UX Consultation Drives Car Black Box App to a Greater Usability
After an airplane crash, investigators quickly seek the plane's 'black box', a device that records cockpit conversations and flight data. Car Black Box, a mobile app for Nokia devices, aims to deliver similar functionality for automobiles. Now the award-winning application is being revised by its publisher, Finland-based Neusoft Mobile Solutions Oy, with guidance provided by a recent user experience (UX) consultation from Nokia.
'This helped, because we look at things from a developer's point of view', says Adrian Stezar, a Romania-based project developer at Neusoft. 'But the UX consultation showed us things from a user's point of view.'
That point of view is critical to the success of Car Black Box. While easy to use, the app does require users to select certain key settings. For one, the app should be switched on whenever users start their cars; in the event of an accident, the app must be running to record such vital information as the car's location and speed (using the phone's GPS), its acceleration (using the phone's accelerometer), and road images (using the phone's camera). For another, each user needs to both indicate how the app should communicate in the event of an accident — whether by voice, short message service (SMS), or multimedia messaging service (MMS) — and enter the phone number to be autodialed.
Late in 2010, UX consultants for Nokia reviewed Car Black Box on the Nokia N8 mobile computer, one of Nokia's most advanced Symbian touchscreen devices. Earlier in the year, the app was among the top entries in the 2010 Calling All Innovators competition, run by Nokia. Car Black Box was the first runner-up in the competition's Life Improvement category.
Because Neusoft's main line of business is development services, rather than mobile apps for end users, the concept of mobile UX was somewhat new to the company's staff. Nor did Neusoft have a dedicated usability-testing team; instead, that work was done by the developers themselves. Finally, staff were unfamiliar with the kinds of mobile heuristics used by the UX consultants; these measures include visibility of system status, consistency, and error management. 'UX was not really considered in our everyday work', Stezar says. 'But it is an area where we are slowly building competence.'
That said, the consultants gave Car Black Box high marks for its utility. 'The application fills a gap on security-related features', they wrote in their final report. 'And the approach to monitoring car trips is very straightforward.'
The consultants also found areas in need of improvement. For one, Car Black Box presents the user settings on its home page. But in the report, the consultants point out that it would be more logical to present those settings — at least during the first use of the app — on a separate screen, which would load before the home page. This relates to the heuristic of consistency and mapping, which specifies that it should be possible to use an app effectively even without reading the instructions.
All the UX issues were rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 signifying that an issue was 'cosmetic only' and 4 indicating a 'usability catastrophe'. Among the lower-ranked issues was the treatment of margins. On some screens, the UX evaluators found that the text was too close to the screen's sides; they recommended the simple solution of adding space to the margins.
Neusoft developers are considering all suggestions from the UX consultation for a new version of Car Black Box, which is now in development. While the current version was written in native Symbian, the new one will be ported to Qt, Nokia's cross-platform development framework, as well as to MeeGo, the Linux-based open-source platform based on software developed separately by Intel Corp. and Nokia. What's more, the new version of Car Black Box will not only improve usability but also add new features, Stezar says.
'The app never had a UX evaluation before', he adds, 'so we will be more thorough about this in the future. Thanks to the UX consultation, we have valuable ideas for future development.'
Car Black Box is available as a free app in Ovi Store, and it runs on Nokia touchscreen devices based on S60 on Symbian OS (S60 5.0).