Why modern cars are hard to use
You don’t get very far into life without realising that in many cases, the more you have of something, the less you must accept of another.
WORK HARD FOR MORE money, have less free time. A bigger TV, but it takes up more room. The only place you can have your cake and eat it is in the minds of some of our political candidates.
Cars of course are quintessential compromises; more power, less economy and higher cost. Sometimes technology can smooth the way and indeed today’s vehicles outperform their older cousins thanks to advanced engines, electronic driving aids and variable-height suspension, but the basic compromises still remain.
Unfortunately, it’s not all entirely positive progress. There’s one aspect of design which is becoming more of a problem as time goes on, not less, and to explain why I offer these photographs of cameras.
The big black one is the Canon EOS-1D, arguably the best sports and action camera ever made, the latest in the long evolution of Canon digital SLRs, and before that, just plain SLRs. I use one on photography assignments to earn money, and tens of thousands of other action photographers rely on it to pay the rent and put the next meal on the table. It is a highly developed tool of the trade, and chances are it has brought you many of the sports and action photos you see on a daily basis.
Now have a look at the other image, which is of Canon’s IXUS compact camera. As far as I’m aware nobody relies on this camera to feed their family and nor do you see it around the neck of professional photogs at the Olympics. It is quite different to the 1D — smaller, less robust and fewer features – but one interesting difference is beauty.
Take another look at the 1D. It has several dials, two screens, a plethora of buttons and comes only in black. It is bulky, and heavy. It is not pretty, looks like it has warts and has been hewn not sculpted. The IXUS, on the other hand, comes in a variety of attractive colours and has prettily burnished edges, a smooth, modern appearance, almost a little work of design art.
The difference between the two is function over form, and form over function. An expert photographer can play a 1D like a skilled musician playing a piano; fingers and hands flying everywhere, not even looking at the camera, yet setting it exactly so for the next shot, and setting it instantly. That’s precisely because of all those unsightly dials and button, as well as the built-in handgrips.
You simply can’t work that quickly with the IXUS. Change aperture? Go to the menu, scroll up, select, scroll down….by that time whatever you were going to shoot has shot through. There’s no shortcut button, everything’s in a menu. Nor has the IXUS been designed to be held and operated with cold, or gloved hands.
Can you imagine playing a piano if you had to choose every key from a dropdown list and confirm your choice before the note sounded? What if a guitar had just the one string and you twiddled a dial to select each resonance? Or if the keyboard I’m using now didn’t have all those ugly letters and numbers, just one button which scrolls through the alphabet?
I use this example to highlight the unfortunate fact that in the field of design the goals of usability and aesthetic appeal are usually in conflict. It is of course possible to create beautiful interfaces that are usable, but that tends to be the exception, not the norm – another of the compromises. Graphic designers are not usability experts, and usability experts are not graphic designers as the car companies are now proving with each new model release.
There is a distinct trend to creating attractive vehicle interiors, smooth, burnished beauty, as technology now allows designers to convert levers and buttons to touch-screen menus and consumers demand more from their vehicles than just fulfillment of function. There’s no longer any need for the unsightly gearshifts, park-brake levers, control stalks or radio controls of old, nothing to interrupt the elegant lines of a dashboard penned in some studio, not engineered in a workshop. And it all looks great, no two ways about it, and it’s also very definitely the case that a car’s interior goes a long way to your appreciation and enjoyment of the driving and ownership experience.
But not all the way. The problem is exactly the same of the IXUS vs the 1D. In modern cars, you need to be selecting from menus, no longer twiddling a dial which is much easier and quicker. As an example, in the Discovery 4 there’s now just the one screen for the radio, satnav and everything else, so you need to switch between the two. In the Discovery 3 you had a separate screen for the radio so you could see your station and where you’re going at the same time. Land Rover has also made some of the icons smaller (albeit prettier) so they’re harder to read. There’s no longer an unsightly numeric keypad in the D4, but you also lose the ability to just punch in numbers quickly. Land Rover are by no means alone in sacrificing usability for beauty as this is a problem I’ve seen develop over time.
The move towards touchscreens and complexity is also a safety issue, as drivers now have to spend longer working out what does what instead of just reaching for a familiar dial. Distracted drivers are dangerous drivers.
It’s time for car manufacturers to move a bit further on in life and see if they can’t deliver us the automotive equivalent of a Canon 1D in an IXUS body.