In The Design of Everyday Things – one of the best-known books in design and human factors circles – Don Norman discusses how “When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even a one-word manual—then it is a failure, poorly designed.” As we improve the user experience in the car, we are building systems that are becoming easier to use, and hope that much of this functionality does not require a manual.
Manuals, of course, have their place, particularly for complex systems like the cars we drive today, and especially the cars we will drive in the future. As such, we may well be relying on that old paper car manual for now. That said, many people don’t actually use these paper manuals. By our count in recent survey, about 67 percent of people never or rarely use them, even when they have problems, with 23 percent more who say they only look at it once after buying the car.
Even if people don’t use manuals often today (car or otherwise), that doesn’t prevent us from creating and designing systems to provide our drivers useful information that comes from the manual. We could move toward digitizing our car manuals and making them searchable PDFs or embed them in mobile apps, but our research shows that we’d still have 71 percent of users who prefer a printed manual over a digital manual – coming from the same people who say they don’t use their manual today.
This comes from people who even admit, in their own words, that a digital manual offers “convenience” and “searchability.”
So what gives?
It seems that users want some of the affordances of a digital manual, but still don’t expect they’d use it if it was in a form familiar to them today. Maybe the preference for a printed manual lies in comfort in what is familiar, and an awareness that they aren’t truly much more likely to hop onto their laptop to find and use a PDF manual.
But what happens if we provide them with a better experience that affords the benefits of convenience and searchability? We proposed taking a digital car manual, embedding it into the head unit, and making it voice-searchable to users. Without giving any more information, we found that 65 percent of participants in our studies said this was something they’d like. Last month, we discussed a couple of use cases for what this could look like. We’ve gone beyond this, and found out that users report that they find the most value in step-by-step guides (how-to guides and how-to-do-somethings) and troubleshooting guides.
If we paint a clearer picture of what these voice-enabled, searchable Smart Car Manuals look like, however, we find that we can get beyond two-thirds of drivers stating they want this feature. If we talk about it in the context of being an integral part of a holistic, well-designed automotive assistant, 80 percent of drivers say they want this as part of such a system.
When unconstrained, though, drivers are thinking bigger
Even though we’ve seen drivers reporting value in these smart car manuals, we seem them get more excited about what’s next. When we don’t frame the types of questions people want to ask their car around a manual, they proactively suggest a wide range of questions. Some of these are related to the car manual (particularly maintenance related, for example “Where’s my tire iron located?” or “what should my tire pressure be?”) But we see a lot more questions come up that are more relevant to either the current state of the vehicle, or the current task at hand for the driver
Many drivers wanted the ability to ask about their current fuel economy, how much longer they could go before they needed an oil change, or if they could continue to drive on their tire with low tire pressure. They wanted to ask about how long until the next exit, or what the weather will be at their destination when they arrive. As I reviewed the range of suggestions from drivers, I found that users were suggesting desire for a self-aware car. They wanted a car that was aware of its current state, aware of the state of the infotainment system and the various services it was running, and capable of helping the driver out with whatever was most important at the time. Importantly, nearly three-quarters of our users said they wanted these systems to be conversational, not just controlled through single voice commands, meaning that they want these systems to be able to refine and work through a dialog, to get to a better outcome.
All of this comes together for a vision of a much more capable, helpful automotive assistant in the future. It starts by making smart car manuals today that take the place of traditional manuals, and goes into a future where the cars can answer a much broader range of questions, not only making for a better user experience, but making for a safer experience.