Keeping your focus on the road, not your latest tinder match

An interview with Bob van Iersel, Industrial Designer and User Interface Team Lead at Etergo:

There’s no use denying it. We all know we’ve been guilty of the same thing. When we hear that ding from an incoming message, we all feel the immediate urge to pull out our phones.

Apps and notifications are continuously drawing our attention away from everyday life. But what happens when our attention shifts while on the road? 

The truth is, checking your phone makes you 20x more likely to get into an accident. Not to mention the fact that there’s a €160 fine for using your phone while riding a scooter.

We spoke with Bob van Iersel (the brains behind Etergo’s user experience) about how his team tackled this challenge when designing the AppScooter’s interface.

But first, who is the man behind the screen?

The eighth person to join the team, Bob has been with the Etergo Crew since the beginning. As a kid, he always wanted to become an architect but during his studies he shifted his focus to industrial design. 

“One of my goals (and I think it’s very cliche for a product designer) is to one day see someone on the street using something I designed.”

Etergo hit all the sweet spots. 

Bob van Iersel, User Interface team lead at Etergo

“For me personally, it was a really cool opportunity to work in a company where they combine digital product design with a hardware product. As a young designer, I was also really drawn to the startup environment where you get to have such a big impact on the product.

Since I joined so early on in the process, and there was so much to do with so few people to do it, aside from the interface, I also got the chance to do some of the hardware design, which is something I’m also really passionate about. As an industrial designer, I’ve always really liked hardware parts, manufacturing and designing plastics and physical products which you’ll be able to hold in your hands at one point.”

And it’s not all about interfaces and hardware. As a side project, Bob, along with a friend, launched their own swimwear company. 

“I used a lot of my learnings from Etergo on how to source and find suppliers, conduct negotiations, etc. As a designer, these things were all really outside of my comfort zone before working here,” Bob said.

(Not to mention the mad karaoke skills he’s been developing at our Friday drinks.)

Could a scooter that connects with your phone be the answer?

The AppScooter’s interface was developed to ensure phones stay in rider’s pockets. It has a 7-inch touchscreen which connects via Bluetooth to any Android or IOS phone allowing you to use turn by turn navigation, Spotify, calls/texts, etc. It features handlebar controls so riders can access their cruising playlist or answer a call, while always keeping both hands on the road. 

As blunt as only the Dutch can be, one of the questions Bob gets most often is: “why the hell would anyone put that many features on a scooter?” 

As Bob explained, “The problem is (and it’s a situation that I think many people in the Netherlands would recognize) … you’re still tempted to take out your phone, against your own better judgment. That’s why we see that there’s a need to present the information that users want access to, without them having to take out their phone.”

As Bob says, if there’s a stock photo, it’s a reality.

Stock photo of a woman checking her phone while driving a scooter

Plus… what if you don’t have any pockets like this guy

Still, even if we’re physically focused on driving, how do we keep our minds from wandering off the road and onto an incoming text message?

Where is your mind?

Whether you believe you’re a great multi-tasker or not, the truth is we all have a limited amount of mental resources we can use to focus on different tasks at once. 

Imagine you’re deeply focused on finishing a report at work when your friend Bill from sales drops by your desk to tell you about his recent break up. This sort of distraction demands your full attention, moving your central focus from the report to the person speaking to you. 

Our tech has become similar. Digital distractions from incoming calls to Slack notifications demand our attention and can sometimes feel similar to a person standing next to you while you’re trying to concentrate. 

To design a safe driving experience for the user interface, Bob began conducting research into the psychological fundamentals behind ‘attention’.

He soon came across the term calm technology, which was first introduced in 1996. 

“The basic idea behind calm technology is technology that doesn’t require your attention or focus, while still informing you. That has formed the basis for me to think about how we can ensure the user isn’t just informed by the screen in their peripheral, but also able to control it without having to continuously focus on the screen.”

With calm technology, designers draw on a wide range of senses and stimuli that can shift from the users peripheral focus to the center and back again without causing a major disruption in their concentration flow. 

Check out the 8 Principles of Calm technology here

For example, when you receive a call, the screen will display a notification, and you’ll hear a ringtone. You can then either answer the call or ignore it with 1 click. 

The way we handle text messages is that we just show a preview of the text. Users can then use text to speech to play the entire message. If they decide they want to respond to it, they can either stop their scooter, pick up their phone and text, or they can just call that person by clicking call.

Bob’s personal design guidelines

Based on the findings of his literature research, international automotive guidelines, and Google’s guidelines for design in Android Auto, Bob came up with 4 of his own personal design principles which his team used to design the AppScooter’s interface:

1. Don’t write history

If you’re designing for a peripheral interaction, you want to limit the hierarchy in your UI so that users don’t have to recall where they are and how they got there. This reduces unnecessary mental stress by cutting down the time the user needs to be looking at the screen.

The AppScooter’s most extensive app is the navigation which includes 3 preset lists: planned, favorite and recently visited destinations. You can preset these destinations directly on the touchscreen when the motor is off. Users will also be able to set them using the companion app we’re now developing. Then, while you’re driving, you can easily navigate to your saved destinations using the handlebar controls. 

2. Use grand gestures

Bigger animations, and especially, fluid motion are a good way to catch someone’s attention. Blinking is commonly used to indicate errors. If you have an entire screen, it’s more effective to utilize the space and create movement instead of sudden changes.

Notifications are designed to slide in from the top and take up the full width of the screen. You can either dismiss notifications with 1 click, or allow them to disappear automatically after a few seconds.

Photo demonstrating how the playlist feature is displayed on the AppScooter's smart cockpit

3. Prioritize animations

Seeing an animation is such a good way to move information from the users’ peripheral to their center of attention. It’s important that you treat animations for the value they have. 

Having a tinder match float through your screen like a DVD screensaver is probably not the best distraction while driving.

In the future, we will introduce “throttle” notifications based on for example speed or when cornering. This means that we won’t show a notification until the user is driving in a ‘calmer’ situation again.

4. Be polite and patient

Maybe the most important one of all. When designing all these products, it’s sometimes easy to forget that someone might be trying to turn on their navigation while at a traffic light but then has to focus on zig zagging through cyclists for 2 minutes before they’re able to look at the screen again.

Users must always be able to pause what they’re doing, and resume their task once they can do it safely. This goes hand in hand with not writing history. You always want to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on a user to complete a task or flow.

When navigating the city, AppScooter riders can follow voice instructions or mute them by simply clicking ‘ok’. Alternatively, you can also track your route on the map being displayed on the screen. 

“In my personal opinion, the safest way to drive a scooter would just be to ignore your phone while driving. But, I do believe that the AppScooter offers significant safety benefits over taking out your phone. This interface could also be a stepping stone for our future product development. As technologies like Voice Control and AI evolve, we’ll have new opportunities to innovate,” Bob explained.

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