Automotive, Usability Testing, UX Testing

Lessons learned from in-car UX research: Tips on avoiding the pitfalls of research logistics

We have been executing automotive UX & Usability research projects for more than a decade, with a steep learning curve. Frequently running in-car UX studies ranging from super micro to luxury cars, we’ve pulled together some tips on what to think about when planning an automotive user experience project.

06 MIN

Location, location, location

There are many logistics to keep in mind. It becomes even trickier if your study is dynamic and if you are far away from your offices. You’ll need the basics:

  • A waiting area for participants to put them at ease, have a drink, and complete necessary paperwork (NDA, privacy policy etc.)
  • An observation room for clients. Before choosing a location, you should check cellphone reception to allow streaming pictures from the car and WiFi.
  • Biology will take its toll. Make sure there are restrooms for moderators, participants, and clients.
  • Environmental conditions:
  • Parking space for the tested cars should be covered from wind and weather,
  • If in-doors, ventilation is needed if engine will run during the tests. We use exhaust tubes that transport the exhaust out of the building.
  • A power outlet or generator:
  • You’ll likely need to charge the car battery if you are not running the engine at a regular interval. Plan for car-battery chargers and power to run them.
  • Your recording and note taking equipment require power as well. Taking this from the car’s power outlet won’t work for long. We learned that lesson the hard way.
  • You may have checked your intended test route once. But traffic varies according to time of day, weather, and light conditions. Make sure your route works independently from those conditions.


Tech setup

We have tried out vast amounts of cameras and mounting techniques over the years. We’ve found the most useful setup includes:

  • A Manfrotto auto pole to mount a rear camera to film the interface and what participants are doing on it. The benefits of this pole is that it is easily mountable and removable without leaving any marks, while allowing camera mounting at any height.
  • Camera sticky paste (e.g. “Hama Haftpaste Modellier- und Haftmasse für Produktfotografie”) placed on the dashboard for participant camera. It’s flexible enough to fixate the camera in position and can be easily removed without leaving a residue.


Automotive test setup with Manfrotto auto pole


Recording in a vehicle is inherently challenging because of light and shadows. Additionally, multiple cameras are required to capture a recording of the HMI and another of the participant because clients typically request picture-in-picture (PiP) - large picture for the HMI and smaller picture of participant. We also always look for ways to mitigate data loss due to accidentally overwriting data or data not being stored due to lack of memory etc. Taking all of this into account, and learning through hundreds of projects, here are some takeaways:


Recording with Action Cams (Go Pro)

  • Pro: Great picture quality
  • Cons: Videos need to be combined manually and limited storage space (researchers need to manually switch out SD cards)


Recording using dashcams

  • Pros: Produces combined PiP videos and works out of the box
  • Cons: Video recording might loop and overwrite previous recordings if                 SD card is not switched out and the technical setup is unreliable


Recording on smartphone with attached USB cameras

  • Pros: Easy to monitor for moderator, produces combined PiP videos,                 low power consumption (it even runs for extended time on battery)
  • Cons: Cable management for cameras

Recording on laptop with USB webcams

  • Pros: Good picture quality, produces combined PiP videos, large storage space, and great streaming options via streaming server (if connected to a WiFi)
  • Cons: Laptops to review the video are not very handy in a driving car, it’s not feasible if there is little time for setup (e.g. if participants bring in their own cars for the tests.), epic effort is needed to connect and wire cameras and laptop, and it’s only usable if you have external power supply or the test car’s engine can be turned on permanently. Otherwise the car’s battery will die quickly.


Recording through HDMI cameras and recording with dedicated media recording server

  • Pros: Good picture quality, produces combined PiP videos, offers large storage space, offers great streaming options, and highest technical reliability in static settings
  • Cons: It is not portable and requires a dedicated setup and testing space thus it is only an option for static testing in a dedicated location and this option is expensive.


Smartphone and Dashboard Recording

Of all of the studies we’ve executed, dynamic car studies are probably the most complex in terms of setup. As researchers we know that anything can happen during a study, our key to mitigating technical issues is to build in extra time to try everything multiple times and plan for a fallback system (e.g. have a spare laptop for recording, additional laptop batteries, chargers, etc.).

Want more tips for automotive UX research Reach out! We’d love to discuss your next project!


Jan Panhoff

Jan begann seine Tätigkeit als UX-Profi im Jahr 2004 nach Abschluss seines M.Sc. in Digitalen Medien. 10 Jahre lang unterstützte er eBay als Embedded UX-Berater. Seine Schwerpunkte bei uintent liegen in der Automobil- und Innovationsforschung.

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