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Touchscreens: Decreasing Usability of Automobile Controls

Touchscreens: Decreasing Usability of Automobile Controls

I have to write about this horrible trend in automobile design of interior controls — touchscreens.

Touchscreens in automobiles are one of the worst ideas in the world of usability design. Period.

The reason is obvious. Touchscreens require your visual attention in order to read and understand the controls displayed on the screen. Since screens act as multi-function devices, it also means the controls will be different based upon what different screen you are on. You will have to consult the screen for what new controls are available each time you change the screen’s function.

So not only do you have to review your screen options with your eyeballs — taking your attention away from driving and road in front of you — but then you have to also conduct an eye-hand coordination task to bring your finger to the right touchscreen button you want to access. And do this reliably every time you need to change something in the car’s interior (temperature, radio station, etc.).

All of this sounds easy in theory and I’m sure on the drawing board. However, driving with one of these things is another story altogether.

In non-touchscreen cars, need to change the temperature? Rotate a knob one way or another. Need to reduce the fan speed? Rotate another knob. Simple, easy, single-function tactile controls that work quickly and easily. In most cars, you can make these adjustments without even needing to take your eyes off the road.

Try that in a car that has only a touchscreen control and tell me how easy it is. In some cars, it may be easier than others. (Some cars have “fixed” the problem by providing climate controls in their own module, separate from the touchscreen.)

Same with the radio. Changing a station, or switching from your smartphone’s music to the car’s radio shouldn’t be a task that involves multiple menus and button touches on a screen. It should be a single button (like it is on many stereo receivers or your TV) that controls the input source. Boom, done.

That tactile feel of buttons is so important to our hands in immediately knowing where I am on the dashboard. It also  reduces the need for cognitive cycles of our brain to process new information. When driving 65 MPH on a highway, even a couple of seconds of your attention away from the road can translate into thousands of feet.

That’s why, pre-touchscreens, automotive makers came up with the single-control interface (such as the iDrive in BMW) to manipulate the screen. While you still have the same problem of touchscreens in that the screen’s options change enough that you’ll have to take your attention off the road to understand your options, the actual input device and effort remains static throughout the process.

It essentially halves the attention and cognitive cycles needed for changing options on the screen versus that of a touchscreen. Why? Because with the touchscreen you will need to use and position a finger in just the right spot on the screen to effect a desired action. That takes more cognitive effort than simply using a single, unmoving device controller to change options.

Worse still is that of course every automaker approaches touchscreen use completely differently. So although 10 years ago, you knew in whatever car you were in how to control the climate knobs and change a radio station, you’d have little such luck in cars that have touchscreens. Instead of things being intuitive from carmaker to carmaker, touchscreens make everything cryptic and hard to decipher. With no standards, it’s like having to learn the differences between operating systems each time you change cars. This is progress?

Automotive makers have traded off ease-of-use and usability to worshiping technology for technology’s sake. I’m certain engineers thought there were making things easier to use, but the end result is technology that is actually harder to use and requires more effort to understand. They’ve completely killed off usability between auto manufacturers, too.

I’m certain touchscreens have a use in cars. But only as a way to replicate controls that already exist and are easier to use elsewhere.

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