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Jan 16 2006

Automotive Interface

I was thinking today about interface design and function. A truly good interface takes something powerful and (possibly) complicated, and makes it easy and straight-forward. All this was coming to me while riding in a car.

The main interface of a vehicle is actually quite impressive when you think about it. Sure, all the additional accouterments add plenty of knobs, buttons and screens, but the root purpose of the automobile, moving and steering, are all wrapped up into 4 tools: 1 digital setting and 3 analog controls. These 4 tools let the user maneuver a 3000 pound machine with countless gears, levers, racks, pinions, chips and fluids.

And there’s a good reason a vehicle has been boiled down to gear, go, stop, and turn: user safety. In this interface, complexity introduces danger. But with a well experimented, thought out, and fine-tuned interface, pretty much anyone from the general public can control a contraption far more complicated than they will ever understand. That’s good design.

Of course it’s not perfect. The user isn’t confined to a particular set of confines. The users speed is not dictated by the speed limit, but by the users ability to keep the vehicle to that limit. And there are times when the driver might not need to keep to the road. Certainly this allows for mistakes to be made. Just ask any police officer. But that lack of frame allows for so much additional freedom and possibility.

Adding restraints to any interface an be good, and even necessary. But be careful that what you create is not so narrow that it doesn’t allow you to move around. Don’t add features just to add them. Don’t add options just because you can. Keep things simple, easy, and flexible.