Car UX should become more like game UX

UX design in cars today is very much focused on helping the driver easily and quickly realise their needs for an ever more complex system. In games design it is different: the UX designer is not trying to help the gamer easily and quickly realise their end point and win the game, but to prolong and enrich the emotive experience of gaming. With electrification and greater automation reducing the ways cars emotively engage with the driver, so there is a clear challenge for car UX design to learn from games design and focus on delivering richly emotive experiences. 

At CDR, one of our cliche moments is when the car brand design director client holds up their iPhone and says something including the phrase: ‘a bit like this’. Invariably it is to do with how it is both more pleasing and more intuitive to use than any automotive UX system - and it is a truism as well as a cliche. With a huge diversity of in-car HMI types, ever increasing number of functions, and significant supply chain constraints, there remains an apparently ever growing gap between how well the best car UX and Apple deliver on the fundamental need to be intuitive to use. We would argue that this might be the single greatest specific challenge facing car design today. But there is something important beyond being intuitive that is not much discussed, and it is something that games designers have been doing for ever: how to make the User Experience emotionally engaging. 

In most UX design challenges there is not much difference between the user’s ambition to realise some functionality that the system provides, and the UX designer’s related challenge to design a system that realises this ambition. Making something harder to use than it needs to be is the opposite of what designer or end user want. Car customer and designer share a focus on minimising the effort of the User Experience to realise a function. But in the games industry the designer is not trying to making it easy to kill the aliens, or find the treasure, or win the race; putting a short-cut button on the interface marked ‘win’ would clearly miss the point. So the ambitions of the gamer to win the game sit separately to the ambitions of the games designer to create an enjoyable, prolonged gaming experience. UX in game design focuses on the gaming experience, not on the winning experience.  


Play Monument Valley (a puzzle game) and you enter a quaintly surreal parallel world in landscape and soundscape, where you enjoy the surprising cleverness of forming new geometric based routes that then satisfy by allowing your avatar to journey through to new chapters of a story. In Overwatch (a first person shooter game) you enjoy being part of a team, exploring and capturing new territories, and acquiring different skins for your character and awards for various difference achievements - including healing your team members as well as killing your opponents. And then there is the deeply immersive, never-ending User Experience of games such as Grand Theft Auto (an action-adventure game) which have players glued to their screens for many hours on end. Games deliver nothing but a rich array of emotive experiences enjoyed by the gamer, and whilst the user wants to win, it is the journey not the end-point that delivers value.

Playing a game is different to driving a car or using most of the functions in a car; there are not many functions in a car where the user wants to prolong their engagement, however fun it might be. A car might be emotively satisfying to engage with, but clearly the driver needs to focus on the real business of driving. Yet there is a real challenge to find ways for a car to engage with customers more on an emotive level, and we think this is becoming an increasingly critical challenge. 

With electrification cars are literally losing their beating heart along with its vibrations and percussive sound and non-linear power delivery that once demanded close engagement. Automation of functions, and ultimately autonomous cars, further reduce the emotive connection with the customer. Cars that do not evolve from today’s paradigm and consciously increase the ways they emotively engage with their drivers and passengers will lose ground. And this poses a particularly acute challenge for premium and luxury car brands that live and die by their ability to deliver richer, more emotive experiences to their customers.  

Over the last ten years CDR has both supported gaming design programmes and brought gaming designers into automotive design research projects. We are now working with games design specialists to tap into the ways they create User Experiences that deliver emotive engagement and bring this to complement our experience connecting cars’ functional features to customers’ emotive benefits for automotive clients. We think that if consciously recognised as a challenge to embrace, there are many potential areas and ways in which car UX design could progress the level of emotive value it can deliver to customers. 

Ultimately car design still needs to progress the ease with which more people can access more of a positive User Experience. But is also might look beyond an intuitive ease-of-use HMI approach and see how it might develop new ways to emotionally engage. And part of this might be to take a look at some of the ways the best games designers do this.