When I started writing this series of articles on MBUX, my intention was never to redesign the existing product. Only solid research, and extensive user testing can properly inform the right design strategy. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel that some of the shortcomings of MBUX (as outlined in Part II) are more aesthetic and layout choices. As a full-service research and design consultancy, we at Mensen couldn’t resist exploring what would happen if we applied some simple fixes, based on our own criticisms of the system, to see what came out. In this article, you’ll see how we’d approach the problem — even if it’s not necessarily the correct answer.
Again, we believe fully in the power of research, analysis and user testing, and those are all out of reach of the little spare-time project you see here. It is, however, a thorough design that takes into consideration user-experience needs and brand design strategy, as well as some competitive analysis. We worked through the theoretical needs of a Mercedes driver and how that might be better served by a more modern visual and information design. We also looked at current Mercedes product, dealership and digital touchpoints to see if there were opportunities to unite the brand design for a smoother cross-platform experience.
First and foremost, what we were trying to achieve was a more modern and user-friendly interpretation of Mercedes’ new MBUX infotainment system. We also wanted to take advantage of everything a fully digital cluster is capable of, so rather than render digital versions of analog gauges, we’ve chosen to create updated interpretations that are still familiar, but take a bigger step forward. As such, there is some level of contextual information added to all the major information points such as the speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, and distance to destination, as well as a new approach to familiar elements designed specifically to help aid focus and attention based on speed, passengers, and environment (weather, day/night, etc.). We believe that this approach would not alienate customers, but simply reinforce Daimler AG Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener’s own philosophy for the brand.
While our main focus was the gauge cluster, we also attempted to improve the center screen design by adding richer graphics and a more touchscreen-focused layout. We usually advocate for simpler, cleaner, and more straightforward design, but the reality in the premium auto segment is that there also has to be a level of user “delight” and detail, and some of Mercedes’ competitors are doing that much more effectively right now. The richer graphics and increased direct interaction might break the carefully-crafted touch and scroll input methods designed in to MBUX, but with news that CarPlay and Android Auto are winning the center-screen war right now, we felt it was appropriate. Only a rigorous research and testing program could give us an answer on the truly correct methodology, but it was necessary to see what would come out of this different approach, as the current configuration feels desperately out of touch..
Going against type.
Even though sans-serif fonts are clearly superior in the small and busy confines of an infotainment system, it was important to create a clear brand link by using Mercedes’ highly recognizable Corporate A typeface for the speed and rpm readouts. As we’ve used them at very large sizes in our cluster, the readability is not compromised, but the inherent “Mercedes-ness” has been instantly bolstered. This could be further improved with a subtle update of Corporate A specifically for use on screens. Elsewhere we’ve decided to use the well-known DIN typeface — a version reworked by type foundry ParaType specifically for on-screen use in this case — as an alternative to Mercedes’ own Corporate S sans-serif. While the newest releases of Corporate S have been designed for digital media as well as their original print form, the letterforms and weight differences make it very hard to achieve the sort of subtle and upscale typographic use that we’ve become accustomed to in our digital and print worlds. DIN 2014 gives us a consistent set of type styles that work perfectly together and are expertly pixel-hinted for optimal readability.
This opens up the possibilities to use type more creatively in our design. The numbers of the speedometer and tachometer flow seamlessly from thin to bold as the needle floats over, making quick glances easier to process, while the crisp letterforms mean that smaller text isn’t a struggle to read. We’ve pushed this typographic flexibility even further by using color, weight, and size to create a clear hierarchy of information across the entire display. Where MBUX literally falls flat — in a monotone use of a single thin typeface — we’ve used type styles to push elements forward that need priority. That prioritization is also always changing, as we see no reason for information to be static. Some elements — such as the HVAC controls — need to be consistent for usability, but others, like outside temperature, distance to destination, or what’s playing on the radio, can rise and fall from the visual hierarchy based on driver preferences, driving style, or even whether there is a passenger present. That maximizes the impact of information while reducing distraction, something that seems to be lacking in many current automotive clusters, not just Mercedes’.
One of the most visible additions to our MBUX cluster are the “rev waves” accompanying the traditional tachometer. These waves are inspired by Mercedes’ own marketing materials and the Mercedes AMG Formula 1 car livery, but serve a very real purpose: to draw attention to RPM when needed most. Visually compelling, the color and motion changes of the rev waves would allow for quick glances, rather than full visual commitment, to understand how hard the engine is working. We believe that this shift from the literal “revolutions per minute” to this somewhat ethereal “how hard is the engine working” animation also serves to unite internal combustion engines, hybrid, and pure electric models. By taking a first step in this direction, we can set the stage for a future where the gauges don’t need to change with the propulsion unit, easing transition for drivers who switch between the two. Of course, the reality is that very few Mercedes drivers, ICE or otherwise, are shifting their own gears anyway, so communicating RPM in a more visually exciting way adds to the “delight” aspect of the overall experience, even for the driver who isn’t shifting gears or a passenger who simply catches a glance across the screen from afar.
