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Dashboard UX Design - Whitepaper for Volkswagen AG
Dashboard User Experience
Dashboard User Experience: Leveraging dashboard
of the modern times.
What is User Experience ?
The contemporary definition of user experience relates to computer or
computing devices as the context and is described as what a person feels emotionally,
consciously and sub-consciously while interacting with a computing device. It
encompasses the feelings and perceptions a user develops while interacting with the
object. To illustrate, some emotions
are surprise, joy, irritation, confusion, addiction,
gloom and many more that could result as the person interacts with the object.
The contemporary definition draws its context from the advancements of mobile,
ubiquitous, social, and tangible computing technologies and pushes the underlying
discipline of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) to the forefront. Due to the ubiquitous
use of technologies in our day-to-day lives, significant research in the field of HCI has
lead to a better realization of how people affect and are affected by the increasingly
pervasice technology around us. John J. McCarthy and Peter Right (quoted in left)
define the term ‘human computer interaction’ and carefully illustrate the association
of the field of human computer interaction
and user experience. Human computer
interaction roots from the understanding of user experience, however has a pin point
focus on the interactions between a technology and a person. Delving into such niche
depths reveals several aspects of human behavior which demand to be addressed
while designing technology products.
User experience is pioneered by Nielsen Norman Group, a team of three stalwarts
of the field, namely Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini, provide best
in class consulting, research and training. Their definition of user experience bears a
more real world syntax and can be analogized to modern day technology products. In
their words, “ user experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction
with the company, its services, and its products.“ Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman
emphasize on the important of distinguishing components of user experience such
as usability, a quality attribute of user interface, and how they fit into the broader
concept of user experience. In their argument of a consistently important factor is
the need to understanding the user, so much so that they go on to express that true
user experience not only delivers what the user wants but go above and beyond to
observe, understand and model their real needs which lie tucked away and can be
tacitly observed in their behaviour towards the product. They also call for seamless
merging of the services of across disciplines such as engineering, marketing, graphical
and industrial design, psychology, cognitive science and interface design.
“ HCI is concerned with the influence technology has on how people think,
value, feel, and related and using this understanding to inform technology
design. Ontologically, HCI is now concerned with the experience, felt
life, emotion, desire, fulfillment as well as the more familiar ontology of
activities, practices and tasks.”
- Wright, P. and McCarthy, J. Empathy and Experience in HCI. In Proc. CHI 2008, ACM
Press (2008), 637-646
Why User Experience needs to be designed ?
Every product that is ever made is ultimately a result of a set of decisions, by a
group of people. The product is designed and engineered for a purpose. Now, when
a user of the respective device uses it, the device would impart its physical nature,
it would have a flow
to the way it would work and it would also have a quality of
achieving the desired goal for the very reason it was made. In simple terms, there is an
flat, as technology has advanced so far ahead it has become irrelevant to gauge the
effectiveness of a product based on its technology. For example, computer processing
power has become so fast, in technical terms of gigahertz, that further advancements
in it hardly bears any meaning to the common person. But there has been interesting
turn of events due to this evolution and that is, people have begun caring about how
it feels to use that product or how easily then can get their job done with it. Deriving
from the same above example, now the judgement of a computer depends more
on how fast the user “percieves” the computer is and not how fast it technically is.
This compels us to consider ‘experience’ and ‘perception’ to be vital to any product.
The question ‘How is the customer’s experience with our product ?’ has redefined the
question ‘How good is our product ?’
John Dewey, famous philosopher whose work Art as Experience
(1934) is regarded by
many as one of the most important contribution to the field of psychology of art and
experience in the twentieth century. Dewey
explains how there are various types of
experiences. The first one is a simple ‘experience,’ it is what we feel and perceive when
we do some routine work, say laundry. The second and one of the most prominent
one is ‘an experience
,’ which is the experience we have when we are witnessing
something extremely delightful. This experience stands out from others, it has a very
distinct beginning and an end. And the experience reverberates in our minds long
after the experience has ended. He talks how such an experience begins and ends
and have many individual parts in them which flow into each other like a river stream
flows, but, they don’t loose their individual identity rather they contribute to the whole
Without taking care of the resultant experience that a product would deliver, it is
basically left up to chance, for the customer to like it or not. A product delivering good
experience or an experience would make the product be percieved as very useful and
would be happily reflected upon as a tool doing its intended job. However, a bad
experience would render the product not useful and would be disliked by its intended
. Leaving this judgement up to chance doesn’t make any logical sense,
especially when millions of dollars are spent making it to do a certain task.
“ Because of continuous merging, there are no holes, mechanical junctions,
and dead centers when we have an experience. There are pauses, places of
rest, but they punctuate and define the quality of movment.”
