Facebook in Your Car

Ethan Bliss

Facebook in your car? You’re kidding, right?

I got this reaction a lot when I would begin to tell people about my research project at Fjord this summer. Most people aren’t too keen on the idea that Facebook might be coming to a dashboard near you, and that soon the “simple” task of driving might be overrun with status updates, comments and friends poking you while you’re trying to make that next turn.

But why not think about the car as a place to interact with Facebook in a new way? Maybe the steering wheel becomes your “like” button. Or, honking the horn is a thumbs up. The cameras on higher-end cars could be a new perspective to share your automotive journeys with the world.

Still, the skeptic’s response to Facebook in the car is natural. Facebook wasn’t designed to be used in your car. It was designed to be used on a screen-based device, where you can have a delightful interaction with visually delicious graphical user interfaces, photos, videos, links, comments and so on. You don’t have to multi-task when piloting a car down the road. But with the proliferation of smart phones, and the ability for cars to have a data connection, the line is blurring about what people expect one device to do versus another. In many ways, because of this connection, the car is being considered another device. It’s just that you can sit in this one.

My project aimed to do two things: gather research about the connected car, and design an interaction experience for Facebook in the car.

Automotive App Revolution

Apps are one prong of the future of connected cars. These are essentially cars equipped with a data connection. This connection can be created by the smartphone you bring in to the car or an embedded module that connects the car directly without a smartphone. Think of Ford Sync for the smartphone versus Onstar for the module. The potential for connected cars is that cars can become part of a smart system by connecting to each other (V2V), the infrastructure (V2I), or any other device (V2X).

Apps in cars is the one that gets a lot of the flak for concerns around driver distraction. And for good reason – many of them can be very distracting!

The funny thing is though, when I’m in New York I see tons of drivers with a phone in one hand and steering wheel in the other. Apps like Facebook are already in the car because they’re on your phone. Yet even in high-end or tech-loaded cars that already have smartphone integration that pull apps into the dashboard interface, drivers are not putting the phone down. So something’s clearly not working in the pair up between car and mobile device.

I wanted to bring some fresh Fjord thinking to it.

Exploring Interfaces

Facebook has a ton of features that are useful when the service is viewed on a richly visual device.  Should all those features be available in a car? Well, why not? Some of these features could be very useful in a car context – publishing check-ins to your friends when you arrive in your car could be a natural. The process of using these features just needs to be redesigned to work in the car environment by moving the emphasis away from a visual interface to an auditory one.

My interest though, was improving the user interface to maximize the potential of a car environment. Would the best method be touch screens, voice, or gestures?

I picked a simple Facebook feature – updating your status – and explored scenarios that maximized the potential of each.

Most people asked how I would solve the visual distraction problem. I responded by exploring “what if there were no screens at all?” Scenario 1: only voice.

The main drawback of a purely speaking interaction is how linear the flow is. It’s hard for a user to know where they are in the process of a task when the computer has to confirm what they’re saying. Voice recognition is getting better, but it’s not quite to the level where people would use it before using an intensely visual and tactile input to post a photo, which was the next scenario I explored. With the introduction of cameras in cars, this could be a fun way to share what your car sees with your Facebook friends.

The benefit of a visual/tactile interaction is that it mirrors the Facebook experience on a tablet. But it’s terrible for driver distraction. This brought up discussion of the various user states in the connected car – driving versus parked, driver versus passenger, hectic city road versus quiet country lane.

The final scenario blended the interaction styles of all three. Waving at the dashboard would start the conversation. The system would give succinct visual confirmation on the heads-up display of the progress of the update status sequence. The driver/user would be able to swipe their hand to go back. A subtle head nod would signal yes or no response.

What’s nice about this interaction is that it provides a new way to interact with Facebook using the attributes of a car. Given the distraction dilemma, the car is an environment where having a conversation with Facebook makes sense.

As I explained the ideas I learned this summer through my research, the reactions from friends and colleagues became much more positive. If the car’s technology and capabilities are considered fully, people might even want to use Facebook in their car because it offers them the unique experience of moving through the real world while staying in sync with their online life.

For more details about the project, please visit my Behance page.

Ethan Bliss

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