Automotive iPad apps

This week I decided to check out automotive iPad apps.  These first-generation entries are at times engaging, but ultimately I often found than frustrating and rather limited.

Let’s start with one of my favorite usability rants: hot spots.  They’re quick, which is probably why three OEM iPad apps incorporate them.  They’re also dirty – pretty hyperlinks that force users to repeatedly hunt to find information.

The iPad is a touch pad.  Hot spots don’t create the level of engagement that is possible when users interact directly with the screen; they’re just a porting of a flawed navigation scheme to a new platform.

Interfaces fit more naturally with a touch environment are far more interesting and fun.  The MB Classic app utilizes the familiar iTunes album navigation, which makes it immediately usable.  Selecting a card then leads to high-quality images with technical data and an audio overlay.

BMW’s X3 Catalogue also creates some compelling interactions.  The primary interface is like a magazine, with scrollable thumbnails that leads to high quality imagery, 360s, and video.  There’s also an intuitive quick colorizer.  I especially like the interior X-ray – it’s engaging, feels natural on a touch screen, and fits into the magazine concept.  The only major downside is length – 34 pages feels really long, even to someone interested in all the content.

The Audi A8 experience doesn’t start off well.  It’s a huge download (611MB) and requires you to watch a one-minute video intro.  The start menu is also problematic, as it’s cluttered and not much better than a hot spot interface.

Further in, we get high quality video and imagery.  The 360 spin + colorizer is fun, but the link to the main site to complete the configuration process is awkward.  Other animation such as turning knobs and dials is rather limited.

Least impressive is the Honda CR-Z Experience, which falls short nearly across the board.  Aside from the problematic hot spots, the other primary means of navigation is swiping through screenshots of information.  Swiping is just the cost of entry on smart phones and doesn’t bring anything new to the game.  What’s worse is that the content is uninspiring, comprised almost entirely of dark screenshots accompanied by small, low-contrast text doesn’t draw in the user.

Despite some initial stumbling, these early movers are at least trying to figure out what they can accomplish on touch pads.  There are no Angry Birds-type home runs (granted, that’s a nearly unreachable standard), but I do expect to see some interesting and innovative offerings over the next year.

How cross-platform can you get?

It’s inevitable that every major business with an online presence will eventually need to address the reality of multiple platforms.  In the auto industry we’ve mostly seen baby steps, as some OEMs haven’t progressed past a single, Flash-dependent desktop website.  Buick and Cadillac are among the few automotive players who have created numerous means for consumers to interact with their brands.

The iPad sites for both Buick and Cadillac are more expansive versions of their mobile brethren: the layouts take advantage of the additional screen real estate while the actual content is nearly identical.  Both are dramatically stripped down from the desktop site.

Meanwhile, cars.com and kbb offer iPhone applications in addition their mobile sites.  The mobile sites have a greater reach and don’t require an additional download, while the applications tend to run faster and have compact and visually more appealing navigation.

Some non-automotive brands have made an impressive commitment to be accessible via almost any possible means.  Let’s start with Amazon, which gives iPhone consumers the choice between mobile site and mobile application.  The mobile site works as expected, while the iPhone application takes advantage of the device’s native capabilities with the “Amazon Remembers” feature, which allows the user to take a photo of something they want.  The picture is then uploaded to the consumer’s account and Amazon will try to find the object among their inventory.  My simple test failed miserably, but it’s certainly intriguing.

Amazon’s iPad application features a clean, uncluttered layout that inherently encourages users to swipe through the recommendation list.  This design principle carries through to the product description page, whose interface looks like a stack of cards rather than a long virtual page or a tabbed layout.  This real-world metaphor can draw visitors into an interaction that’s not possible via keyboard/mouse.

ESPN has long had some of the best content available on the iPhone, with a fully-functional mobile site that also delivers video, and its Scorecenter application.  With the iPad, Scorecenter has now grown into a more robust application that deftly incorporates news, analysis, and video.

My favorite part of the ESPN iPad experience starts at the very first click, which allows me to choose my path:

  • The familiar desktop site, with the video delivered via HTML5 instead of Flash
  • The less robust mobile site
  • Scorecenter XL

As a final example, Nike demonstrates that consumer product companies can also deliver across multiple platforms: in this case, I’ve grabbed the running landing pages for desktop, iPad, and iPhone.  The initial experience for each platform is completely different – different layout, interaction, imagery, etc.  They look and feel like completely different sites!

