5 design changes Mercedes could use to make MBUX better than the competition.
A few weeks ago I posted an article that looked at how Mercedes made a clever change to their physical input devices and massively improved their system. This time I've taken a deep dive into the many problems of the system's unfortunate visual design choices and what Mercedes needs to do in order to make their new system truly world class.
During my first encounter with MBUX at CES, I was shocked to see that the system looked stylistically almost identical to the system that preceded it. A design generation (or ten) behind our phone and computer operating systems, MBUX is awash in the glows, reflections, drop shadows and skeuomorphism that the consumer electronics industry left behind years ago. This wasn't surprising, per se, as the Mercedes brand is famously conservative, but I still found it odd that an entirely new interface hadn't moved things forward almost at all. Yes, the 3D maps and interactive car settings avatar are a step up, but you don't notice those things right off the bat, you notice the faux gauges, reflections and icons that wouldn't look out of place on a feature phone. Our smartphones, tablets and laptops are our reference for user experience and we've become accustomed to updates that refresh, change, and modernize the appearance of those interfaces. That Mercedes would deem the styling of the system so sacrosanct that it can't be updated for the future of the product seems troubling. The people buying these cars will endure at least two — and possibly five or more — system updates on their smartphone in the time they own that car. Thinking that those same consumers can't handle stylistic modernization and decluttering of an in-car infotainment system seems tragic.
So what should be done? Only extensive user testing and research can determine that for sure, but I would start with some basic tenants of modern UX design. None of these ideas are revolutionary, but their implementation seems to be taking much longer in the automotive world than elsewhere to catch on.
Keep it simple. It seems obvious, but it apparently still needs to be said. Automotive interfaces need to be easy to read at a glance, and gauge clusters (the part directly in front of the driver) in particular need to be very straightforward to be effective while driving (Some excellent articles on the reasons here and here). This is not at odds with the rich and luxurious interiors and expectations of the brand, but rather compliment it perfectly. German engineering under the hood, rich leather seats, beautiful lighting, and an intuitive interface. It all just makes sense. And don't be fooled by the words "simple" or "easy-to-read". There's no reason for it to feel unsophisticated. Most Mercedes buyers, especially on the first-to-market A-Class, will be using high-end Google or Apple services on their personal devices (and even ON the system itself, via Android Auto and CarPlay) and completely familiar with their more streamlined and legible aesthetics. These products are not cheapened by those interfaces — they are improved by them — in both perception and function. MBUX would similarly benefit. Flat design is not necessarily the answer, as it has its own drawbacks, but MBUX is currently an incredibly visually busy interface that feels very out of step with our other digital devices.
Exploit the digital medium. MBUX was an opportunity for not just a more modern aesthetic, but also for some improved ergonomics and usability that is more in step with how people use their cars today. Instead, Mercedes chose largely to render the gauge cluster as a virtual version of what existed before it became digital, with some incredibly convoluted results. By dedicating so much space to the virtual gauges, for example, the gear selection is so small as to be almost invisible. Distance to destination or to an empty tank continue to be shown as digital renderings of their formerly analog gauges, rather than taking the opportunity to create contextual information that is more useful for a driver at a glance, such as what I helped UsTwo Auto create in 2015. Someone at Mercedes seems to understand this, as there are hints of contextualized information buried in the myriad display options, but the execution is clunky and unclear and comes across as more of an afterthought than thought leadership.
Build a font for a new era. While Apple, Google, and even AirBnB update and refine their typefaces specifically to work better on screens and in different digital and print situations, automakers have fallen behind by simply dragging their long-used designs into the digital age, or, even worse, by using mismatched typefaces on their screen graphics and elsewhere. While Mercedes uses updated versions of their bespoke typefaces — designed in the 1980s specifically for Daimler — it's time that they really thought about the digital application of these fonts. By adding more weights and subtly changing the letter shaping, Mercedes would immediately have a better base on which to create their systems, with wider differentiation across the screen as well as stronger links to print, online and physical (dealership) marketing materials. Instead, we have a pixelated, overly thin corporate sans-serif font that lacks the flexibility necessary to create the really good hierarchy of information needed for quick glances while driving, and an additional highly "automotive" italicized block typeface for all of the gauges, speed, and critical information. Mercedes primary typeface, a modern semi-serif font, is completely absent, probably because at small sizes it would inevitably be horrible to read. There is an opportunity for Mercedes to create a new bespoke typeface (or to redesign their current one) that can serve as the backbone for their entire digital offering that is not just unique, but also serves the brand and all its touchpoints, whether it's an app, website, or gauge cluster.
Match the Mercedes design principles. While digitally-rendered chrome gauges may match some old-fashioned expectations for the Mercedes brand, it certainly doesn't match Gorden Wagener's vision of a "holistic, innovative, attractive design language". It's steeped in a tradition that simply doesn't apply anymore. Mercedes Benz is the reigning F1 World Champion four times over, a technology-led premium offering that shouldn't need to reference gauges from the 1980s in its interface design. Is the answer to give owners the option to go traditional? Perhaps. That's a flexibility that a fully digital interface offers. But fundamentally I don't think most consumers want rendered old-fashioned gauges anymore, they want interfaces that show off the modernity and technology underneath. At least meet them halfway, with modern interpretations of gauges rather than literal renderings of what used to be there. A short trip behind the wheel of a new Range Rover or Audi will show you that richness and brand heritage can easily be added to an interface without old-fashioned design language. That richness adds value in the first minutes behind the wheel, rather than only after extended an period of ownership, as is the case with an improved menu system.
Add value to the brand experience. One of the advantages of all of these changes is that they they start in the product (the car itself), but will ultimately help tie together the broader experience outside the car as well. As the broader service and customer experience grows in importance, having a clean digital design style, with modern typefaces and rich brand elements will benefit all of the company's offerings, from dealership services to apps. Bringing this together into a seamless whole is crucial to the next steps in automotive ownership, whether it will be autonomous, shared, chauffeured or other. It's time the visual design on the in-car screens was seen as an integral part of the whole, and not just a fancy radio interface. It's the primary connection customers have to their car, as well as one of the first impressions of the interior for a potential customer. A digital information system like MBUX is a potential gateway to a wider service offering from a brand that will certainly need pivot options in the coming decade.
So the MBUX story is really about a missed opportunity. Mercedes have undoubtably improved their system with their latest updates, both in interaction consistency and customization options, but they've also missed the chance to push their interface to the top of the heap. Through tentative design choices Mercedes have also left a huge branding opportunity on the table.
With Audi, JLR, and even BMW moving their visual design forward at a faster pace, Mercedes risks being left behind in the eyes of consumers. If they can deliver a cleaner visual appearance, improved intuitiveness, and a more unified digital design language in future iterations of MBUX however, they might just have an infotainment system that can truly serve as a foundation for all of the inevitable changes to come, from electrification to autonomy.
Next week, in Part III of this series, I'll be showing some solutions to the MBUX design shortcomings and explain how they can take Mercedes infotainment into the next generation of automotive experience.
All images ©Daimler AG