- Dewey, J. Having an Experience. Art as Experience 1934. 1-18 
User experience has been leveraged by many great companies since a long time,
even making products that get their customers, to an extent, addicted to it. To quote
, the famous product designer behind Braun products, “Users react very
positively when things are clear and understandable…”. An example of such a company
which is also agreed by legends in the field such as Dieter Rams is Apple. It reflects
clearly in their products, a company driven by design who take meticulous care in
finding out how each aspect of their product will be perceived by the customers, even
the subtle ones that are hidden away from the surface. An example of such ludicrous
attention to detail can be seen in their 1982 design guide document for their Apple
IIe computer as illustrated below. Even back in 1982, when there were no significant
advancement in the means and modes of interface of computers with users Apple
stresses in the document how building a smooth interaction is important, study the
user profiles and design to accomodate all the user profiles. It also speaks at great
length about how important it is for the code to be readable by the next developer or
user tinkering into the system.
“ ...Users react very positively when things are clear and
Good Design should be Innovative.
Good Design should make a product useful.
Good Design is aesthetic design.
Good Design will make a product undestandable.
Good Design is honest.
Good Design is unobtrusive.
Good Design is long-lived.
Good Design is consistent in every detail.
Good Design is environmentally friendly.
Last but not least, good design is as little design as possible.
- Dieter Rams in Objectified. Gary Hustwit. 2009 
Apple has one of the highest customer satisfaction rates in the industry and the
customers even have a devotional fan-following for the product and the culture of the
Designing a product well is powerful. Designing an experience is extremely powerful.
Designing the user experience of your digital products is almost predicting how the
customers would perceive it and how they feel.
Hence user experience needs to be designed.
“ To satisfy the goals of your customers your design must be useful. In other
easy to understand and interact with in a predictable and reliable manner.
Finally, in order to attract users, your design must also be desirable.”
- Gorp, T. Van and Adams, E. Design for Emotion. Elsevier 2012. 1-18 
In the 90’s, cars had fairly simple dashboard
with gauges and buttons to
interact and operate the various systems of the car. Back then, one could swap out
the factory music system for something better. Car enthusiasts primarily did this so
they could include better amplifiers and even more speakers—usually to make it loud
and full of bass. This would result in the ability to impress friends, annoy parents,
and disturb those around you in traffic. An aftermarket replacement like the Alpine
7903 relied on hard buttons and 7-segments for its UI. The interface on these systems
was relatively simple. They would then have an entirely different area of the console
that used another set of switches, buttons, and sliders to deal with things like climate
This dashboard to the left is from
1995 Nissan Pathfinder with an
aftermarket stereo and its separate
controls for climate control. Now lets
see a relatively modern dashboard
in one of the luxury cars namely
Porsche 918 Spyder.
Nowadays these systems no longer
just deal with the controls on your
stereo—they deal with everything.
It is common for the interface in
today’s consoles to include inputs
for complex stereos, multi-zone
climate control systems, navigation, vehicle
information centers, phones, contact lists,
and a host of other things. The number of
operations has risen from a couple of dozen
to a few hundred. For example, the Porsche
918 Spyder’s center console controls more
than 800 functions. The current dashboard
interfaces simply aren’t efficiently dealing with
the number of requirements they have. But
this is just part of the problem.
Beyond the vast number of functions these
systems are supporting, there are regulatory
and testing requirements, which, definitely
need involvement and approval from multiple
groups, partners, and organizations that live
outside the manufacturer. These factors add
more constraints, roadblocks, and bureaucracy that need to be taken into account.
These checks and balances add several time to the ‘design’ process. In other words,
some of what was designed into your 2015 vehicle started back in 2013 or even
earlier, it is the fact. Cost is another important factor. It is obviously expensive and
time consuming to produce the new systems. We are incentivized to create things that
can be adapted and adopted for use across a model range, or in some cases, across
multiple brands. They want to keep those costs down and have speed to market.
However some of what is being produced is inexcusable for any company, regardless
of the constraints put in front of them. There is no excuse for a system to use text
typography that is unreadable. There is no defense for an interface that uses icons that
are too small to read or mean something else than what they should represent.
“...the vision we have will always be as much a reflection of ourselves and
our prejudices as it is a discovery of ‘how things really are.’ In other words,
the very way we see things reveals secrets about us: what we see reveals
what we are looking for, what we are interested in.”
- Russon, J. The Forms of Human Exprience:Interpretation in Human Experience.
Albany: State University of New York Press. 9-20 
We can’t rationalize a palette with poor contrast or bevelled buttons directly copied
from old computer interfaces. Bad design is sometimes just bad design—and it’s
unfortunately pervasive in automotive interfaces.
The clarity, simplicity, and aesthetic of these systems should be more important to
. We should see it as a major opportunity to bring moments of joy and delight to
customers. These are systems that allow us to physically interact with their brand, that
is a very powerful proposition. Dashboards should not be ugly exercises of frustration.
