User interface in automobiles

Today on the way to church I noticed something that had caught my attention before, but seemed all the more acute this time around due to the sweltering Kentucky heat. As I reached to turn on the air-conditioning, it hit me just how poorly thought-out many car interiors are.

I suppose a little background information would help. We are the proud owners of a used 2004 Dodge Stratus. While it is clearly not in the luxury category, we have found it to generally meet our needs. The case in question pertains to the location of the cup-holders and the usability of the AC interface.

  1. Cup-Holders: For whatever reason, these are located in front of the stick-shift, and sort of underneath the cabinetry that holds the radio. So that, if you have a tall coffee mug, it is darn near impossible to put it in the cupholder on the first try. Luckily, I tend to use mugs with good lids.

  2. Air-Conditioning: Again, the logic behind this seems to escape me. There are dials that let you adjust the temperature of the air, the location at which it aims (feet / head). Yet, on the location dial there are separate settings for AC or just the Fan. For the AC, you can point it towards your head, or both feet & head. For the Fan, you can point it towards your head, feet, or both feet & head.

Aside from that oddity, it has always confused me just how one is supposed to properly impliment using the heater in this car. I could use the Fan setting, but there is another setting that has an arrow which appears to swoop through the interior of the car.

Logically, this would make sense to me, because if it were cold out, I would want to warm the entire car. Yet, this option is available only in the cool blue color, meaning it's a setting reserved for the AC.

While not all domestic cars are this counter-intuitive, this layout is not uncommon for American automobiles. In fact, it was not until borrowing a friend's Honda last summer that I realized there was a better way. On this dashboard was a simple layout, one dial for cool/heat, one for location (head/feet), and one for fan strength.


If only more car manufacturers would take the user experience into account, our roads would be much safer. This of course, got me to thinking about how we design user interfaces for the web (HTML vs. Flash). When we try to think too far outside the box, are we asking for trouble, or do users actually appreciate these changes? Not according to Jeffrey Veen.