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User Testing the UX of Car Manufacturers' Mobile Apps

Steve Ricken  |  December 08, 2015
Many years ago, I was captivated by Michael Knight’s ability to call his car, KITT using his wristwatch.KITT would drive up to him and get him out of harrowing situations. Knight Rider’s reality is soon to be here, as car manufacturers are creating apps that allow people to unlock their doors, check their fuel gauge, and find their car via GPS from their smartphones.These apps tend to have low scores in app stores, so we wanted to see why people were giving such poor ratings. We decided to discover people’s experiences using these apps on a day-to-day basis.

Research Method

We recruited nine people around the U.S. from our panel who have used the app that their car manufacturer made for their car. Seven participants owned a GM vehicle (Chevy, Buick, GMC) and two owned a Ford. Participants were asked to stand by their cars and follow tasks using their car’s app. They described their experience using the app as well as the features they commonly used. They discussed both the positive and negative aspects of using a mobile app to control their vehicle.

Mobile app usage

Most participants downloaded the app within days of buying their new car. Some even downloaded it on the spot in the dealership, while the salesperson was talking about it, which gave them a personal onboarding experience. Participants used the app on a weekly basis. And the most common features they used on their car apps were locking and unlocking doors, finding the car via GPS, and checking diagnostic information like oil life, fuel level, and tire pressure.

Locking and unlocking doors

The process of locking and unlocking doors took a long time using the apps. Participants had to open the app, navigate to the unlock feature, enter their unique passcode, then wait for over 20 seconds for the door to unlock. They found it much easier to pull their keys out and use the key fob to unlock their door instead.“When I unlock, it takes a 20-second delay. If I have my key, why would I unlock my door?”The lock and unlock feature added a sense of convenience when people weren’t near their cars. One participant shared a story about his little brother needing baseball equipment from his car when he wasn’t home. Using the app, the participant was able to open the doors so his brother could get his equipment. Another participant mentioned running out to her car to get something but had forgotten her keys. She was able to use the app to open her car instead of running back inside to grab her keys.Another factor was the security of checking door locks from anywhere. Several participants mentioned opening the app from inside their home to double-check if they locked the doors. One participant said she had to park her car in an unsafe neighborhood for work, and she regularly checked the app to make sure her doors remained locked.

GPS tracking

Another feature that, while rarely used, was extremely useful, was GPS tracking. Participants were able to open a map and see exactly where their car was located (for GM customers, only those who subscribed to OnStar services could use this feature).For the participant who had to park in an unsafe location, this feature gave her peace of mind. Along with checking her door locks, she also checked to make sure her car was still in the parking lot every day. Another participant had only used the GPS feature once. They were in Disneyworld and forgot to mark where they parked, so opening the app allowed them to easily find their missing car.


Many participants reviewed vehicle diagnostics on their phone to check how their car was doing. Common features included checking the gas gauge, battery life (for electric cars), oil life, and tire pressure. The information was accurate, and alerts for low tire pressure helped participants know they needed to put air in their tires.Participants found it useful to know how much gas they had in their car, however, they wished for an alert when their gas was low, to remind them they needed to fill up the next time they were in their car.

Overall reactions

These participants were happy with their car apps, and they used them on a daily to weekly basis.The biggest issue for participants was the slow speed of the app communicating with their car. Both the diagnostics and the unlock feature took too long to update or activate. As mentioned above, participants continued to use their key fobs when they were walking to their cars, and only used the app if they were not in close proximity or did not have their keys on them.


This study leads the way to more testing that can be performed on people’s behaviors and expectations using the apps created by car manufacturers. Further research can be done using longitudinal studies and destination tests of people choosing the app over a key fob.While car apps add a level of convenience to accessing people’s cars, they have not become a necessity. As cars become smarter and computers become more integrated into the driving experience, there will be more opportunities to connect via smartphones to personal transportation. I’m still holding out for the day I can call my Trans Am from my wristwatch to pick me up!
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About the author:

Steve is a researcher at UserTesting. He is very interested in researching social mobile applications. When he’s not at work, he’s wrenching on cars, lifting heavy weights, or listening to heavy metal.