They should express the brand with every interaction. When someone gets in a
Porsche Cayenne and turns on the stereo, or adjust the climate control, it should feel
like Porsche. It shouldn’t be the same experience I get when I turn on the stereo in my
Chrysler Town & Country minivan. There are shocking examples of same interfaces
between a luxury super car like Ferrari and a Chrysler Town & Country minivan. Can
we imagine if those two cars shared another part, like the headlights or door panels?
It would never happen. Then it brings up the all important question that if we are not
comfortable having cars of different segment and quality share each other’s parts how
can we be satisfied if they had the same dashboard interface.
A driver interacts with the car from different points, no doubt it is reasonable to argue
that interaction with the car happens primarily with the steering wheel and the gear
handle or paddles. But increasingly cars are becoming more technologically advanced.
A big part of the technological advancement is happening in the dashboard. Cars
have implemented touch screens and innovative technology on to the dashboards
since long. But often car companies have been stigmatized with bad design of these
technologies on dashboard. The ground is level now, there is more than ever room for
some car company to think innovatively and bring in a dashboard interface that their
customers will delight from. All car companies make good cars but we at Volkswagen
group make great cars that are pieces of art. Our customers already delight from
various aspects of the car be it the ride quality, the smoothness of drive, the cabin
comfort, the cabin luxury, the engine, the power the car delivers, etc. However there
is one last piece missing in the puzzle that would render our cars as masterpieces and
that is the dashboard.
We at Volkswagen group make great cars that are pieces of art. Our customers
alreaady delight from various aspects of the car be it the ride quality, the smoothness
of drive, the cabin comfort, the cabin luxury, the engine, the power the car delivers,
etc. However there is one last piece missing in the puzzle that would render our cars
as masterpieces and that is the Dashboard.
To achieve the last mile of perfection we need to bring some change to our
strategy. It needs to be a little realigned so that we foster a higher quality of user
experience in our cars and thinking from the user’s point of view. It would require us
to bring about some small changes but result in significant improvement in the results
of our car’s experience leading to greater customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
As Forlizzi  pragmatically mentioned understanding experience is difficult and
understanding user experience is even more difficult as it requires multidisciplinary
teams to work together it would help us to spread our strategy plan into different
dimensions of a car production from inception to manufacturing. Some strategies
would be undertaken by the people and for the people while some would be for the
product implemented by the people.
Strategy for Change
1. Introduce brand specific in-car dashboard experience
A Volkswagen CC is different from a Porsche Panamera and so is a Lamborghini
Aventador from Skoda Octavia. They all have unique bodily characteristics as well felt
characteristics. One can easily distinguish whether they are driving a VW, Porsche or
Seat. However while using the dashboard console/interface in any of these cars the
experience is not distinct. The first and foremost change we would like to bring in would
be to introduce brand specific experiences inside the car. People buy a Volkswagen for
certain reason and Lamborghini for some other, they deserve to feel they are using a
Volkswagen console if they are driving a Volkswagen.The dashboard user experience
needs to be considered early on and should be included in the process of inception
and proofing of a car’s concept. It would require Volkswagen group companies to hire
senior and experienced user experience designers to lead a new division of dashboard
and digital equipment experiences. The primary job of the division would be to take up
the new car’s concept or idea and build a holistic in-car dashboard experience around
it. They will also take care of any digital equipment that is added to the car, judge if the
equipment has interaction with the car users and if yes then take it under their umbrella
to design the respective experience that would result. It would need the involvement
of the company’s board throughout just like they are involved in the clay modeling
process of the car’s concept. When a new car is taking shape around the clay modeling
stage, the car also shapes a concept, a goal that the car wants to deliver; introducing the
digital experience and shaping it along with the clay model would maintain the cohesively
in the car’s driving and felt experience.
2. Rethink fundamentals in placing of features on a dashboard
Earlier during the pre-touchscreen era the dashboard mainly consisted of buttons and
manual gauges to adjust settings of temperature and music system. There were buttons for
doing specific tasks. However now some new technologies are introduced because it can
be done and not because it is needed. Also only building on conventional technologies
ned be rooted out. Room for innovation has to be created and out of the box thinking should
be brought in as a norm. This would also align with the previous strategy of making brand
specific in-car experiences. For example, Porsche or Lamborghini since they are pioneer
sports car and super car makers the cars are often driven fast, there is an even more need
to keep the driver’s eyes on the road, in this situation a lot of the crucial dashboard displays
need to be moved away from the console which is below the driver’s line of sight.
