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Formula Society of Automotive Engineers
In-Vehicle Human Machine Interface Design

OVERVIEW

Formula Society of Automotive Engineers is an international collegiate organization that's dedicated to researching, designing, testing, and competing an open-wheel race car, built and funded from scratch.

My contributions as a team member included a multitude of things, from creating and presenting our annual Sales Presentation at competition to managing our website content, team recruitment, and my most controversial but my favorite contribution of all; helping to design the dashboard's HMI under the Electrical team.

ROLE

UX Research, HMI Design, Interaction Design, LoFi & HiFi Design, Prototyping, User Acceptance Testing, Systems Integration Testing, Design Collaboration with Engineering

September 2016 - June 2018

TOOLS

Pen & Paper, Adobe Illustrator, SolidWorks, Google Docs & Sheets

What is SAE?

SAE International is a global association of more than 128,000 engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries.

SAE is the leader in connecting and educating mobility professionals to enable safe, clean, and accessible mobility solutions.

 

As someone deeply passionate about automotive UX, I was determined to join my University's Formula chapter of SAE to get thoroughly uncomfortable, learn how engineering teams operate, and how to work with them as a designer.

In the beginning, a fish out of water would have felt more at ease than I did.

Technically, this was a long pre-established team of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Electrical Engineers. UX was definitely not existent on this team yet, and it was very new to me at the time.
Socially, as one can imagine, this was a male-dominated group...a group of hardcore engineers, at that. One can imagine the culture that had been in existence for quite some time before me. At this point in time, while I had always had an interest in automotive design, I really didn't know much yet. Even for a people person like myself, communication barriers were incredibly high.

I felt consistently overwhelmed and simultaneously challenged to show up until this didn't feel so foreign. I really was humbled by how much work went into the engineering craft and I was determined to do something on this team. What that was, exactly? I didn't fully know yet.

What I did know is I wouldn't be leaving until I did. 

Headshot.HEIC

How do you join the team?

The way the process works is you start off as a "new guy". That label was unchanging, no matter who you were. As a new guy, you show up consistently to the Engineering Lab (aka "The Shop") for roughly 1-2 years assisting designated team members with building out their specific subsystem.

It is expected that if you want to join this team, you should be willing to sacrifice everything else in order to stand out from the hundreds of hopeful students who wish to be added to the team every year in one of the 10 or so slots. I was also a Resident Advisor, a Computer Information Systems student, and a sorority member...all at the same time. As exhausted as I already was, I still showed up consistently for this. Why? Because that's what it took...and I really wanted it.

After about a year of being a new guy, I was thrilled to finally wear my own team jacket just in time for competition season in May of 2017.

 

Out of a team of 28, I was one of five women.

One-Track Mind

There are four dynamic events that the car competes in annually.

Skidpad

Measures the vehicle cornering ability on a flat surface while making a constant radius turn

Accel

Evaluates the vehicle acceleration in a straight line on flat pavement

AutoX

Evaluates the vehicle maneuverability and handling qualities on a tight course

Endurance

Evaluates the overall performance of the vehicle and tests the durability & reliability

Creative interpretations of track layouts are for visual purposes and high level understanding only.  Exact dynamic events' layouts vary.

mission

Research, design, and test an optimal HMI design for the 2017 - 2018 competition vehicle.

While there are many complex factors in racing, some at a high level include power, weight, and handling.

In a culture prioritizing cars over drivers, reviewing the Human Machine Interface (HMI) offered a chance to

re-strategize and enhance performance beyond conventional engineering limits by optimizing driver response times.

Process

FIRST ATTEMPT

My first attempt at creating a design failed.

 

After only being on the team for a year, I wasn’t experienced enough to know how much research to do, what methods to perform, and when it’s enough. I hadn’t developed a UX research gauge yet.

Not to mention, culturally speaking, I didn’t feel emotionally safe enough to be vulnerable

to ask for help.

Even if I did, who would I ask? I was the one designer in a room full of engineers, and I barely knew what I was doing myself. 

 

So, I lead with my gut and my ego. Here’s what I did at this point: 

Shop.JPG

Research

  • Studied past HMI layouts from our earlier vehicles and comparing them to popular Formula 1-4 layouts

  • Performed driver surveys and interviews with both current and past team members who were our drivers at these competitions. 

  • Searched our vendors’ inventories to view product details of various components (buttons, screens, etc.)

Design

  • Low fidelity (LoFi) sketches with product references from vendors’ inventories

  • Participated in part of the Engineering Design Review process: Mission Concept Review (MCR) & Preliminary Design Review (PDR)

FIRST ATTEMPT

My first attempt at creating a design failed.

 

After only being on the team for a year, I wasn’t experienced enough to know how much research to do, what methods to perform, and when it’s enough. I hadn’t developed a UX research gauge yet.

