When I went car shopping recently, I was amazed by the autonomous technologies in most new models: automatic lane-keeping, braking to avoid collisions and parallel parking, for example.
But I was appalled by the state of dashboard technology. Technology sells, so car companies are all about touch screens and apps these days. Unfortunately, they’re truly terrible at designing user interfaces (UIs)—the ways that you, the human, are supposed to interact with it, the car. A good user interface (a) is easy to navigate, (b) puts frequently used controls front and center, (c) gives clear feedback as you make a change and (d) is apparently beyond the capabilities of today’s car companies. I asked my Twitter followers to help me nominate the World’s Worst Car UI Designs—and I was flooded with responses. Here are some samples:
Harry Myhre writes that on the 2017 Cadillac XT5, there’s no physical volume knob. You have to repeatedly tap a touch strip on the dash or a button on the wheel, neither of which is powered on until the system has booted. Same thing on the 2017 Honda Accord, says @RandyTaradash. “It annoys me to no end that I can’t turn the car on without the ability to immediately turn down the radio.” Similarly, “you can adjust wiper settings in a Tesla 3 only on the touch screen,” writes @briantroberts. “The last thing I want to do when I can’t see out of my car is find a button on a screen!”
The 2013 Subaru Crosstrek turns on its backup camera when you’re in reverse. But @dfrctionspikes notes that when his phone connects via Bluetooth, a full-screen message appears—“Confirmed connection with the mobile telephone”—completely blocking the view from the camera! On the 2017 Nissan Leaf, you adjust the music volume with up/down buttons on the center console but right/left buttons on the steering wheel—and changing stations is up/down on the steering wheel but left/right on the console (notes @atmendez)! In the 2018 Subaru Outback, setting the clock requires—incredibly—19 steps. They’re in three different places: you start on the center touch screen, move to the plastic buttons on the dashboard and then use the up/down/select buttons hiding behind the steering wheel (Elchanan Heller).
When you try to cancel navigation on a 2013 Volvo XC60, a touch screen message asks if you’re sure. Your choices: “continue” or “cancel.” “Five years of this, and I still have to stop and think,” Mike Murphy says. If the 2016 VW Golf SE senses a car in your blind spot, a yellow icon lights up in the side mirror. Inopportunely, @aleidy points out, the turn signal also flashes a signal in the side mirror—in the same color! (We won’t even get into how almost every modern car auto plays the first song alphabetically on your iPhone every time you plug it into the sound system. Dozens of people wrote to say how sick they are of hearing Ed Sheeran’s “A Team” or “Aaron Burr, Sir” from Hamilton. A $1 song on the iTunes store—10 minutes of silence called “A a a a a Very Good Song”—has become a hit because it solves this idiotic problem.)
These people aren’t just complaining about bad UI because it’s constantly frustrating: in a car, bad UI is dangerous. Every second you spend searching a touch screen or button cluster and not focusing on the road is a second you are a death risk to yourself and others. Why can’t car companies hire real app designers to clean up their UIs? Surely, in a world of several million phone apps, there are plenty of talented coders who could help. Heck, my 13-year-old can point out what’s wrong with most of these cars.
There are small pockets of hope. For example, Ford’s new CEO, Jim Hackett, is a disciple of Ideo (the Silicon Valley design firm responsible for the first Apple mouse, the Palm V organizer and the Swiffer). He set up Greenfield Labs within Ford—a group of designers, psychologists, anthropologists and data scientists who are collaborating with Ideo to bring human-centric design to cars.
Well, okay. Here’s hoping their work bears fruit fairly soon. Because at the moment, the car companies’ dashboard interfaces are a disaster. Or, to put it another way: you or I could do UI better.