Scott Johnson

    Or you know….stop putting touch screens in cars altogether until we have fully autonomous vehicles. Big knobs and buttons are far more appropriate (and safer) than these terrible goddamn touch screens.

    • Peter Burjanec

      Agreed, nothing’s better than tactile knobs and switches. But it doesn’t seem like that’s where the industry is headed. I do think that a nifty tech solution like Apple’s latest trackpads that click back at you would be an interesting use case on touchscreens. But that would require car manufacturers to actually spend some dough on non-crap hardware.

  • Great article Peter, thanks for sharing your ideas and insights!

  • Aidil Goh

    I’ve been using Siri to access waze and spotify while I’m in the car. To me, this is the most safest way to access apps. Having said that however, once i’m in the app, I still need to navigate these apps via touchscreen. Cant wait till there’s full Siri integration!

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