User Design Makes Sense (Part 1)

If you take a moment and Google “automotive dashboard user design”, you will find thousands of sites that discuss the thinking behind past, current and future car dashboards. Regardless of which site you visit, there is one theme that runs throughout: User design makes sense.

Think about the dashboard in your car. How are the gauges and controls on your dashboard arranged? What things need to be obvious when you are driving vs Scion xB Dashboardthose things that are less important? Here are a few of the important things on a dashboard using my wife’s Scion xB as an example:

  1. Speedometer
  2. Gas gauge
  3. Heating and Cooling
  4. Radio controls
  5. Indicator lights
  6. Engine temperature gauge

Now think about where your eyes roam when you drive. Would it make sense to put the speedometer in a location where it is hard to see or make it so small or hard to read that you can’t easily determine your speed? That’s a bad idea… and the police would agree.

The same can be said for the gas and engine temperature gauges and the heating and AC controls. These are items which you reference or use every time to drive. Make them hard to see or access, and you have a problem.

Some manufacturers handle each of these dashboard displays differently. By and large, I find that most get the speedometer right although on occasions I have noticed that the speedometer can be partially blocked from view by the steering wheel… but then again, I am 6’4” so I am on the outside edge of the “average user”.

Good dashboard design is solved by good user design where users are tested to find the best configuration for ease of use. Some user design (or “usability”) concepts are rather firm while others are flexible and depend on the audience. For a car, the speedometer must be easy to find and read, but it can be designed in a number of different ways. For example, according to a study by Barron, women and young drivers typically like a digital dashboard display, while baby boomers just want basic info in a non-digital format [Coughlin].

Why do I bring all this up as a software guy? Well, some ideas are just plain universal. Whether you are designing a car’s dashboard or creating a software dashboard for dealer principles, user design is critical. You have to find out what the customer needs and then learn what works best for them so that they can learn how to use the software quickly.

This is what we’re doing with all our software products at my company (Dominion Dealer Solutions). Whether new or old, we are evaluating our user interface so that it is easy to use. For new products, we’re developing our user interfaces and work flows one step at a time with close customer input. For legacy, we’re following an “evolution not revolution” strategy by making small changes over time so as not to shock existing users… Quick “revolutionary” change is a bad idea for legacy products because many users are familiar with the product even if it has use problems.

So, next time you get in a car or pull up some software, think about user design and ask yourself if what you see is easy to use or not. And, if you are curious, take some time to read about user design. User design is a brilliant union between art and science that when done well, yields excellent results that can only benefit the end user.

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See the following articles on usability:

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