Designing an Interface in Cars – A Lesson in Safety and Practicality

Travel back to the 1950s – the era of malt shops, drive-ins, Elvis, and American Bandstand.  You climb into a car, and the means of driving it is fairly straightforward.  If you’ve never used a manual transmission before, you might be a little out of your element, but otherwise the basics are all there: steering…

Travel back to the 1950s – the era of malt shops, drive-ins, Elvis, and American Bandstand.  You climb into a car, and the means of driving it is fairly straightforward.  If you’ve never used a manual transmission before, you might be a little out of your element, but otherwise the basics are all there: steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, and clutch.

Now imagine the reverse.  Picture a person from the 1950s sitting down in a modern car.  There are buttons on the steering wheel, beeps and dings insisting that the seatbelt be fastened, and a stereo control that looks like the viewscreen of the starship Enterprise.  Unlike the cars of yesteryear, modern cars have become driveable computers, and the way that you interface with them matters a great deal.

Safety Concerns

Research demonstrates that accidents can be caused as a result of the driver taking his or her eyes off the road for even a few seconds.  As cars gain bluetooth compatibility, self-parking capabilities, blu-ray players, satellite radios, and voice commands, the importance of making these systems easy to access becomes more important than ever.  If finding your favorite satellite radio station is too difficult, the driver’s eyes are focused on a screen rather than the road.  That climate control system might seem really straightforward when you can give it your full attention, but when you’re controlling the vehicle, it may be incredibly cumbersome.

Usability Concerns

This is why so many car companies must spend considerable time on the design and integration of these features.  How will it be used?  How will real people feel when they sit behind the wheel?  Some features may seem really cool to passengers, but the driver may feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable when confronted with dozens of buttons and displays.  Designers must ensure that all of the features are accessible while still providing the driver with the comfort and stability that he or she needs to be a safe and responsible traveler on the highway.

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