Hidden usability features

Hidden usability features

Most good user experience is taken for granted, as is powerful information architecture. Recently I’ve been noticing hidden usability design features that don’t stand out until you put the objet out of its primary context. Most recently I’ve been studying the little stirring device that South West Trains put in your tea, but today let’s look at my car radio.

Ever since I first got the Jeep I’ve been noticing little compromises to the user experience that Chrysler chooses to make to ensure the process of making right-hand-drive models (for us drive-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road users) doesn’t bump up the price on what is supposed to be a cheap car for its class.

The first thing I noticed is that the position of the hand-brake and the forward drink holders are inverted. If you sit in the passenger seat, dropping your right arm to your side naturally puts your right hand on the brake handle–good ergonomics. Equally, if the front passenger is negotiating a full cup of coffee, the drinks holders are just far enough away that he doesn’t risk brushing or snagging his cup against an item of clothing. This is also good ergonomic planning, as is the fact that by having the cups on the right hand-side of the center console, bottles don’t bump into the passenger’s elbow when he’s changing gears.

Except that I want to change gears, not my passenger.

The ergonomics of the center console are just plain wrong for the right-hand drive version and my user experience is one of spilling drinks, elbowing bottles and having to reach further to put the hand-brake on. I won’t go into the fact the gear stick and gearbox are designed to mesh smoothly into place if operated with your right hand from the left seat…

So what of the radio.

The more I use it, the more I admire the design. It’s a fairly complex device. It offers a large menu of features to select from and several distinct physical movements are needed to operate it.

First off it has all the sound controls: volume, bass, treble, and front to rear fading. It has a CD player. This means the user needs to load and unload cds. It also means shuffling tracks, fast-forwarding to tracks, skipping or repeating tracks. It has a tape player. This presents all the same functions as the CD player with the extra tape-flip and realtime fast-forward and rewind (which you need to use a lot in order to play “Bobby Bingo” over and over again). Finally, it has a multiband radio with tuning, traffic advisory, regional station scan and all those other little clever things that I haven’t worked out yet because I can’t be bothered to read the instructions.

So if you were designing this from scratch with a quality user experience in mind, how many buttons do think you would need and were would you put them?

This is such a good exercise for web designers. To succeed with the information architecture, they will need to:

  • Understand the complete user environment (position of other car controls, ambient lighting etc)
  • Understand the goals the user will attempt to reach (fast-forward to "Old Macdonald" without moving far from steering wheel)
  • Be able to clearly understand and rate the importance to the user of each task and its associated set of controls.
  • Design a front-end that is up-to-date and sexy without compromising any of the UX requirements

When I started this piece was going to show how the team that designed my radio cracked it, but this may be more interesting if I just give you the parameters they had to work to. The radio’s fascia needs to fit into a bounding rectangle of approximately 50mm by 200mm positioned in the middle off the vehicle’s centre console.

Designs on a postcard please:-)