Cars, Computers, and Interface Design

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

A few days ago, I was reading about how Apple could dominate car tech (if it wanted).

Two weeks of car shopping has driven home two big points for me: User interface matters. Car companies aren’t all that good at it.

Really? Because last I checked, car companies are pretty good at user interface. It takes me less than 5 minutes (in any car) to figure out to make it start, go forward, reverse, stop, turn left, right, turn on and off the radio, change the station, change the volume, turn on the air, heat, defrost, adjust the seat, mirrors, steering wheel, put on a seat belt, and start driving. And yes, there are a lot of buttons. So?

On the dream in code forums, one person asks a similar question:

A new car can have over hundred controls. For example, 10 controls for radio, 5-10 for heating and ventilation, 10 for windows, 10 for wipers, washers and so on. Most people can master these very quickly. Why is it that the car with so many controls is easier to use than a video recorder that has few controls. What makes the car’s interface so good and that of the video recorder so bad.

I love this answer:

…a car’s buttons are shallow in depth hence why there are so many, and a camcorder has fewer buttons that do more things (depth) in conjunction with other buttons.

The last thing I would want to do, while driving, is deal with some sort of menu tree when all I want to do it turn on my headlights.

Apple certainly does create some exceptional user interfaces – the iPhone is obviously a shining example of that. And yet 8 out of 50 states prohibit handheld use of a phone while driving, and 30 out of 50 states prohibit text messaging while driving. ( This is because devices which require concentration to use necessarily divert your attention from the more pertinent task, which is driving.

Humans think and remember in physical space; we have a well developed sense of spatial memory. This is what allows us to type while not looking at the keyboard, pick something up off of the desk without looking, remember where we left our keys (well some of us), and so on. This is also what allows us to reach down to the volume knob and change the volume on the radio without significant distraction from the task at hand (driving). We know where the volume knob is, and we know which way to turn it. It is a physical object in physical space and our brains have evolved to be able to interact with such objects without using a significant amount of focus.

When you change that user interface so that there is simply one button to enter a virtual menu of options, sometimes many levels deep, we’ve suddenly made the task one that requires a significant level of concentration. We can’t rely on our built-in spatial memory any more, because multiple functions are mapped to the same physical space. At this point, we have to build a representation in our heads to keep track of where in the virtual space we are. Which app am I in, which submenu am I on, where are the buttons on the screen, and so on. We’ve gone from something as familiar and simple as a knob to something that requires (comparatively) a great deal of thought.

Of course, car manufacturers have tried to reinvent the automotive user interface before. In fact, several have them have even developed some very Applesque interfaces. BMW’s iDrive is probably one of the best known of these, and although it went through a number of revisions, and some users were quite fond of it, the overwhelming response was negative.

The design rationale of iDrive is to replace a confusing array of controls for the above systems with an all-in-one unit…iDrive has caused significant controversy among users, the automotive media, and critics. Many reviewers of BMWs in (automobile) magazines disapprove of the system. Criticisms of iDrive include its steep learning curve and its tendency to cause the driver to look away from the road too much.

This article on cnet discusses iDrive (as well as Audi’s MMI and Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND systems) in some detail. In the article, Wayne Cunningham rates each of the systems according to Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics. I find this interesting, as the second heuristic is “Match between system and the real world”, which is something that buttons and knobs are obviously quite good at, and nested menus of options are not.

Of course, if this type of design would function so poorly in an automobile, why do we love our phones, laptops, tablets, televisions, and video games so much in other facets of our lives? The obvious answer is that we aren’t driving while using them, and we want to be engaged with our technology. This should quite obviously lead not to the question of how to redesign the interface of the automobile, but how to redesign the process of driving. Since we are not able to use these devices while driving, we can choose to either design the device to suit the task (as discussed above), or modify the task to suit the device.

It isn’t Apple that is likely to succeed in this venture. The Distronic Plus cruise control system that Mercedes Benz is using is a step in the right direction. Google’s work on cars that drive themselves are even more so. Optimistically we have 10 years before cars that can drive themselves are available. At that point the game changes. The design of our cars won’t be constrained by the requirement that the driver maintain focus on the road.

Maybe then Apple will rock the world with its groundbreaking automotive interfaces, but until then, leave my knobs and buttons alone.

What’s your reading level?