1. Introduce User-Centered Design
and involve users in the design process
User centered design has been wildly successful when it comes to designing great
products in the recent times. It is specifically pioneered by famous design consultancy
firms like IDEO and Adaptive Path. This would require involving users early in the design
process and iterate on their feedback. This can become especially helpful in gauging early
on how comfortable a customer will be when interacting with the dashboard elements while
he is driving. A number of test cases can be set up and the user’s interaction and behavior
can be ethnographically observed. It is important to select people who fit in the profile of
a potential customer.
2. Involve Board members in above steps
If we look at how at the bigger picture of how a car is proposed, conceptualized and
manufactured (illustrated on the previous page) board members approve every step
of the physical design changes and provide feedback. They safeguard the progress and
ensure that the changes are in line with the brand’s goals, history and objectives. Hence
they need to be involved early on in the design process where they have a say in the
experience design progress and changes.
3. Add an independent board member who has prominent background in
It would also be extremely beneficial to add another board member who would work
independently and has a background in the field of design. They can best guide the rest
of the board members once the new process of designing experience is added in to
the concept car design process. Prospective candidates could include eminent people
or founding members of promising design consultancy or people of research. Some
common names who are actively involved in the field holding such a similar or advisory
position would include Don Norman, JJ Garrett.
PEOPLE & PROCESS
Plan of Action
Building on the strategy the following are objectified plans that ca be taken upon by the
group and executed in a linear order:
1. Appoint an independent board member to the Volkswagen group board
The Volkswagen group board decide to appoint another independent board member
who would bring in fresh perspective to the Volkswagen group in terms of design. He
can be a leading professor in the field of desing, eminent research person, founder or
leader of a design consultancy.
2. Start a pilot program and hire a user experience consultancy
The user experience consultancy could lead a pilot program to come up with the concept
of a modern and rich dashboard meeting every expectation of the customers and
having at the core a well thought out experience design. Since this pilot could possibly
impact the other group’s companies there has to be no compromise in the selection
and autonomy of their work. Leading user experience consultancy have publicly shown
interest to work in this field, name TeehanLax, a San Francisco based company has
done exemplary work in the field of technology experience design.
Volkswagen group should fund the pilot program. The pilot program to last over a
period of three months or as aligned with the development of the concept car.
3. Introduce the result in a concept car
The work of the design consultancy should be introduced to a concept car being
developed under the Volkswagen umbrella. The pilot program can last anywhere from
1-5 years and should conclude with the implementation of the concept design in a real
4. Observation Period
After the launch of the concept production car. The response would be studied and
researched for a period of two to three years. During this time redesign and fine tuning
of experience can be documented for future use.
5. Spread the result of the pilot among the group companies
The result of the pilot’s implementation should be documented and be reported to
the board and have journals distributed to the group companies. Upon success of the
pilot program, the group can setup training programs in association with the design
6. Setup teams in group companies.
Following training of employees in the design team, individual group companies can
start recruiting and setting up their own user experience design teams which would
function under their existing car design team.
8. Instruct group companies to hire an independent board member with
The group companies would be appointed or advised to hire their own independent
board member with design background.
10. Start quarterly reports from group companies regarding the progress
of implementation of user experience
Upon implementation of all the above programs and having successful
ly built a group culture of leveraging user experience design the practice would become
in which group companies share their success or findings in the form or research case
studies among the group.
 Forlizzi 2004. Understanding Experience in Interactive Systems
 Gorp, T. Van and Adams, E. Design for Emotion. Elsevier 2012. 1-18
 Dewey, J. Having an Experience. Art as Experience 1934. 1-18
 Russon, J. The Forms of Human Exprience:Interpretation in Human Experience.
Albany: State University of New York Press. 9-20
 Csikszenmihalyi, M. and Robinson. The Major Dimensions of Aesthetic Experience.
 McCarthy, J. and Wright, P., Technology as Experience. MIT Press 2004. 1-105
 McCarthy, J. and Wright, P., Empathy and Experience in HCI. CHI 2008 Proceedings
 Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M. and Moed, A. Observing the User Experience. Elsevier
Tullis, T. and Albert, B. Measuring the User Experience. Morgan Kaufmann
Sauro, J. and Lewis, J. R. Quantifying the User Experience.Morgan Kaufmann
 Eisner, E. Connoisseurship, Criticism and the Art of Education
 Nakamura and Csikszenmihalyi, M. The Concept of Flow
 Norman, D. Emotional Machines in Emotional Design
 Borgmann, A. Reality of Technology
 Janlert and Stolterman, E. Faceless Interactions - A Conceptual Examination of the
Notion of Interface: Past, Present and Future
 Dieter Rams in Objectified. Gary Hustwit. 2009
 Teehan, G. State of in-car UX in http://www.teehanlax.com/blog/the-state-of-in-
 Nielsen, J. and Norman, D. Definition of User Experience in http://www.nngroup.