Diving deeper in, there’s overlapping content in the form of product descriptions and images, news, and links to other Nike content.

It’s not a prerequisite to create a whole new presence for each new type of device – in fact, in most cases it probably doesn’t make economic sense.  In many cases, the primary site will function just fine on a tablet device and there’s no need for yet another version (which needs to be supported and updated).  As a consumer, however, it can certainly be fun.

Automotive iPad sites

The iPad mainstreamed yet another platform for website developers to consider.  Most OEMs have already committed to mobile, with Audi, Chrysler, Dodge, Jaguar, MINI, smart, and Volvo as the only holdouts.  In order to see how OEMs are treating the tablet category, I spent some time visiting over 30 OEM websites on my shiny new iPad.

OEMs with mobile sites have a choice in where they send iPad users.  Roughly half redirect to the mobile version (which is stripped down, but guaranteed to be functional) while the other half put iPad users through to the desktop site.  While OEM sites have been reducing their reliance on Flash, some sections won’t function on Apple devices.  As a site visitor, it can be frustrating to not know which content will and won’t work.  For instance, the acura.com interactive showroom won’t load on the iPad, but site visitors don’t know that until they try it.

Ideally the Flash content would not be accessible on non-Flash platforms, i.e. hide the links or deliver video via HTML5.  Another option is to redirect visitors to the mobile site and provide a link (e.g. “View full site”) to the desktop site.

Several OEMs have made the leap to tablet sites.  Porsche’s iPad site is essentially a set of glossy brochures that can physically held.

In the case of Cadillac, I prefer the iPad site to the desktop site:  the less robust functionality reduces clutter and makes it easier to navigate.  The iPad site also eliminates the completely unnecessary and distracting loading animation.

Cadillac vehicle information is displayed on one long page, which works for me since scrolling is less aggravating on a tablet.  The experience is a bit like a brochure, but the poor choice of grey text against a black background makes it a barely readable one.

One of the truly potentially transformative aspects of the iPad is its multi-touch screen, which lets users interact directly with content.  These early automotive iPad entries don’t take advantage of these advanced capabilities: for instance, I wish I could manually manipulate Cadillac’s 360 vehicle spin.  But we’ll get there soon enough and I can’t wait to interact with a vehicle online.

Dealer sites go mobile

Ten years ago, dealers were pretty much left to their own devices to create an online presence.  With the current rush to mobile, they have a little more help from established vendors, making it far easier for dealers to quickly establish a usable mobile site.

Mobile usage is primarily time- and location-sensitive.  For the automotive industry, this translates to dealer contact details, location, and inventory, i.e. information needed while visiting dealer lots.  For this posting, I surveyed a number of mobile site templates, concentrating on these critical information needs.

In general, I was surprised by the high level of usability – these sites certainly weren’t built by anyone’s nephew.  I liked the navigation layouts below from Dealer.com and Dealerskins.  The most important information – dealer address and phone number – is featured prominently at the top.  The links to additional content are obvious and require little or no scrolling.

My primary complaint for both is that they ignore branding.  Manufacturers and dealerships put substantial effort into differentiating their products, ownership experience, marketing/advertising, and online presence.  Mobile should be no different.

Templates from izmocars and Nexteppe address this issue by incorporating the OEM brand logo at the top of the page, with Hendrick BMW featuring a large vehicle image.  Unfortunately, this also pushes the dealership address to the bottom of the page.  Lexus Rockville Center doesn’t even display the address.

The Contact Us page for Audi Chantilly (from eBizAutos) consolidates all the dealership phone numbers in one place.  And although I would be surprised to see high usage rates for emailing from mobile sites (especially when calling is literally one click away), I like the formatting of the Midlands Honda Contact Us page.  It’s compact and just looks slick.

Mobile inventory requires the most effort, with lots of scrolling and clicking.  The results pages are also tough, since limited screen real estate requires limiting the amount of information shown.  These two sites do a decent job by displaying images, price, and mileage.  Gentilini Ford even makes room for the exterior color.  Even so, I was disappointed to see that Gentilini Ford gives a “retail price” and “sale price” for each vehicle, while Lexus Rockville Center labels theirs a “special price.”  It seems the old special Internet price game is alive and well.

