My Mom bought a new car, and it breaks one major UX rule

My Mom recently treated herself to her first new car in a while (ever?)

From a design standpoint, the car is beautiful inside and out. It’s packed with technology that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, and is a pleasure to drive. Acura RDX     Despite all the amazing design and technology working together, there is one feature that trips me up EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Take a look at this photo of the dashboard – specifically the dial/knob that I’ve highlighted: What do you think this does? If you’re like me, or the 4 people I’ve seen drive this car, you’d probably say it adjusts the volume of the speaker. Maybe you’d assume it’s some universal dial to toggle through options on the screen. Either way, based on the size, position, and prominence of the dial, I think most people would imagine it to control things that you are using ALL THE TIME as a driver. Ready to see what it actually does? That’s right, it toggles you between different drive modes for Comfort, Snow, Sport, and Sport +. (sidenote – who would choose Sport when you could go Sport +????) Maybe I am in the minority here – but in addition to being confusing, this functionality seems like something most drivers would use infrequently, and definitely does not justify the space and visual prominence it gets on the dashboard. Here’s the major UX rule it breaks. One of the 10 Usability Heuristics (rules of thumb) outlined by Nielsen Norman Group is Recognition Over Recall. Recognition is based on past experiences, and exposure. Basically, a user instantly knows how something works because they have used something like it before. Designing things based on recognizable cues helps users have a more seamless experience – they don’t need to spend too much time thinking about it. Recall forces a user to reach a little bit deeper into their memory. Without any cues, users have to expend a lot of mental energy to think back to the steps and actions they need to accomplish their task. It is not always bad to ask users to recall something – but it usually creates more friction, frustration, and inefficiencies.   Back to the car. Almost every car I have ever been in has had a big dial placed prominently on the dashboard that does the same thing – adjusts the volume of the radio. When I see the dial in my Mom’s car, I immediately recognize it as a volume control. When I want to change the volume, I either: A) Use the big dial, and immediately remember that it has different functionality, or B) Reach for the big dial, and then use mental energy to RECALL that it’s actually the teeny tiny knob in the top left that adjusts the volume. In both cases, there’s a high cognitive load to doing a really simple task. What’s worse, is that this is happening while driving, which already requires a ton of focus and concentration! How does this translate to digital design? There are a lot of principles that this dashboard example illustrates – use of affordances, Gestalt principles, and even other usability heuristics – but it can all be summarized by sticking to a few key methods to get it right: 1. Use research to understand your users, and the experience they have with other products or competitors. This will help you design cues that help users recognize rather than recall. 2. When conducting research, learn about the context and situations your users are in when using the product. Using Google Maps on your laptop is very different than using Waze while driving in an unfamiliar area! 3. There is a fine line between necessary innovation, and “reinventing the wheel”. If you want to break a design pattern that is known and recognized, make sure you are testing it extensively, and that you are setting goals and metrics to understand if your new design is actually an improvement. Last – I leave you with this quote that perfectly sums up recognition and recall, and why I will keep making the same mistake when trying to adjust the volume!

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