Design vs UX when lives are on stake

My old Nissan Primera dated back to 1997. It’s air-conditioner control panel looked like this…

aa_primera

You can think it’s kind of ugly. In fact is kind of ninetish and was quite common in every brand, with some tiny differences. You have three controls.

  • Where do you want the air to come from (left).
  • How cold do you want it (center).
  • How strong do you want it (right).

Nowadays the cars have changed. They usually incorporate a screen that works as standard output for whatever you’re setting in the car, from the time and date to your favorite radio channels.

And, unlucky of me, its the output to the air-conditioning system too.

Let’s check how this systems perform in two basic scenarios.

  • Use case #1: Finding out the current setting.
    • 90’s design: You just give a quick glance to the operation panel. With some experience, you even don’t need to do it visually. You can check the current settings by touch. From one to three steps.
    • 21st century’s design: You need to push the ‘temperature’ button. Then you look at the screen to see the current value. Then you push the ‘speed’ button and look again at the screen to see the current value. Finally you push the ‘direction’ button and check the value on the screen. Six steps. And as the buttons are seamlessly integrated in the dashboard, and the feedback is visual only, there’s no way you can tel how the system is operating without looking at it.
  • Use case #2: Modifying some current setting.
    • 90’s design: You know what roulette you need to modify just looking at the labels around the roulette. You locate the value you’re aiming for and move the roulette to this position. Two steps.
    • 21st century’s design: You need to locate the button you need to push to set the roulette on the proper operation mode, e.g. ‘temperature’. Then you push the button. Then you grab the roulette and move it while looking at the screen so you can see the feedback for your action. Four steps.

So to change one setting you needed four to eight steps with my old car, depending if you didn’t want to take your sight out of the road, while you must perform sixteen steps with my new car.

The advantages of the brave old system are:

  • You can use it without looking at it.The controls shape, size and position allow easy location and manipulation, by touch.
  • You can see the current settings, every time, at a glance. Since the control is a roulette that maps with the available settings. With some practice, you can even find the current setting out by touch, while looking to the road.

The beautiful design is always the one who is thought to be operated, not to be seen. The beautiful design is the one that offers the best user experience, specially if the most important thing to do is staying focused at the road.

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