I was even less enamored with these three inventory results pages, which provide tiny or no images and/or insufficient vehicle information.  This forces visitors into substantially more clicking to research the available vehicles.

For the actual vehicle listing, Audi Chantilly stands out by virtue of its excellent vehicle images.  This template links to a page of 24 large images, which gives the mobile user the ability to do a virtual walk around and have greater confidence in the vehicle they’re looking at.  Many mobile dealer sites are restricted to a single image.  I would have liked to see a less generic description in favor of one that tells the story of this particular model, but that’s the responsibility of the used-vehicle department rather than the mobile site.

Dealers have a limited ability to alter vendor-provided template.  In many cases, the mobile site may be an add-on as part of an existing relationship, so taking the most expedient route is understandable.  But as mobile continues to grow, the needs of the mobile shopper will need to be upgraded from “afterthought” to “shopper.”

Best practices in designing your automotive mobile site

We recently conducted a pilot study on the usability of automotive mobile websites.  This evaluation is patterned after our Manufacturer Website Evaluation Study (MWES) which looks at the usability of desktop automotive websites.

Kia, Mazda, and Volkswagen were the top performers among the manufacturer mobile sites, balancing the sometimes competing elements of navigation, information/content, appearance, and speed.  We can look to these industry leaders for guidance on how to provide a good experience for today’s mobile shoppers.

Navigation
Mazda’s mobile site scored highest in navigation, primarily because they have their homepage set up to access all the same things you can access on their traditional site: shopping tools and direct access to their models.  It only takes two clicks to get to detailed, comprehensive information for the specifications of any individual model.  They also make good use of color and icons to help visitors find the shopping tools.

Vehicle Images
Kia and Volkswagen did a good job of providing a variety of large, high-quality photos on the mobile site, both in the galleries and the performance details for VW.

Acura and Lincoln, on the other hand, didn’t score as well in the vehicle images attribute.  Acura provides one image in the model overview and has a limited gallery, while Lincoln’s feature images are so small that it is difficult to see the vehicle details.

Appearance
Both Honda and Hyundai score well in appearance.  In addition to providing nice images that attract the shopper, they each establish visual focal areas around the navigation elements.  Honda uses colored bars to focus the eye, while Hyundai uses distinct frames to organize its content.

Options/Features/Specs
Volkswagen’s information is well-organized, making it easy to access a large amount of information quickly.  The site has four distinct tabs available to get to features details.  And, they are able to provide extensive, yet concise, details using either bullets or short paragraphs accompanied by images.  Shoppers can quickly research related information in categories, balancing fewer clicks and reduced scrolling with the availability of comprehensive information

Infiniti’s and Mercury’s mobile sites also score well on options, features, and specifications.  Infiniti translates its high-scoring trim information from the traditional site to the mobile site.  It also reduces the length of its trim lists by not repeating equipment information from a previous trim level.  Mercury provides its features in a grid to help with comparing across multiple trims at a time.

While only a small percentage of shoppers use the mobile Internet in the vehicle shopping process, it is not enough to simply have a mobile site — you need to have a good mobile site.  When designing mobile sites, keep the same basic principles (navigation, appearance, information/content, speed) in mind as when designing traditional sites.

Mobile content for the real-time shopper

The primary focus of most mobile websites is time-sensitive and/or location-specific information. In the automotive realm, this means dealer locators, inventory, and pricing.  For instance, m.autotrader.com has little functionality beyond inventory, even though the primary site offers rich vehicle research.  But there are interesting examples of useful “lower funnel” data and tools that can enable a better consumer shopping experience.

Loan calculators are nearly ubiquitous on desktop automotive websites, while in the mobile realm they are domain of third-party sites.  The value is obvious – help shoppers better understand the financial impact of their purchase.  Each site has a slightly different take.  I find Edmunds’s results screen to be problematically formatted and difficult to read.  On the other hand, I like how cars.com includes a reverse calculator (which starts with the desired monthly payment) and also specifically calls out sales tax.

AutoTrader includes its MyAutoTrader in the mobile site. Consumers who have put a lot of work into setting up searches and/or selecting vehicles can easily access that information while they’re out and about.

Automotive Internet shopping was originally driven in part by pricing information – online shoppers could walk into the dealership armed with more data than ever before.  Online pricing information has continued to increase in richness (e.g. market value pricing, cost of ownership), and is yet remarkably sparse on mobile sites.