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

I happened across this article on about a new search option on google for Reading Level, which is pretty cool. You can go to advanced search and choose to filter your search results based on basic, intermediate, or advanced reading levels. You can also just get a reading level “rating” for the search results. While I am going to explore this a little further, being the narcissist that I am, I thought I’d search myself and see what google thinks of me.

click for results

I’m pretty happy with that 75%, but I think I’ll use it much like this programmer competency rating as a yardstick for improvement.

Do you want to find out what your reading level is? Click here to search.

Georgia Amendment 1 – An Analysis

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

So obviously, Amendment 1 passed. It didn’t even barely pass, it passed with an overwhelming majority of votes. 1,628,507 out of 2,410,156 Georgians voted YES! on Amendment 1.

My previous blog entry regarding Amendment 1 was on the first page of google’s search results for most combinations of Georgia, Amendment, November 2nd, etc. It was the top search result in many cases. I assume it was largely the same for Bing and Yahoo, although to be honest, I haven’t really verified.

That blog entry got a little less than 3,000 hits by November 2nd (thank you WordPress site stats). So assuming that every one of those page views was by a registered Georgia voter (which is beyond unlikely), roughly 0.1% of people that voted on that amendment read that blog post.

Now quite obviously, a very large percentage of people get their news from television, newspaper, friends, and other sites, but still – 0.1% bothered to do a simple search to research the issues that they were going to vote on? Really?

More survivor bias / stories of failure

October 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve written about survivor bias before – basically that basing your strategy on only stories of success is not likely to yield success for you. Without some perspective on failed businesses and why they failed, you are likely to make some of those same mistakes as well. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Anyway, here’s some additional perspective on 25 failed startups that is cetainly worth a few minutes of your time:

Georgia Amendment 1 – November 2, 2010

September 24, 2010 § 13 Comments

My friend Mike Baer called me last night and said, “Hey man, have you heard about Ammendment 1? As a contractor, it kind of freaks me out – go check it out.”

So this is a proposed amendment to the Georgia State Constitution that reads like this:

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to make Georgia more economically competitive by authorizing legislation to uphold reasonable competitive agreements?

(__) Yes
(__) No

More economically competitive, you say? Reasonable agreements, you say? Well, golly gee, yes – that sounds great!

This description is misleading at best! This is what the amendment is about:

A RESOLUTION proposing an amendment to the Constitution so as to allow the enforcement of contracts that restrict competition during or after the term of employment or of a commercial relationship so long as such contracts are reasonable in time, area, and line of business; to provide that courts may modify such contracts to achieve the intent of the contracting parties; to provide for the submission of this amendment for ratification or rejection; and for other purposes.

Do we really want plumbers to not be able to work for other plumbing companies (or start their own)? How about electricians, carpenters, painters, software developers, lawyers, paralegals, medical receptionists, and so on, and so on, and so on?

With an unemployment rate of 10% (PDF), we really need more restrictions on the ability of individuals to find a job? We want to discourage people from starting small businesses? This will make Georgia more economically competitive? If by attracting employers to open business in Georgia so that they can lock employees into employment contracts and render them practically unable to quit their jobs despite low pay, poor working conditions, or simply better opportunities, then yes, I suppose it would make Georgia more economically competitive.

Read the summary, or the full text.

This bill has been brought to you by the following:

Windows Server 2008, IIS7, firewalls and FTP

September 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I was trying to set up FTP access to a test box for a developer yesterday. Installing FTP using Server Manager was straightforward, as was setting up the FTP site. It took me a while to figure out how to allow access through the firewall, though.

I finally found this article by Matt Williamson that gave me enough information to get it working.

This article goes into more detail about configuring it, including this blurb explaining why allowing svchost.exe to get through the firewall makes FTP accessible, even if it’s perhaps not the best option.

The easiest way to configure Windows Firewall to allow FTPS traffic is to list the FTP service on the inbound exception list. The full service name is the “Microsoft FTP Service”, and the short service name is “ftpsvc”. (The FTP service is hosted in a generic service process host (Svchost.exe) so it is not possible to put it on the exception list though a program exception.)

Science? Why?

June 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

This article discussing the real problem with focusing on science education in America struck a cord with me. My 9-year-old son is very interested in being a scientist. I asked him what he wants to study – what type of scientist he wants to be. His was response was, “I don’t know – I guess I’ll be a science teacher.”

While I applaud his school and his science teacher for instilling a love of science and curiosity about the world around him, what we’ve failed to do in a larger context is give him a reason to pursue it. Eight years to pursue a Ph.D., significant competition to find a job, and then, if successful, his success will be more dependent on his ability to procure funding by marketing himself than by his efficacy as a scientist.

Or he can become a science teacher…

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