Are designers to blame for the war on physical buttons?
Last year I wrote an article proclaiming my love for physical buttons. It was a personal affair, but one that clearly resonated with likeminded individuals, as we reminisced about the tactile feedback only a good button can provide. At the time of publication, I worried that I’d simply come across as a luddite, unwilling to change with the times — but as it turns out, there are very practical reasons to favour physical buttons over a touchscreen interface.
One such example is in the context of moving machinery, such as a car. While the physical placement of buttons allow drivers to engage with features in a car without taking their eyes off the road, touchscreens do not. This was at least my anecdotal experience, but one that has seemingly been validated by a study carried out by Vi Bilägare, an automobile magazine based in Sweden.
Physical buttons are increasingly rare in modern cars. Most manufacturers are switching to touchscreens — which perform far worse in a test carried out by Vi Bilägare. The driver in the worst-performing car needs four times longer to perform simple tasks than in the best-performing car. — vibilagare.se
Are designers to blame?
According to the study, Vi Bilägare concluded that humans are far more adept at multitasking in a car with physical buttons, rather than potentially fumbling through an interface on a large touchscreen. Hardly surprising, right? There’s been countless studies highlighting the risk of diverting a drivers attention from the road, yet the proliferation of non-physical controls continues.
Furthermore, who’s asking for the digitisation of physical buttons in cars? Well, according to Vi Bilägare both designers and the financial departments are to blame.
Inspiration for the screen-heavy interiors in modern cars comes from smartphones and tablets. Designers want a ”clean” interior with minimal switchgear, and the financial department wants to lower the cost. — vibilagare.se
This is a fairly loaded statement, as we know that designers don’t work in isolation and likely collaborate with multiple stakeholders that have competing ideas. What I think is more likely, is that we’re seeing a “touchscreen in automobiles arms race”. If Tesla is doing it, then why can’t Ford, or Toyota, or Nissan? Is there a potential fear among car manufactures that if they’re not introducing touchscreen controls, then they somehow won’t appeal to millennials or gen Z?
It’s as good a theory as blaming designers or the finance department is. This is clearly a trend which is at odds with the safety of those within, and outside, of the car. A trend which is establishing itself as a trend for the sake of it, and nothing more. I do believe there’s a balance however, and that touchscreens absolutely can have a place within the car. But they shouldn’t, so long as they continue to attribute to a higher cognitive load, and as such, potentially put people in danger.
Higher cognitive load
Fundamentally, touchscreens within cars can place a higher cognitive load on a driver. This means someone potentially has to spend more time considering what action they want to complete, how to do it, where they need to go to do it, and finally carrying out the action.
In a best case scenario, they manage to find and complete their action first time. But what if they’re unfamiliar with the interface, what if they can’t remember where to go? How likely are they to continue to try and complete their action, with their eyes off the road? In a worst case scenario, what if they go down the wrong path, several menu options deep, and have to start all over again? What if the interface locks up?
Drivers across the US have the overwhelming belief that built-in technology features are exclusively there to help you drive safely. This study proves that is not the case — especially if you don’t know how to use the features. These features can be just as distracting as pulling out your phone and sending a text (which we don’t recommend, either). — thenewswheel.com
Some manufactures even conceal the most menial tasks into an touchscreen interface, such as controlling the speed at which the wipers work in the event of rain. It should be noted that there is usually more than one way to complete an action in a modern car, but it’s clear that the very presence of an all-in-one touchscreen interface is enough to increase cognitive load.
A study conducted by the AAA and the University of Utah was damning in it’s conclusion:
Not a single vehicle from the study produced a low level of demand for the driver’s attention. Seven vehicles tested produced modern demand, while 23 generated high or very high demand. In fact, the study found drivers distracted, with their eyes completely off the road, for up to 40 seconds at one time. — thenewswheel.com
Within the context of user experience, when we think of cognitive load, we think of time-tested conventions to minimise the potential for stress. We think about the amount of steps necessary to carry out an action, and what we can potentially do to reduce those steps. It’s design at it’s most considered, most human-centred.
There’s little question in my mind that a touchscreen, particularly with a cluttered UI, is a recipe for disaster for those behind the wheel. But it should be pointed out that while this is the general takeaway from the study, touchscreens can still work within the context of a car.
It’s evident that anything critical to running the car safely while in motion should exist as a physical implementation only. There’s a reason why I can turn on wipers, or defog the windows, while my car with physical buttons is in motion. I know exactly where they are, they require minimal cognitive load on my part, and I never have to take my eyes off the road.
Hopefully car manufactures will pay attention to the findings from Vi Bilägare, and that driver sentiment shifts from tolerating bad design decisions, to demanding design fit for context. Touchscreens in cars will continue to be a thing, and physical buttons still have a role to play, but it’s imperative that a balance is struck between the digital and physical.