Mercedes-Benz launched their slick new MBUX user interface at the CES show in January. It garnered plenty of attention then, including our own in-depth analysis ahead of its debut in the new A-Class, But some people were less than convinced about its design language. One of them is Drew Meehan, a design critic, a CDN contributor and the founder of Mensen Auto, a design company focusing on human-centric HMI and UX. With admirable ambition, Drew decided not only to do a thorough analysis of the MBUX interface, but to undertake an unofficial redesign. There’s a much longer, multi-part version on the Mensen website, linked below, but here are his condensed views, comments and suggestions, which makes fascinating reading if you’re at all interested in UX. And if you’re not, you should be.
My first impression of MBUX was of a facelifted in-car interface with the larger screens, higher resolution and 3D graphics you’d expect, but also something surprising: the rotary-knob input device had been abandoned for a touchpad that looked suspiciously like the unloved Lexus controller. While the previous COMAND system had a touchpad on its hand rest, the rotary controller remained the core input device, and the best method for navigating the complex interface.
Touchpads, like touchscreens, are inferior to rotary knobs while driving because they require more concentration than spin-and-click knobs, and they can’t be controlled via muscle memory. As a result, even common tasks result in distraction.
So, why ditch an established, safe, input device for something that’s caused other manufacturers headaches? Consistency. By adding a touchscreen to its existing setup, the Mercedes infotainment system could have become an unwieldy mix of interactions with steering-wheel controls, touchscreen, rotary controller and central touchpad all using different input methods. By eliminating the most familiar and entrenched feature, they’ve created a universal input methodology where swipes and taps on a touchscreen, touchpad or steering wheel button all yield the same results.
But while changing the input device to improve the continuity is a step forward for Mercedes, the visual design is actually a step backwards. Faux gauges, reflections and awkward icons give it a feature-phone appearance at odds with the class-leading interiors and massive screens. Smart devices are our reference for user experience, and they change frequently.
New automotive interfaces need to jump ahead with each generation to avoid falling behind by years at a time. MBUX didn’t make that jump.
Automotive interfaces need to be legible at a glance, and gauge clusters in particular need to be very straightforward to be effective. Simplicity also compliments consumer expectations for premium products. German engineering under the hood, rich leather seats, beautiful lighting and an intuitive interface.
Most MBUX users will have high-end smartphones and be familiar with a streamlined user interface. Porsche, Land Rover and Audi also show that richness and brand heritage can be added to an interface in a modern way. That rich simplicity adds value in the first minutes behind the wheel – crucial in today’s buying environment.
We at Mensen Auto wanted to envision what MBUX could have been, so rather than render digital versions of analogue gauges, we’ve created modern interpretations that are still familiar, but take a bigger step forward. There is adaptive information added to all the important cluster information, and elements have been redesigned to reduce distraction based on speed or environmental factors.
Mercedes is tiptoeing around the concept of contextual information, but it’s mostly buried deep in the options menus of the systems, where its impact on the experience is minimal.
Our F1-inspired ‘rev waves’ draw attention to RPM only when needed. The shift from the literal ‘revolutions per minute’ to the more abstract ‘how hard the power unit is working’ animation also unites internal-combustion engines, hybrid, and pure-electric models. By doing this, the stage is set for a future where the gauges don’t need to change with the propulsion unit, easing transition for drivers who switch between models.
Very few Mercedes drivers are shifting their own gears anyway, so communicating RPM in a more visually-exciting way adds to the ‘delight’ of the overall experience, even for a driver who isn’t shifting gears or a passenger who simply catches a glance from afar.
Even though sans-serif fonts are usually superior in the small and busy confines of an infotainment system, we felt it was important to create a stronger brand link by using Mercedes’ highly recognisable Corporate A typeface for the speed and RPM readouts. As we’ve used it at very large sizes in our cluster, readability is not compromised, yet the inherent ‘Mercedes-ness’ has been bolstered. This could be further improved with an update of Corporate A specifically for use on screens.
Elsewhere, we’ve decided to use a pixel-hinted and reworked version of the well-known DIN typeface as an alternative to Mercedes’ own Corporate S sans-serif, which lacks the many weights and screen-specific design needed for the job.
This opens up the possibilities to use type more creatively in our design. Speedometer and tachometer numbers are easier to process at a glance, while the crisp letterforms mean that smaller text isn’t a struggle to read. Where MBUX uses a single thin typeface in a monotone way, we’ve used variable type styles to push elements forward that need priority.
Some elements‚ such as the HVAC controls‚ must 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 whether there is a passenger present. That maximises the impact of information while reducing distraction – a win-win.
Our centre-screen design has richer graphics and a more touchscreen-focused layout. Our ‘app tiles’ feature large, brightly-coloured buttons for quick glance shortcuts, rather than the small buttons of MBUX. We’ve added some ‘fixed’ controls along the bottom of the screen for direct touch control, but also shortcut buttons to help reduce the number of menus and scrolls needed, especially for passengers.
There are also larger, bright-coloured buttons for frequently-used functions like phone, music or comfort settings. Not all of these elements would survive a rigorous research and testing program, but we wanted to push the envelope a bit.
Importantly, all these changes work better with Mercedes’ current brand standards, marketing materials, and digital media. We’ve used Mercedes’ own design guidelines to create a connection between the screen in the car and the bigger ownership experience. Our design uses a black and grey colour palette that echoes the corporate branding, but also pulls in common design elements such as the complimentary colours and the letterbox layout prescribed for advertising and marketing materials.
While these changes start in the car itself, they will ultimately tie together the broader experience outside the car as well. MBUX is the primary connection customers have to their car, as well as one of the first impressions for a potential buyer. Using it as a gateway to a wider service offering creates opportunities for the brand as car usership changes.
Mercedes have undoubtedly improved their system with their latest updates, especially in consistency of interaction, but they’ve also missed the chance to push their interface to the top of the heap. Through tentative design choices, Mercedes have left a branding opportunity on the table that competitors have jumped on.
If they can deliver a cleaner visual appearance, improved intuitiveness, and a more unified 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.