Context is king.
One of the most radical changes to the cluster is the wholesale removal of the traditional fuel gauge. This has been replaced by a permanently visible “distance to refuel” gauge across the top of the cluster. While a “tank fullness” option would likely still be desired by hardcore traditionalists, our research has shown that most drivers rely heavily on the “distance left in tank” instead, with EV drivers realistically using only this metric. By combining the two functions into a single indicator, we’ve again streamlined the information needed between different powertrains. This new approach also opens up the ability to add contextual information such as real-time consumption or fuel needed to destination in a way that a traditional gauge doesn’t allow. Color also allows the gauge to gain prominence when needed, rather than cluttering the cluster when irrelevant. Being digital, the fallback of a faux-traditional gauge is always an option, so we see this as a step forward with no real drawbacks. Mercedes seems to be tiptoeing around this concept, with several “distance to destination” indicators available in the system configurations, but we believe that building it in as the default is an obvious move to elevate MBUX’s technical credibility.
Center of attention.
While the cluster was our main focus, some of the biggest changes we’ve made actually come in the center screen interactions. While Mercedes has chosen a scrolling icon-based design, we felt that the amount of scrolling and clicking made some simple controls harder to find that necessary. We’ve chosen a tile-based solution more similar to the Land Rover InControl Touch Pro system, which has many shortcomings of its own, but also feels more immediately familiar to modern users. We’ve added some “fixed” controls along the bottom of the screen for direct touch control, but added shortcut buttons within each to help reduce the number of menus and scrolls needed, especially for passengers. There are also some larger, brightly colored buttons within the app tiles themselves to control often used functions like phone, music or comfort, which we imagine would be either AI-driven suggestions based on use (much like Siri or Google Assistant offer) or fixed buttons that are customizable by the user and programmed into the memory along with seating and other preferences. We even imagine a home screen with more than one layout option that can change whether there is a known passenger present or that changes with speed or driving conditions to present the driver with the least distracting option when it’s needed most. Not all of these elements would survive a rigorous research and testing program, but we wanted to see how far we could push things and try out new ideas, so we experimented a bit.
Last, but not least, we believe that all of these changes work better with Mercedes’ current brand standards, marketing materials, and existing digital media. Rather than creating an interface that exists in a vacuum, we’ve used Mercedes’ own design guidelines to create a connection between the screen in front of the driver and the ownership experience in general. Our design sticks mostly to a black and grey palette that echoes the corporate website and printed brochures (as well as hiding the edges of the screens in the glass panel where it sits), but also pulls in common design elements such as the bright blue complimentary color and the delineated landscape layout prescribed for advertising and marketing materials. This means that the design will not only match, but actually follow Mercedes brand guidelines, something the current dashboard cluster does not do. Complimentary apps, such as Mercedes Me, would then also match the in-car experience, creating consistency across all media and touchpoints, not just across the screen in the car. A unified brand experience will become crucial for next-generation automotive usership, and we think this could be a foundation for that.
Planting a flag in the future.
As a research and design consultancy, we at Mensen believe that the user is the most important part of the design process. I’ll say it once more: ONLY proper research and testing can determine what is the best direction for a new interface design. But we also believe that by applying basic user experience principles from non-automotive disciplines, we can achieve results that are far superior to what is currently available from most automotive manufacturers. While MBUX does represent a major improvement for many aspects of Mercedes’ in-car experience, it also falls short of the step-change that is needed to keep pace with consumer electronics over long automotive development cycles. Mercedes have missed their chance to plant their flag at the forefront of automotive user experience, and with it a chance to change the game in their favor. We believe that with a more advanced design, like the one we’ve presented here, MBUX could be positioned for in-car success for years to come.
We’d love to help you with your next project, from experience to exterior design, so please contact us to have a conversation about how we can work together for a more human-centered design future.
Disclaimer: Mercedes-Benz and Daimler AG were in no way involved in this project. This is a design exercise on the part of Mensen Auto.
Explore the details of our reimagined MBUX in the gallery below
Mercedes A-Class interior imagery ©2018 Daimler AG – all rights reserved
Screen designs ©2018 Mensen Auto