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Help Behind the Wheel

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User Assistance for an In-dash Automotive Entertainment System

Automotive manufacturers are moving forward with a wide range of in-dash, digital services. Usually this includes a link to a cellular data connection. In many cases, it includes tethering to the driver’s phone and in a growing number of cases, a link to mobile apps. Whether or not you think working with apps as you cruise down the interstate is a wise idea, it is likely this trend is going to continue.

Looking ahead, the auto dash is a new environment for user assistance professionals to consider. Up until now, the large majority of apps have been ones custom-crafted by the automotive manufacturers. It is not hard to imagine a time when APIs will make it possible for all kinds of software to be running through a vehicle’s entertainment system.

As with any kind of hardware/software, new users are going to have questions. What does it do for me? How do I use it? Ideally, the systems will be as intuitive as possible. However, there are still going to be times when some of our users are going to need some assistance.

One of the areas that poses a challenge to users is ironically one that will make life easier in the long run – the use of voice commands. All of the voice command systems I have seen in vehicles use a controlled vocabulary of key words and phrases. Most of these are common terms. But using the system effectively still takes some practice and its helps to get some tips.

I think it is instructive to experiment with this kind of Help. I recently checked out the voice system of the 2013 Honda Accord at a local dealership. The embedded video below shows a brief snippet of the voice command reference and the Getting Started tutorial. I apologize for the jerky video.

The screen for the entertainment system is in the center of the dash between driver and passenger. Below it is a control knob for making selections. To the right of the control knob is an “INFO” button. This takes you to the home page for information about the system, including using voice commands.


The voice command reference is broken down into five sections. Each of the sections lists the word or phrase to accomplish a particular task. The default is just a text display. If the text takes up more than the height of the screen, you scroll by turning the knob. The center of the knob is labeled “ENTER”. You press knob inward (the click) to start the audio accompanying that topic panel. You can hear the click as a beep in the video recording. In order to go back the previous menu, you need to press a Back button to the left of the control knob.

z_dash_ref2    z_dash_ref

In Getting Started, there are five panels of information. As with the reference, you click the knob to start the audio. Unlike the reference, you move the control knob to move to the next topic panel. The tutorial panels use an image inset to show the relevant controls.


The Good and Bad

Here are a few personal observations:

  • Having some form of Help is better than none. While the controlled vocabulary uses common words, there are a lot of terms you wouldn’t necessarily think of on your own. Ideally, this would have a more powerful natural language processing engine. But until that happens, help is helpful. And yes, one of the default commands is “Help”.
  • This is not a touch interface. The control knob and the buttons present an unfamiliar UI and it is difficult to figure out. There is no Help for that. I think it would be tough to navigate with the knob while driving,
  • I question why one of the main categories is called “Useful Commands.” I would think you would only want to have commands that are useful. Maybe something like “Most Popular Commands”.
  • The text is at a good size to read. However, I don’t know what the right size to read is when you’re driving. All the text is in the same typeface: heading, items, notes. It could help to experiment with some slightly different sizes, bold, etc.
  • The Getting Started option is visible at the bottom of the reference screen. I couldn’t figure out how to use the control knob to get to the choice until the salesperson showed me.
  • The Getting Started topic panels are pretty well constructed. The browse sequence is easy to see and the main text is easy to read. The inset image and text are a bit small. If it was a touch screen, it would be nice to be able to tap the image to magnify it.
  • The voice itself is pretty smooth. I personally don’t like a synthesized voice that pieces together words. The voice also has its own script. It is close to the same as the text but not exactly. That is a good thing. Written procedures don’t sound right when vocalized verbatim.
  • Overall, I think the presentation of the voice command information is mostly successful. I don’t think it would work well on the go. More likely, you would check it out while parked. But, it beats printing out something online or paging through a print manual.
  • Speaking of the manual, the system seems like it would work very well as the delivery system for all the instructions and maintenance for the vehicle. However, none of that information is available. There is a PDF reference manual for the navigation/entertainment system. At 150 pages it is daunting. On one hand, it appears to be well-constructed. On the other hand, it makes the system seem really complicated. I think it would be better to have the most important getting started instructions on a single page at the start of the manual.

I didn’t have a chance to connect my iPhone to the system. The Hondalink app provides some limited sharing of information like your phone list and certain apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora. I am interested to see what adjustments those apps need to make in order to work effectively and safely in a moving vehicle.