Not to mention, culturally speaking, I didn’t feel emotionally safe enough to be vulnerable

to ask for help.

Even if I did, who would I ask? I was the one designer in a room full of engineers, and I barely knew what I was doing myself. 

 

So, I lead with my gut and my ego. Here’s what I did at this point: 

Second Attempt

Due to not having enough research, not designing in a higher fidelity, and trying to communicate this design as an engineer rather than as a designer, my design did not make the cut.  So, we pivoted. Our Electrical Lead had also designed a similar layout (in support of my ideas) and the team reached consensus to move that direction.

 

While there’s so many things I would do differently now if I could go back, I don’t regret taking the chance and I support the team’s decision from the technical standpoint. It made sense to go this direction, and so I focused on the remaining tasks with more guidance and less pressure. 

TESTING

  • Created research plan for User Acceptance Testing

  • Performed A/B Testing to test two final HMI designs to measure driver response times under various scripted scenarios

  • Performed User Acceptance Testing to analyze ergonomic performance (ingress + egress) of final HMI design

Car.JPG

HMI + UI RESEARCH FINDINGS

Instrument Panel

Instrument Panel

Material

Carbon fiber encased in resin

Questions

1. With the driver being in an outdoor environment with sunlight, will this cause the instrument panel's reflective properties to impair the driver's vision?

2. If so, should this be painted with Vantablack to prevent any glare?

Steering

Steering

Material

Detachable aluminum component

Questions

1. Between partial (F1 style) or full handles, which design provides better grip?

2. Similar to F1, can/should the steering have any controls or screen on it? Would this have any impact on ingress/egress?

Controls

Controls

Contents

Ignition, toggle display, fan, uplink/downlink performance data

Questions

1. Between a toggle or a button, which interaction point is the most intuitive for each control?

2. For the outdoor environment paired with the darkened vision from the race helmet, should the buttons be backlit in various colors along with the text label to provide faster recognition?

GUI

Graphical User Interface (GUI)

Detail

Third-party custom off the shelf (COTS) product

Questions

1. What data does the driver need to see dynamically and visually?

2. Does an LCD or LED display prove more optimal for the outdoor environment?

research results

Instrument Panel

It was found that the reflective properties of the resin were not causing any visual impairments. No Vantablack was needed.

Carbon fiber + resin 

Carbon fiber + resin + Vantablack

Steering

It was found that partial handles were both personally preferred by our drivers and provided better ingress/egress. Adding controls to steering would have compromised its quick-release capabilities and therefore was not a viable option.

 

Partial handles

Full handles

With controls

Without controls

Controls

Ignition & Display

Both ignition and display states are easily distinguishable even without checking the instrument panel. However, accidental toggling of these controls could lead to catastrophic errors. Therefore, illuminated buttons are deemed more suitable for these functions.

Fan

The fan switch was given a toggle since it's less intuitive to discern if the fan is running without a visual indicator, and accidental toggling would have a lesser impact compared to other controls.

Uplink/Downlink Performance Data

Our over-the-air performance communications system didn't necessitate a continuous development (CI/CD) approach. Instead, a batch approach was deemed appropriate for sending performance data to our servers. Thus, a button was chosen for this function.

Button ✅

Toggle

Button

Toggle ✅

Button ✅

Toggle

GUI

Drivers expressed a preference for minimal information (speed, power, critical alerts) presented in large font with high contrast. Weight reduction is also a key consideration. While both options meet these criteria, LCDs offer sufficient contrast ratios at a lower cost. Thus, an LCD screen was deemed sufficient.

LCD ✅

LED

Squad.JPG

FSAE Michigan 2018 Competition Results

Results out of 136 teams

The 2017-2018 vehicle performed exceptionally well overall, except for the unfortunate but common Did Not Finish (DNF) in the Endurance event.

Additionally, our team excelled in the Static Events. For Cost Report, we secured 19th place, while in the Sales Presentation, which I solely handled, we attained 21st place.

Furthermore, we were recognized as a Design Finalist, a distinction reserved for a select few teams whose vehicles stand out to the judges due to unique and innovative design approaches.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on the experience, I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity to be part of it. If I could change one thing, it would be joining the team a year earlier to fully understand the project lifecycle and the problem space.

I also recognize the value of seeking mentorship from industry UX Designers to establish UX's significance within the team. While I aspired to create revolutionary designs, I lacked the structure and time to achieve this goal. Although UX hasn't become a permanent fixture in the team as I had hoped, I'm thankful for the learning opportunities presented by failure and adaptation.

Moreover, I would have emphasized communication from a designer's perspective rather than attempting to convey information as an engineer. Recognizing the differences between disciplines is essential for effective collaboration.

Despite the challenges, I'm enthusiastic about the ambitious nature of in-vehicle UX. This project remains the most exciting one for me to date.

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