Kbb offers the basic MSRP / Invoice / Market price data.  Helpful, but really basic.  mobile.truecar.com goes many steps further with its Truecar Price Report, which provides multiple pricing data points.  Rather than setting a single market price, Truecar (as discussed in this post) offers several targets, e.g. Great Price, Good Price.  This is precisely the kind of information that would help consumers when they’re out shopping and more importantly, negotiating.

Truecar’s mobile presentation is nearly identical to that on the desktop site.  I did find it curious that the two sites didn’t agree on the dealer cost and factory invoice for the 2011 Audi Q5.  To be fair, the difference was less than $70.

As mobile sites continue to bulk up, we will undoubtedly see more of the great, current-desktop-only content migrate and further enhance the experience of the real-time shopper.

iPhone app smackdown! (cars vs kbb)

It took a while, but we finally have more than one robust automotive shopping application for the iPhone.  Cars.com was the first entrant and kbb.com has more recently taken the plunge.  In keeping with its heritage, cars focuses on inventory while kbb is about vehicle research and pricing.  Despite these completely different goals, I thought it would be interesting to compare them head-to-head in an IPHONE APP SMACKDOWN!

Inventory

It’s the primary focus of the application and cars does a great job.  I like the ability to sort vehicles based distance, price, year, or mileage and also to save searches.

Vehicle Research

I’m impressed by how much great content kbb has packed into such a small space.  The gallery has tons of photos and yet remains easy to navigate.  There’s also an entire page devoted to money-saving payment options and warnings for extra fees (e.g. gas guzzler tax page shown below).  This is great lower-funnel information that should be of interest to mobile users.

Navigation

I love the way kbb has integrated the iPhone’s screen swiping into its navigation framework.  It’s a natural way for iPhone users to interact with their devices.  Cars relies on scrolling and menus for navigation.  It’s not bad, but it’s also not nearly as intuitive.

Startup

Cars remembers where you left off if you leave app whereas kbb makes you start over.  So if you’re on the kbb application and you take an incoming phone call (which is not a rare thing), you’ll have to restart when your call is completed.

Locate a dealer

While I prefer kbb’s presentation of dealer results (one page vs. two pages = less clicking = good), cars handles the driving directions more smoothly.  Both kick over to the iPhone’s built-in map app, but kbb makes you start over when you go back.

Other content

Kbb has video and a Twitter feed.  Cars has payment calculators and links to content on its mobile site.    Neither stands out as particularly amazing content.

And the winner is . . .

I’m going to take the easy way out and call it a tie.  The applications contain such different functionality that they’re not truly comparable.  As they beef up, however, I suspect that kbb’s start page design (it’s clearly built to add more links without creating clutter) and more intuitive navigation will be advantages against cars and future entrants.

How to hide your mobile site

With my recent mobile fixation, I’ve quickly realized that some automotive mobile sites are nearly impossible to find.  It’s hard enough to remember URLs such as http://suzukiauto.com, but good luck with http://mobile.volvocars.com/us/mobile/Pages/default.aspx or http://mobile.usablenet.com/mt/www.vehix.com.

Most people use search to find sites, but since the iPhone’s built-in Google search returns the main sites, finding the mobile site requires a redirect from the full URL.  In most cases, this works nearly seamlessly: when I go to http://www.chevrolet.com I get sent to http://m.chevrolet.com automatically.  Getting to the few sites (Acura, Jeep, Suzuki, Vehix, Volvo) that don’t redirect requires a substantial effort that few, if any, people would undertake (well, unless it’s their job.  Lucky me).  At least I’ve seen mobile ads for some, but that’s far from sufficient to drive traffic.

Cars.com has a unique approach on the iPhone.  It presents the main page with additional links to the mobile site and its iPhone application, which allows users to choose the experience they want.

Edmunds offers iPhone visitors an upfront choice.  It’s a nice method, but Fandango’s is slicker and simply looks better.

This doesn’t mean you should always redirect.  Many smartphone users may want to view the full site and should be given that choice, even if it’s a suboptimal experience.  Consequently, many mobile sites also offer links back to the main site.  In a few cases, however, the experience is so poor (especially because of Flash-reliant navigation) that they would be better off NOT giving that option.  Kia’s main site doesn’t even load on my iPhone while the Infiniti and Nissan sites basically tell you it’s not worth the effort.  But they’re the ones that linked me there!

