Car Stereo Controls

January 5, 2015

Despite passing my test 3 years ago I’ve only just got my first car and because I haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of driving in the past I’ve only recently noticed how badly designed car stereos, and in some cases, the whole dashboard are. Common sense would suggest that anything a driver needs to interact with whilst driving the car should be designed to be as self-explanatory, learnable and intuitive as possible.

There is one control in particular on my Renault Clio that gets me every time, because it is different to the same control on every other stereo I’ve used. The flaw with the control relates to how we as people perceive certain actions. If I asked you to move the playing CD onto the next track, what icon would you expect to see on the “next track” or “fast forward” button? I’m guessing you’d think of one like in the image below; a button with a horizontal arrow (or two) pointing to your right.

Fast forward / back buttons

Fast forward / back buttons

However, whoever designed the stereo in my Clio decided it would make more sense to place the “forward/back” buttons in a vertical position (see image below). Despite being labelled with the usual icons (the double arrow), because the positioning is different to how we expect to see these controls, I still struggle to remember which button moves on a track and which goes back. (If you must know “Up” moves to the previous track whilst “Down” moves to the next track – I find this to be as confusing as the vertical positioning in the first place; for me “Up” should move the track number up one, i.e. going forward and not back!)

Renault Clio Stereo Controls

Renault Clio Stereo Controls

Annoyingly, the buttons that occupy the horizontal spaces on that round middle section seem rather redundant after first use. As far as I can tell their only purpose seems to be for setting your 6 favourite radio stations and allocating each one of the buttons labelled 1-6 so they can be quickly found again. Although I appreciate not having to search through the many frequencies to find one of my regular radio stations there is surely a better way to allocate them to a number button that would allow the fast forward/back buttons to go in the correct position!

Another thought I had whilst writing this post was where car dashboards and controls will go in the future. Touchscreens? Maybe, but I’m not certain this would be the best form of interface for a driver to control… unlike a passenger who can commit their full concentration to using the interface, a driver must quickly flick between it and road. I have a feeling touchscreen interfaces would invite more bad design; unnecessary screens and buttons that require user input (even if this amounts to tapping an icon) just to achieve a simple goal or overcomplicated symbols to make full use of a “HD colour” display. For me though the major problem is the lack of physical, or haptic, feedback. At least with todays tactile controls a driver can partially look and partially “feel” for the right button, especially if familiar with the general layout of the buttons. Removing this “3D front” and replacing with a flat touchscreen means the driver is totally reliant on looking.