My testing was limited to my iPhone and it may be easier to find mobile sites on other devices.  Still, it’s clear that our industry is still trying to figure out how to manage that interplay between multiple sites and multiple ways of accessing them.

Getting excited about mobile banner ads?

Mobile Internet may still feel like the early desktop Internet, but I am remain fascinated by almost everything about the experience: navigation controls, font sizes, images, and even the ads.  The latter are pretty straightforward, with banner ads as the dominant format on automotive sites.  They’re simple, noticeable and relatively unobtrusive.

The primary participants are manufacturers with mobile sites – the ads need to link to relevant content, after all.  Here’s a  sampling of the banner ads I’ve captured over the past few weeks.  For the most part, they follow the common format of brand logo, vehicle image, and minimal copy.  I did notice one glaring error: the CTS ad’s tag line says “View the Buick Line-up.”

Going beyond the immediate visual, I also checked out where the ads sent me.  Most behaved as I would have expected.  For instance, the Ford Taurus ad on Edmunds linked to the Taurus model page at http://m.fordvehicles.com.

It’s not always so smooth.  The tag line for this Chevrolet ad on Cars.com says “View the Chevy Line-up” but connects to Chevy offers, which is misleading.  Either link to a line-up page or change the ad text to “View Chevy Offers.”

Autotrader has a Mercedes-Benz ad pushing the “Mercedes-Benz Summer Event” but it simply links to E-Class model page.  This is a complete disconnect.

Mobile Internet is just scratching the surface of its massive potential and we’re going to see continued evolution in all facets of the experience.  Simple banner ads are simply the starting point.  Personally, I’m looking forward to feeding my mobile habit.

Mobile RFQ still bothers me

Every so often I’m compelled to complain about the RFQ process.  My primary objection is that shoppers have learned the simple equation “RFQ = dealer contacts me.”  Now that we’re seeing more automotive mobiles sites, that means we’re also seeing more mobile RFQ.  And as I’ve written in the past (Mobile RFQ: Bringing a flawed system to a new frontier), that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Currently, eight OEMs offer mobile RFQ and all of them have created an experience that mimics the brand website.  Consider Mazda, whose two RFQ processes are minimally different:

  • The mobile RFQ is spread out over three separate pages
  • Mobile RFQ eliminates optional fields, e.g. address details and trade-in value information

Even with some process simplification, filling out the fields on a mobile phone takes much longer.  Fortunately, Mazda’s overall RFQ process is relatively painless.  When you get to a more involved RFQ, such as Infiniti’s and Nissan’s, the translation to mobile RFQ creates a more formidable user experience.

The brand and mobile sites require five discrete steps: 1.select vehicle 2.select model 3.select color 4.enter information 5. send to the dealer.  On a desktop computer, it’s relatively easy.  On my iPhone, it was a more substantial effort that involved large downloads (due to numerous images) and more required fields.

From a user perspective, the most straightforward mobile RFQ process came courtesy of Toyota.  I only had to go through two screens to fill out four fields and select the model, trim, and dealer.  This approach may reduce lead quality, but at least it’s in keeping with the brand site.

By comparison, Volkswagen threw out a few obstacles.  The mobile RFQ requires BOTH my home and mobile numbers, which is interesting given that the primary site only requires one phone number.  I don’t understand the point of making the mobile RFQ form MORE complex.  Further, “city” is not marked as a required field and yet I received an error that made me go back to fill it out.

In the course of exploring this topic, I submitted seven quote requests via OEM mobiles sites: Infiniti, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercury, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.  My experience was pretty good – I received personal phone or email responses from six of the seven within one day and was only added to one email list.

Replicating the standard RFQ makes complete sense from a process standpoint.  Mobile RFQs can be fed through the same lead systems and the dealerships can work them in the exact same way.

But should they be worked the same way?   After all, these shoppers may be submitting mobile quote requests while they’re out on dealer lots, which means an even smaller timeframe for the dealership to get on their radar.  Out of my seven quotes, I received only one phone call within the hour.  That’s the only dealership that had a shot at my business that day if I had been out shopping.  Then again, in that case, I probably would have looked for local inventory and/or called the dealerships rather than go through an entire RFQ process.  Unfortunately, inventory is even rarer on OEM mobile sites.  But that’s a rant for another article . . .